Each trip to Kinshasa’s Marché Central promises a new adventure. Some days we’ve come away overjoyed with purchases of baby clothes, Halloween costumes, RDC track suits, seeds to plant, or soy beans, while others we’ve been followed by rowdy teenagers, or for one our friends, knocked over and had bones broken by similar groups.
Despite the possibility of trauma, the Marché Central is definitely worth a visit as it is one of Kinshasa’s biggest markets (the Marché de la Liberté off the Boulevard Lumumba is bigger, and there may be others). You just have to go in with a game plan. Look for landmarks that will help you remember where you park (if you feel totally lost trying to find your car, leave the market and walk around it on the surrounding streets, and you are less likely to get turned around).
Decide what you are looking for ahead of time. Stalls are organized by what they sell for the most part, so it helps if you can head to the jewelry section if you are in the market for some new bling (hint: it’s in the center). Of course, on a first visit, it might be helpful to just wander a bit to get the lay of the land.
For the most part if you look like you have a plan, people won’t bother you. Though cries of mundele are common, we haven’t been harassed by people trying to sell us anything unless we asked for help. If you really want something badly enough, it’s easy to find someone to help you find it, but beware of the higher prices that come along with your helper’s commission.
In general, be prepared to bargain though how much you will have to negotiate depends on what you are buying. We’ve been quoted really high prices for new and used clothing, but not for cheaper or staple type items (anything from electrical tape to plastic earrings to veggies). If a price seems ridiculous, it probably is, but on the other hand, if it seems reasonable, it probably is.
While you wouldn’t know it as you snake in and out of the busy aisles, the Marché Central was modeled after the geometric designs of kuba cloth and other traditional Congolese art. A quick look at Google Earth reveals the big picture you can’t see from the ground.
Despite the design, the market is not the place to buy arts and crafts. Though you may find the occasional handmade toy, the Marché des Valeurs a.k.a Thieves’ Market is a better place for those kinds of items. The Marché Central, on the other hand, is the best place to find 1980s Happy Meal toys and Mobutuesque (faux) leopard berets.
What to Bring: Francs (though there are money changers around and you can pay with dollars for pricier items). Closed-toed shoes are nice especially if it has rained recently.
When to Go: Monday – Saturday, during daylight hours. The market is closed on Sundays, and vendors pack up between 5 and 6 p.m.
How to Get There: The market is adjacent to the Kinshasa Botanical Garden, between Avenue du Marais and Avenue de l’Ecole. The most direct way from Boulevard 30 Juin is to turn on Avenue du Plateau and head straight till you get to the point where you can’t drive anymore, marking the beginning of the market. Avenue du Plateau is opposite Express, and it’s the road perpendicular to the Boulevard not the sharp or wide rights.
Travel Time: It’s in Gombe so no time at all!
Risk Assessment: Keep an eye on your wallet and avoid bringing valuables. Try to stick with your shopping buddies and use landmarks to orient yourself. Don’t visit the market when it’s not open.