Atanifuti Market and the Hunt for My Lamba

The first time I saw one of the garish lambas it was wrapped around an ox cart driver on a dusty coastal road. It certainly set him apart from his companions, who wore more neutral clothing, and I liked it. In the highlands, many people were wearing the bright wraps festooned with huge red, blue and orange flowers on a red background. They were popular in the cooler climate because the fabric was a cheap velvet that was heavier and warmer than most lambas.

First Lamba Sighting

Had I seen one in a store at home, I would have passed it by. Tasteless. Gaudy. But there, against the dark faces, they fit perfectly and reminded me of the colorful East African kangas. The ones I bought years ago when I lived in Tanzania are wearing thin and I wanted another. It was just the kind of exotic memento I would actually use and enjoy for its associations. They were compact and unbreakable, two criteria I have for souvenirs.

Rivo and I are waiting for the others to return to the bus after a bird hunt near a small marshy area. Farmers are working some terraced fields above the marsh and a teenaged boy wrapped in one of the bright lambas walks down the hill curious about what we are doing.

“Rivo. I want one of those. Where can I buy one?” I jut my chin at the boy’s lamba.

“You don’t want one of them. They are just a style. Not traditional at all.”

“But I like it. I want one.”

“Oh, no. Those people used to wear blankets here when it was cold. Then they started wearing towels. Yellow towels! “ He pauses so that will sink in. “Now, they like those colored lambas.”

“I want one.”

“Well, you can’t even wear it in Tana,” he scoffs, as if that is the final word.

He sounds a bit condescending, and I remember that he is a Merina, the tribe that united the other tribes generations ago and thus occupies a privileged position in the country. He had access to resources unavailable to the farmers we are watching. We are on good terms, and I know he has a good sense of humor. I want one of those lambas even more, and I want to wear it in Tana, where Rivo can see.


In a field behind a school, the weekly Antanifuti market is thick with people and items for purchase or trade when we arrive about 11 a.m. Hardware vendors display their miscellaneous metal, chains, bolts, and pieces of motors and other machine parts, while customers examine the wares. Nearby, new bicycles are lined up for inspection, and used ones stand in another row. Wheels, spokes, gears and chains are spread out on ground tarps for inspection. The vendors hunch behind, chatting  and waiting for customers.

A man with a hand cranked forge heats his lead soldering iron to patch a hole in an enamel bowl while the owner watches. A pig squeals from up the hill. It is pinned to the ground by the seller while the potential buyer pulls out its tongue for inspection, much to the pig’s dissatisfaction. In the same area, a cheerful fellow climbs onto his bike and pedals away with a squirming piglet under one arm.

Small piles of charcoal sit next to the half-full charcoal bags, which are like the ones we saw lining the road from the coast awaiting transport to market. Colorful zebu carts are parked next to brightly colored strands of nylon rope. I wonder why I don’t see any sisal ropes, since sisal is grown in the south for its fiber. Shoppers wander among the rows of stalls clustered by product areas. There are vegetables of all kinds, meat, and fish. Beans and rice are built into little hills in the mouths of cloth bags, topped by enamel measuring pans. Yellow, brown and black spices are displayed in sealed plastic bags. Beads, jewelry, makeup, bowls, candles, shoes, combs. Anything a department store or grocery store might have is there for trading or buying. A hopeful young man hovers near a teenaged girl who is selling hot beans and rice, and two wizened women guffaw at some joke.


I walk briskly past the children’s clothes, waving gently in the breeze, and the customers picking over heaps of used T-shirts. I find lengths of my lamba cloth displayed one or two to a vendor among sedate dress and skirt fabric. Pattern choices are limited. I ask one fellow his price, and then some others. Each time I ask, the price goes up so I return to the first vendor and buy his.

My Lamba

Back at the bus, I wrap my new lamba around me, jauntily tossing the end over my shoulder, and model my find for Rivo. My friends snap my photo. Rivo smiles and tries to disassociate himself from my display.