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the booksellers of owino

June 17, 2011

If ever you have the great fortune of visiting Kampala, an essential stop on your trip is Owino market.  It is a sprawling maze of plywood and corrugated aluminum stalls housing over 500,000 vendors and visiting it is an experience I find both charming and exasperating.  Mostly I revel in it: skipping down bottle cap cobbled paths, dodging wheelbarrows of matooke and leaping over pothole craters.  Unearthing treasures beneath compressed flats of Goodwill castoffs, actors feign offense in the elaborate game of bartering a deal. Towering tiers of second-hand sequined prom dresses rise into the sky beside whirring treadle sewing machines spilling out traditional gomezis. The aroma of frying cooking oil mingles with curry, masala spices, and dried fish.   Brightly hued produce is arranged in neatly stacked pyramids and dried beans fill up fat sisal sacks stamped in fading blue WFP logos.

Traveler’s romanticism aside, there comes a point in nearly every visit, typically when I’m deep in the tangle of stalls and my blood sugar is running on empty, that I resolve to chuck all Mennonite pacifist convictions to the curb if one more vendor grabs me by the arm and calls me his “sweetie.”  Regardless of the hassling, Owino market is a spot not to miss.  Just enter on a full stomach and maybe practice some ujjayi breathing before plunging into the chaos.

One of my very favorite corners of Owino I first stumbled upon by accident.  I rounded a corner one day and there it was: a length of stalls with dusty books teetering in tall stacks.  Vendors perched in between the towers tear pages away from spines, for what purpose I’m not certain.   In these heaps of yellowing volumes, one can find everything from colonial era hymnals to textbooks on infectious diseases to trashy romance novels.  There are always a few gems to be found.  This time around, a T.S. Eliot play and a collection of John Ruskin poems.  While I have visited this spot a few times now, the market has a way of turning one’s inner compass askew and I always come upon it either by chance or extensive wandering.  I can therefore sadly offer no advice on how one might reach this literary oasis beyond blind luck and the counsel of those you meet along the way.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    June 17, 2011 5:10 pm

    It sounds like even more fun than Powell’s book store! What a great place to search for treasures and recycle a book too. We all enjoyed reading your blog. Love, Mom

  2. June 17, 2011 7:52 pm

    Love these pictures. And who’s that atop the pile? Paul Theroux, romantic traveler extraordinaire! http://rbmoreno.co/lygX17

  3. Kristin permalink
    June 21, 2011 4:14 am

    Elizabeth- you are such an incredible writer! I love it. And I definitely want to explore this place. It sounds like all sorts of favorite things all mixed together.
    And I’m with you on the sweetie business…each day I reach a breaking point with the ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart’, guera business…depending on the day it is 10 am or 4 pm. havent made it through a full day yet.
    miss you much!

  4. June 22, 2011 3:34 am

    Oh, Owino! What a great place to go if you like to be groped. Sadly, I never stumbled upon this little treasure nook of books. What an oasis!
    You’re writing makes my heart ache to be back. Even the sound of that stinky combination of smells sounds wonderful. I miss it so. Hope all is well, dear friend. Let’s chat sometime soon.

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