Greenmarket Square is at the heart of Cape Town. This small space holds a busy open-air market where traders from as far north as Congo come to sell their carvings, paintings, jewellery, and instruments.
Walking around there’s plenty of good-natured banter from all the traders, both male and female; “How are you boss?”, “Would you like to take a closer look?”, and “How much money do you have to spend?” The smell of cooked meat and fish wafts over now and then from the restaurants on one side of the square.
Most stalls are packed to the roof with items, stacked together and looking imposing and impressive. Some displays of necklaces are like a shimmering rainbow. One stall though doesn’t have many articles for sale. Doilies, place mats, and small table cloths are spread out on a very low table and behind it sits the owner. She is wearing a dark-red scarf tight over her head, a beige top, and a dress of pink and yellow floral patterns. She is of medium height and has very meaty forearms. The skin on her face is quite smooth making it difficult to discern her age.
“Where are you from, my brother?”
“England, though I live in Canada.”
“I am from Zimbabwe – I am going back there next Monday, so my prices are low.” She smiles and the teeth that are left are quite white with some growing at angles as though to cover the gaps.
“Why do you want to go back – the economy is really bad there.”
“You have heard of Zimbabwe – it is my home, but I have problems with my passport, with my visa – so I can only stay here for one month.”
“How will you get back then?”
“I take a train, then a bus, then another bus – but tell me my brother, how much money do you have?”
“I don’t have much left, it costs a lot to fly here from Canada.”
“Well these three pieces here,” she says placing her hand on three napkins, “are 80 rand for you, my brother – and this,” she unfurls a larger place mat, “is 100 rand for you. I am leaving next Monday.”
“There’s a coincidence because I am leaving too.”
“Where are you going, back to England?”
“No to Qatar in the Middle East.”
“The Middle East”
At this point a young woman picks up a large place mat.
“How much is this?” she asks in a southern American accent.
“It’s 80 rand, my daughter.”
“Oh that’s good – the work is very fine – hey Todd do you like this here?”
Todd mutters something to the effect “If you like it you should get it”, and then wanders off to look at some masks at the next stall. The American girl opens her wallet and removes a 100 Rand bill, “here you are.”
“Thank you, my daughter, you are very kind,” says the stallholder returning a 20 Rand note with a smile to accompany it.
“So you like both these?” she gestures to the 3 napkins and the larger place mat.
“I might do, what price would you give me for both of them?”
“I think 160 would be a fair price.”
“160? – what are they made from?”
“This,” she says gesturing to a spindle full of white thread.
“And what’s this?”
“Cotton of course.” She looks askance as though it couldn’t possibly be anything else.
“Cotton from Zimbabwe?”
“Yes, it is difficult to find now. I show you how I work the cotton.”
She coils seven strands around her finger. The white cotton is in stark contrast to her thick, ebony finger and her nails are cut really short to avoid causing threads in the fibre. She then proceeds to use a small thin pin to wrap further strands around those already on her finger until the pattern in the napkins appears magically. It is intricate and time-consuming work.
“That must take a lot of practice.”
“My brother, my grandmother taught me this way of working.”
“I could give you 120 rand for them both.”
“120? I don’t make any money that way – I would have to beg in the street, go into the traffic and ask for money,” She cups her hands together in begging mode. “I couldn’t afford to go back home at that price. How about 140?”
“Flying here has been very expensive for me.”
The trader gathers the items together and places them in a thin plastic bag, “120 is not enough.”
“Fine, how about 130 then?”
“That sounds better,” she says, “I think that is a good price. Are you down in South Africa for the soccer?”
“Yes I am – there’s a game on Tuesday, Spain v Portugal.”
She then opens the top of her overall to show a Manchester United shirt.
Jokingly I say “I can’t buy these pieces from you – you are a Manchester United fan, I don’t like Manchester United.” I turn around and see that a couple of the other stallholders are watching us and smiling.
“It’s not mine,” she claims, “someone gave it to me.”
One of the female stallholders then speaks up.
“She is a Manchester United fan, she likes Wayne Rooney, she never stops talking about him, it’s Rooney this and Rooney that.”
“I don’t speak about him all the time.”
“No-one can tell her anything, we all call her Mama Rooney.”
“Is this true?” I ask.
Mama Rooney looks quite sheepish and nods her head slightly.
“Yes, but he didn’t play very well in the World Cup” she says glumly.
The female stallholder comes over and wags her finger at Mama Rooney mockingly.
“She is a big Manchester fan, she likes Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona too.” All this is said with a beaming smile.
“Yes, I am Mama Rooney, Mama Giggs, and Mama Cantona.” She really cackles with laughter and her hilarity caught on with everyone around.
I am laughing as I open my wallet, count out 130 Rand, and give it to her. She composes herself and wipes her hands on her dress before gratefully taking the money.
“Can I take your picture Mama Rooney?” I ask.
“Of course you can take a picture of Mama Rooney from Zimbabwe,” she says, “but wait.”
She smooths her hair and takes a place mat from her stall and holds it up by her charming smile.
I take three pictures.
“Can I see,” she says, “what do I look like?”
I press the button and show her the images.
“Oh Mama Rooney looks good,” she says and laughs out loud, “Mama Rooney looks good.”
I have to agree with her as I head off smiling broadly – Mama Rooney is certainly good.