If you walk along the streets in the central part of Hague, it will be easy for you to see shops with exotic names, like Amazing Oriental (a Chinese supermarket) and Bangkok Force One (a shop selling items from Thailand). Most of the shops sell imported items, which could be easily perceived by referring to their names.
So I was not surprised when I first saw the“African Products Shop”. It is located in Spui 231, 2511 BP Den Haag, right across the road is a French restaurant. The store is just as quiet as the road, but the customers coming in and out show the vitality of the store.
Unlike Chinese supermarkets or Japanese restaurants, you can’t see any African style decorations or even posters in this shop. The only thing you can tell related to Africa is the shop name in bold red letters. The hot-selling items could be easily found in the display window.
The African Products Shop is a store selling daily necessities. The shop is not big, but it’s full of goods, vary from shampoo, hair conditioner to rice, condiments. Almost all the products are imported from Africa. When I picked up some towels similar to those I once used in Tanzania, the memories just popped up in my mind like movies. Then I was thinking, the shop provides not only homemade goods but also unforgotten memories. Most customers of this shop are Africans, they often come to the store for things they used to buy in their hometown countries.
When I met Fatuma, she was holding packages of wig bargaining with the storekeeper. Fatuma comes from Tanzania, she comes to the store once a week. Her favorite goods in this store are wax and wig. She told me she once bought some wax from a local shop, which cost more but didn’t work very well.
The owners of the store are a couple from Rwanda. I met the wife when I first entered the shop. She was quite busy then with five clients in her small shop. I tried to communicate with her several times but failed as we were interrupted by other customers.
The truth is, language is a magical thing. When I was asking her questions in English, she kept refusing. Our dialogue was like this:
— “Can I ask you a few questions?”
— “You see? I’m too busy!”
— “Or maybe later when there are fewer people?”
— “There’re always crowds of people here.”
— “Or maybe I can come here earlier tomorrow before the shop opens?”
— “But I don’t want to be here too early.”
I was almost disappointed then I heard someone asked questions in Swahili and she responded. Then I tried to talk to her in Swahili.
— “Oh mama unafahamu Kiswahili? Nawe unatoka wapi?”
(I see you could speak Swahili, so where are you from?)
— “Ninatoka Rwanda, nafahamu Kiswahili, Kiingereza na Kiholanzi. ”
(I’m from Rwanda. I can understand Swahili, English and Dutch.)
— “Hivyo ukipata nafasi tutazungumza kwa Kiswahili nawe uonaje?”
(So if you are available we could chat more in Swahili, what do you think? )
— “Ninabanwa na kazi nyingi lakini nitakupa nambari ya mume wangu, unaweza kuzungumza naye!”
(I’ve got too many things to do now, but I’ll give you my husband’s number so you two could talk more!)
She turned out to be surprised when I was talking to her in Swahili. The amazing thing was that she didn’t decline me anymore. Language is such a magical thing, it could shorten the distance between people even in a minute. A familiar language can not only arouse other’s interest but also show one’s sincerity for communication.
When I was contacting the husband, Swahili also helped to make things easier.
The thing that aroused my interest is that even though they like people (especially those from other continents) talk to them in Swahili, they prefer to answer in English or Dutch. It was almost the same in the shop, sometimes the customers were asking in Swahili, but the wife would answer them in Dutch.
It’s reasonable that people prefer to use a language that would be more easily accepted. As if I spoke Swahili to draw their attention and get their approval, they use Dutch to get integrated and earn more respect from society.
It’s a pity that information about the shop is so limited and the pictures inside the shop cannot be posted (without the owner’s permission). But the good news is we’ve made an appointment for a further talk on Saturday (21/9/2019), so more stories about the shop could be shared, for example, the owner’s initial inspiration to launch an African products shop? The current situation of the shop and future development? The customers they’ve met and interesting things that once happened? Their life in Den Haag compared with their past in Africa?… So this is a blog to be continued, we will have more stories to share later.