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What & where
Most typical items you will find are specially made for tourists

At Kenya's shops and flea markets you will find all kinds of items that will make a nice souvenir of your trip. Most of the stuff displayed at the tourist shops are not authentic, in the sense that they are manufactured specifically for tourists.

The opening times for shops are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m, Monday to Friday, closing for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. On Saturdays, shops are open from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Obviously these are only the standard opening times, but you will find many variations. Shops at the lodges are usually open when guests are around and close when guests are out on game drives.

In general, prices of souvenirs are high. The best prices can be found at the airport shops and from local vendors at the park gates, especially the Maasai women at Sekenani Gate in Masai Mara. Shops at some lodges and flea markets usually have reasonable prices as well. Prices are higher at hotels and stores in Nairobi, and above all, at the road dukas or curio shops. If you travel on a package tour you will be taken by your driver to these road shops, but bear in mind that prices are much higher here than elsewhere.

Wood carvings are the most popular objects. From the small animal wooden shapes, coarse and worthless but nice anyway, to the costly black ebony carvings of the Tanzanian makonde art, with prohibitive prices. Makonde has two main trends, the traditional one which represents human figures, daily labours or animals, and a modern trend specialising in abstract slender shapes.

Concerning ebony, never buy it from occasional vendors such as beach boys, since it will probably be a fake, just ordinary wood stained black with shoe polish. Ebony is heavier than fakes, but just in case ask the retailer to scratch the base of the carving with a knife to check that the wood is also black inside. Sellers use this same procedure to check the goods they buy. Don't forget to check that it is a single piece, since sometimes stained wood carvings are mounted on ebony bases to pass the 'scratch test'.

Among the wood carvings, you will find some masks. In general, East African tribes haven't cultured this art to an extent similar to Central and West African tribes. Most masks found in Kenya come from other countries. There are some nice ones in the shop at Mount Kenya Safari Club.

In some places you will find clay figures, mainly busts of tribal chiefs. The great detail they show makes them real portraits.

Stone carvings are very frequent, specially representing animals and household. Malachite, turquoise, coral and soapstone are the most used materials. These stones are also used for jewellery.

In all the shops you will find plenty of beadwork, including the typical Maasai bracelets and necklaces, made with coloured beads. Most of them are industrially produced and not the real thing worn by the Maasai. At the park gates in the Maasai Land, specially in Masai Mara and Amboseli, local women will try to sell their goods while you arrange the entry formalities. Copper is the metal most commonly used for beadwork.

If someone tries to sell you elephant hair bracelets, keep in mind that all are fakes. The real ones are banned, since elephants are killed to obtain this material. If you are lucky enough, they will be made up of cow horns' splinters, stained and braided. If not, expect simple plastic. Formerly the fakes were manufactured with straw, reason why still some retailers attempt to proof their authenticity putting the bracelet over a flame, but current fakes won't burn, so don't be fooled.

Dried and hardened gourds imitate those used by the Maasai to make the traditional drink mixing blood and milk. They can be found everywhere, decorated or not, and make a nice ornament. In the rural areas of the Maasai Land it is possible to find some truly authentic ones.

Kiondos are baskets made of braided sisal. They are very popular and almost a must for buying, mainly because they are helpful to store the rest of the souvenirs. Some baskets are made up of baobab bark.

Batiks are painted cloths for wall decoration. The more modest ones are monochrome and painted on cotton cloth. The most refined and expensive, richly coloured and painted on silk, can only be found at art galleries. They usually represent animal and ethnic motifs, though a modernist trend is also present.

Tribalware, such as spears, shields, wooden maces and swords, are always fakes. They are very nice though, but do not pay for them as if they were the real thing.

Cloths and tissues are beautiful and serve all uses, in addition to their original role which is covering the body. They are generally manufactured with cotton. Female kangas, richly printed, are composed of two pieces, one for covering the upper part of the body and the other one to roll around the waist. The best ones are found in Mombasa. Male kikois are rougher and consist of only one piece. Inland they are frequently printed with flashy reds and blues, while at the coast, specially in Lamu, there is a greater variety.

Books, maps and guides of all kinds may be purchased either in stores at hotels and lodges or at the bookshops in Nairobi, always at relatively good prices. Nairobi bookshops are along Kimathi, Wabera and Mama Ngina streets. Two outstanding ones are Nation Bookshop, in Kimathi st. next to the Sarova Stanley Hotel, and Prestige Books, in Mama Ngina st.

Gold is mainly found at the coastal Hindu stores. It is used to manufacture all kinds of jewels of ethnic inspiration. Pieces are sold by weight according to the international gold market.


Exchanging things is a common practice, as is bargaining

Bargaining is very frequent in Kenya, mostly at the flea markets and curio shops, the famous road dukas. Start offering 50 per cent of what you are willing to pay and do not look very enthusiastic.

Bartering or exchanging items is still a frequent kind of trading, mainly at places like petrol stations or park gates, though you may find it also as part of bargaining at the road dukas. Almost everything can be bartered, from ballpens, lighters, hats, bandanas or coins, to even old cell phones.

At the park gates in the bush regions, many people's only contact with what we call western civilization is through tourists. This means that frequently they absolutely ignore what is the price in Nairobi for a Bic ballpen or a Cartier watch. For the Maasai people, the priciest valuable is cattle, and they wouldn't exchange one of their cows even for a diamond necklace, because such an expensive item is worthless for them. They may offer a wood carving for your Christian Dior foulard, or for your Bic lighter, or for your Ray-Ban sunglasses, or for that bracelet you bought at your flea market back home for one buck. Just play fair.


Items made with animal parts are strictly forbidden

You really won't want to buy drugs in Kenya. Possession and consumption of any type of drug, including marijuana and hashish, is a severely punished crime.

When hunting was permitted in Kenya, items made with animal parts used to be very popular, such as zebra skins, lion claws, ostrich eggs, ivory articles or even ashtrays made with elephant feet. Fortunately, this outrageous trade is nowadays strictly forbidden.

The bad news is that this doesn't mean it has completely subsided, since poaching is still on. At some petrol station or even in the streets you may be approached by someone trying to sell lion claws. Keep in mind that even if you manage to get away with it at the airport without being detected, by purchasing such things you will be promoting poaching, which contributes to the extinction of endangered species and supports criminal groups that are responsible for attacks on tourists.

Obviously, you must not either buy or capture live animals. In addition to the above mentioned, you would possibly be violating CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. You know what they say: take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.


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