Once upon a time, a few years after WWII, when Socialist Britain had got its act together, supermarkets had already begun their war on the English village post office and shop. Halfway around the world in Kenya, the colony still depended on the efficient, hardworking and honest Asian shopkeepers for its expat needs. These capable men were invariably referred to by the supercilious, white colonial customers as dukawallahs. The phrase implied an inferior intellect of the shopkeeper to the shopper, whereas the opposite was more usually the case.
It was in the decade from 1950 – 60 when Kenya expats, particularly safari operators, were often asked over the telex by incoming visitors whether there was any commodity which the tourists could bring with them which they imagined must be unavailable in East Africa at that time and the residents would therefore welcome them. Typically all American clients brought their personal supply of toilet rolls and all males inquired if there was the correct voltage available in the lodges to operate an electric shaver. This hang-up lasted for the entire decade despite the fact that even then expat facilities in colonial Kenya were equal if not superior to those of other colonies like Australia or Canada and included motor racing, rugby and repertory theatre. There were, however, occasional hiccups in the supply of certain commodities and it was then that the telexes rattled with Kenyan expats calling for kippers and Marmite.
Ironically, the tables have now turned and the African hypermarkets like the Nakumatt chain stores often have a more comprehensive range of goods than do their European equivalents. There are now three mega-shopping malls within five minutes drive of each other in the southern suburbs of Nairobi alone.
There has, however, recently been one result of this trend for which I will never forgive the new hypermarkets. Our local village duka was a cross between village hall and village pub as a guaranteed genial meeting centre for all of one’s friends. Mine host, the shopkeeper, was an Asian friend of mine. Sadly, the duka closed last month because of economic pressure from the new supermarket chains and its demise is a giant loss to our lifestyle.
Here’s an example. The Asian shopkeeper at our now-closed duka, who until very recently was Kenya’s best cricket exponent, accounted for the following profound philosophical remark. A haughty German lady customer had been giving my shopkeeper friend an extremely hard time because of a minor, unavoidable shortage of some commodity. As the lady strutted out of the shop, my friend smiled and said to me, “Do you know the trouble with Germans? It is that they don’t play cricket!”