Author: Kendra Parry (Leiden University)
The world exists like a tapestry of culture and traditions. In some places the unique pieces of cloth are chaotically interwoven with each other, in others the original pattern is kept more neatly. Nonetheless, there is hardly any piece that remains completely untouched – free from interaction with the others. The question of which pattern belongs to whom becomes more complex with the mobility and exchanges of our current day and age. With this, the locality of heritage also shifts. The questions linger… does heritage belong to a place? Does it belong to a thing? Does it belong to people? And if so, who does it belong to?
Intangible heritage has the power to transcend the boundaries of both space and time. Festivals, medicinal practices, food, dances and musical performances can be spread far and wide. All the while they carry the soul of the culture and context it was once born out of. With its power, intangible heritage can be the thread in between the pieces of the tapestry – it can teach, bring together and strengthen the solidarity. It can help blend, find space and facilitate the coexistence of different patterns. However, intangible heritage can also be the exclusive pattern for a specific cloth. It can be claimed, protected and set apart. For with all the weaving and sewing, there comes the danger of appropriation. Intangible heritage thus presents a very fine line of tension from which to investigate the blurry confines of culture, knowledge and the groups that carry it.
In this entry, we travel from Leiden, where the entire town is turned upside down in October to celebrate freedom from the Spaniards almost 450 years ago, to the world of African cuisine at the reach of people in The Netherlands. Then we go to Morocco, especially to Imilchil a high atlas village where a traditional festival is celebrated every year in September. During this event the cultural heritage of the tribe of Ait Hadiddou is presented to tourists and other outsiders. We finally arrive in Brazil in order to find and hear the voices of indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon about bioeconomy and what is their perception on the use of their intangible knowledge in this new worldwide spread idea of economy.
We hope you enjoy the trip!
This blog situates my journey researching an African food stand called Pure African Specialties (PAS Afrika)at the Haagse Markt, an international market in The Hague, The Netherlands. I start by introducing the topic of heritage, what it means to me and how I am going to approach it in this blog post. I do this by narrating my perspective and navigating my process and thoughts as a researcher heading to the PAS Afrika stand. I then present my interview with Esther Garrick den Boer, the business owner of PAS Afrika, from her perspective. For this, I consider how Esther would want to write about her own journey and use this creative writing approach to appeal to the reader and find an alternative way showcase my findings from our interview. I encourage readers to visit her shop, try her products, or have a chat and look at the website!
Intangible heritage…What does that mean to me? My mind goes straight to culture. But my response brought me more questions than answers. What is culture? How does it differ per different regions? What do others think when they think of culture?
My multicultural background, being Peruvian, Scottish, and Welsh and having lived in Peru, Mexico, Colombia, The Netherlands, and Kenya gave me a few insights into what I believe culture meant. I saw culture in art and history. But for me something that tied all my thoughts together was food. It is an art form in itself. It is a means to present generations of knowledge. That knowledge, a country’s preferred pairing of foods, national dishes, and grandma’s tips, is intangible.
So when given the assignment, to think of intangible heritage I start thinking of what in my surroundings can represent my thoughts. I immediately think of this African stand I know at The Haagse Markt, in The Hague, The Netherlands, where I often went to get groceries. I share with my peers my thoughts of focusing on the theme of selling African food to my peers and straight away a peer that used to live in The Hague mentions the same stand. At that point, I realize, many of us have the same thoughts on what it means to sell intangible heritage, and this place I’ve chosen is a great example of it.
Situating Africa in an international market
I arrive at the Haagse Markt on a Friday afternoon, just before closing. I get distracted on my way to the stand with all the great products. But after a quick turn, I’m at the African stand. I immediately see some great things that peak my interest and buy a pack of bulgur. My parter, who I had brought with me is Burkinabe and was also looking through some of their products. He grabs some palm oil and potatoes and we pay. I see there is quite a flow of people dropping by and buying products and I’m not sure when the right moment is for me to approach the business owner. Friday before closing was not the best time to ask her if she could make time to talk to me. I find myself stalling looking at the products not sure what to do. Eventually, she asks if there’s anything I need. As I approach her to explain why I’m there she grabs my hand in an inviting way and seems interested in my project writing on her selling of products from a cultural and heritage perspective. She has a business partner that is also at the stand helping her with incoming customers, but I realize she needs to get back to attend to them. She tells me:
Darling, can we have a call over the weekend? I am interested, but right now all I see are these customers and all I am thinking of is “money, money, money”. She says jokingly whilst pointing at some of her customers.
Her customers acknowledge her by approaching her, hugging her and having small talk. I can see the relationship and appreciation she has for her customers and vice versa, as well as notice her warm, welcoming personality. I take her number and get ready to call her for the interview on the weekend.
