Insider’s Guide to Owino Market

Owino Market, Kampala

Are you ready for some varsity level shopping? To get lost in a maze of bags, shirts, curtains and what can only be described as ‘stuffs’? Well, welcome to Owino Market. The biggest, most chaotic market in Kampala. Leave your valuables at home, tuck your cash somewhere safe, and let’s go get lost.

Now, for those who don’t like to overload their senses, Owino might not be the place for you. I, however, love it. I love the constant movement, invariable haggling, the piles of clothes, the twists and turns, and, best of all, the deals. I love it so much I tend to take all visiting friends there immediately. It might be a bit jarring at first, but for me, it’s an intrinsic part of Kampala’s blood. If you only visit comfortable shopping malls, you’re missing out on an integral part of the city’s culture and commerce.

Now despite what I just wrote, for as large and varied as Owino is, it’s laid out in a relatively organized fashion. If you’ve been to some other markets around the continent, you might notice this (if you haven’t you’ll think I’m crazy). Yet, things aren’t just thrown around haphazard. Shoes are in the shoe area, radios are in the radio area, sheets and bedding has its place, as do bags, pants, shirts, and foodstuffs. They are crammed into small walkways, stalls, strange twists, with a few exits here and there, but there is a method to the madness. If you ask where the tablecloths are, people will direct you, because they have a designated spot as well.

And this is the secret of Owino. Ask. You must engage with vendors if you are looking for something specific. The first time I went I was on a mission: red converse sneakers. I wanted them after my old pair had finally been laid to rest. Yet, I had no idea where to look. I was directed to the shoe area and after stumbling over some small streams, and jumping out of the way of more than one cart, I arrived. Shoes for days! But where to find a red pair that fit? I thought it would take hours. It took ten minutes. Vendors asked, I answered, and they went off in search of the goods for me. When they found a pair, they came and got me and led me to the man who would take my 30,000 UGX (and no doubt give a small cut to the finder). I wandered into the bright sunshine with a new pair of kick ass shoes, completely sold on the idea of Owino.

However, there are a few things to be wary of before you venture in. Know that you will be touched. I don’t mean groped, but vendors like to pull or touch the hands and arms of people walking by. They do it to all, Ugandan, expat, Indian, Asian. It’s not personal, just let your hand slip through theirs. If they hold on, yell at them to stop. If they continue, make a ruckus and it’s likely nearby shoppers and vendors will come to your aid. I’ve never seen this happen, but I imagine it must now and then. Another thing to be mindful of is the pickpockets and thieves. They very much exist there and will very much target you if you are of the fairer skin tone. If someone snatches your bag, yell ‘thief’ and point. Social control is high there, and while there are no guarantees, I’ve seen people give chase for strangers more than once. However, be aware that thieves are sometimes treated to mob justice. You can try to stop it, but the best (and safest way) way to diffuse the situation is to let the people know you’re fine and leave without egging on the crowd.

Another issue you might want to be aware of is that of fires. Fires have occasionally happened in Owino. The last one occurred in April, and while it occurred at midnight and so the stakes were low in terms of human casualties, there have been two others in 2009 and 2011. Knowing your risk is important. However, be aware that Owino sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every month who arrive and depart safely, with all their valuables intact.

Plus, the deals you can find there are spectacular. My last haul had me leaving with two pairs of pants, two skirts, and six shirts for less than 40,000 UGX. Try finding that deal at Oasis Mall, where Mr. Price’s semi-opaque leggings cost 15,000 UGX for one pair.

Not to mention, you can have your clothes hemmed to fit you properly while you eat lunch. Ask for the tailors, and you’ll be guided to a vast room filled with the hum of old sewing machines stitching away. Drop off your clothes with measurements and instructions and then wander a bit further to where the foodstuffs are made. Sit down and have some goat stew over matooke while you wait for your clothes to be done. Watch the hustle of people, from all walks of life, headed in and out of the market. Buy some socks, buy a backpack. Buy a broach made from an old seatbelt buckle with Obama’s face carved into it (this seriously exists). And go experience the pulsating, dynamic life that thrives daily in the heart of Kampala!

About Lizabeth Paulat

Hi, I’m Lizabeth, a freelance writer whose been stomping around Kampala for the better part of two years. I came here while pursuing a story and decided never to leave. I’m originally from Seattle and have found refuge in both the sun and the culture of Kampalans (plus I still get the rain when I’m feeling homesick).I’m always trying to unearth new and interesting stories about Kampala’s culture and development and am so exited to have an amazing platform to explore the city with. I hope to bring a bit of know-how and a bit of fun to Living in Kampala. Feel free to contact me any time at