Saturdays from long ago

One of my earliest memories of a well spent Saturday is from the late 80s in Zambia. Saturday was always special because it was what we termed as ‘shopping day’. This was a time before malls and 24/7 shops, and for a long long time I thought the whole world shopped on Saturday, and usually only on Saturday. There were a number of logistical reasons for this of course, the most significant being that the car was available only on a Saturday for personal work.

So ever since I can remember Saturdays were meant to be walked around in sneakers or canvas shoes (I had a pair in both white and blue and because they were part of my school uniform I hated them). One couldn’t wear pretty party shoes for the fear of them getting ruined in the slush of the market. Saturdays meant a big straw basket that smelt yummy both before and after shopping. You could buy these baskets almost anywhere in Zambia – along the road where vendors and local artisans sat and sold there wares, at the local market where your bargaining talents came into play, or even off your maid who weaved straw baskets and mats to make a little extra money on the side.

I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and dressing up to go shopping. Back then it usually meant a trip to the local market to stock up on vegetable and fruits, and if a birthday or a new school term was coming up, a stop at one of the local stores for other supplies.

The vegetable market was a personal favourite; it was every bit as exotic as it sounds: lanes and lanes of crooked stalls filled with vegetables that I hated and fruits; sacks of potatoes and onions; charcoal and kerosene (always a good idea to store both in case the electricity died, or to host a barbeque); straw hats, baskets, mats. There would always be a few radios on belting out numbers in languages we didn’t understand, but a rhythm we could instantly recognise. Women in bright chitenges (printed wrap around skirts), many with a baby strapped to the back, would stand at the stalls. We’d stop at a select few stalls where we were assured the food was fresh and the prices fair – most were recommended by aunties who had been doing this much longer than my mum. Men would either be carrying incredibly heavy sacks of potatoes (onions, etc.) to cars or unloading them from trucks; some would be trying to make a sale; others would just sit around and have a laugh. During the rainy seasons we’d huddle under umbrellas and raincoats and brave the market, we’d also buy a sack of maize (it was only years later that I learnt that maize was better known as corn). My mum (always accompanied by a friend, usually our neighbour, a feisty Parsi lady) would be carrying the basket in one hand, and would clamp onto my hand with the other. I was ignored most of the time as the two women discussed freshness of the vegetables and wondered if they were being cheated. As the day wore on the basket would be full of leafy greens and fruity red, and also a tad bit too heavy.

Not as exciting but still fun was visiting one of the many stores lining the main road after a few hours at the vegetable market. A majority of these were (probably still are) run by people of Indian origin, mostly Gujaratis (most of the shops were called Patel, Patel and Sons, Patel & Sons & Co. – you get the picture). The stores were filled with Indian imports – Natraj pencils and erasers, paint boxes and crayons, even bars of dairy milk. Maybe it was just cheaper to import it from a known dealer in their home town, but it was a matter of great pride for me that all things useful came from India; I wonder if they’ve been upstaged by cheaper Chinese goods now, and if the stores and the market still stand today – hallmarks of my perfect Saturdays.