Selling Africa, from Esther herself
When I came to The Netherlands from Nigeria, I came to make money for my family back home. I tried to work as a hairdresser, but it wasn’t my calling. I started a cleaning job at the hospital where I’d work mornings and evenings, but it just wasn’t my calling. Meanwhile, I’d help my husband with his work at his uncle’s food shop on Fridays and Saturdays. Eventually, once my husband’s uncle asked him to take over for 6 months I quit my job to support him in this new venture, after all, it’s what everyone would do to support their husband and show their love and appreciation. So I started working at the shop with my husband and was finally loving what I was doing. After 6 months, my husband asked his uncle for us to take over and that is how our journey started. The business was doing well and by that point, we were selling only potatoes, garlic, and ginger. That had already been going well for 5 years. But my neighbours would jokingly say they wanted to find African products. There was no market for that here.
I started building up a business for myself where I could sell African products, and that’s how Pure African Specialties was born. The process was nervewracking, and I wasn’t sure how my first day without my husband would go. I couldn’t sleep, but I called to God and asked him:
Please God have control and let what will be, be.
Let me tell you, he listened. My first day was perfect. From that day onwards I enjoyed it. My stand is next to my husband’s, where we continue to sell the same products we did before, but have added African specialities. That way our customers didn’t have to go elsewhere to find their ingredients. They could find it all at our shop. I enjoy selling my products, to my neighbours, colleagues, and customers. I enjoy the work and I enjoy the people. I have a lot of customers which I see as family and friends. Even when they don’t want to buy something they still come to me and we share laughs and smiles. Sometimes, they just like to see me because it makes them happy and it makes me happy to see that. It really puts things into perspective. Because not everything is about the money. I repeat for emphasis, money is not everything. Allowing your customers to be happy is the greatest gift. They will come back to you. I know my customers. I know their families, sons, and grandsons.
My customers are everything. Even during Covid-19, we had our regular 6-10 customers that would come every Saturday to buy a bunch of things. Of course, this was much less than what I was used to before Covid when there was more of a demand. It was very good before, until 2019. But they are coming back little by little. I can’t complain. I am happy. Covid resulted in disaster for so many people, most people had to close their shops. But we were still able to stay open once every 2 weeks at the Haagse Markt. I am fortunate for what I have. I realize I cannot change the way things are and have to look towards the future.
I focus on the growth of my business and keeping my customers happy. Especially as an African woman in business, I work twice as hard. I show up at work at 5 am and show my male stand neighbours that what they can do I can do better. That is what a man can do, a woman can do better. I can act like a man and prove my worth. Because an African woman in my position running my business? It doesn’t happen.
I source my own products and package them on my own. Of course, I have friends and family that help when they can. Anyone coming from Nigeria will bring me products to sell. I buy it from them and sell them at my shop. They do it without me even asking. My mother will prepare things for others to bring over. It’s cheaper to buy things back home. But I source things from around the world. Beyond Nigerian products, we also have a branch that supplies us with cassava, ginger, and Curcuma from Peru; yams and plantain from Ghana; and sweet potatoes from Egypt and South Africa. As I was outsourcing my products I was surprised to see Brazilians and Colombians eating things like cassava, sweet pea, and PAN. I would ask them
Oh, you people eat these things?
I thought only Africans eat what Africa eats. Like Dutch and Brazilians eating Okra! I didn’t know these things when I was in Africa. The demand for African products has always been there. But at the Haagse Markt, you truly see a multitude of cultures blending together. There are fewer Dutch people at the market. It is mostly people from the outside. A lot of Surinamese. I strive to give them the African experience, but I think that process of selling heritage and culture really comes naturally to me. It’s unconscious behaviour. I focus on making my money and making my customer’s happy. I focus on my strategy for profit, like buying the longest shelf life products. That is where my energy is placed. I don’t think about the rest or the impact that I am having. But I see it when customers come to my stand to buy products that remind them of home, of the meals their parents used to make, or of new meals they want to make. Seeing a lot of internationals and Africans come to the market has really given me the motivation to keep going for the past 14 years… and sell Africa.
This blog is part of the Group Intangible Heritage blogs.
About the author
Kendra Parry is a cum laude Master of Arts graduate in African Studies with a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and Organisations with a minor in African Dynamics. Her studies at Leiden University and internship completions at Inuka Africa and Clingendael – the Netherlands Institute of International Relations have been at the centre of Kendra’s focus on Eastern and West Africa conducting research on Nigeria, Benin, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, among others. Her research centres on the topics of well-being, the African diaspora, the sense of belonging, politics, conflict, business, and peace. Her professional career has ventured from implementing well-being as part of the curriculum to research and KYC analysis. Kendra still continues to work on freelance research, with her published thesis research on nurses’ well-being in Kenya contributing to an upcoming book focusing on the human-centred approach of e-health.