Music blasts from a trader’s battered radio, the vessel’s cheap speakers mutilating the melody. Carvers hunch over blocks of umber wood, chopping away furiously, adding to the cacophony inside the muggy warehouse that is the Rosebank African Craft Market.
Andrew Bosco’s body gyrates like jelly to the distorted beat. Then he tenses up, noticing the approach of a posse of tourists, their expensive cameras flapping from their necks.
Bosco slides towards them across the sooty floor, like a feline moving through the smoke that hangs over the sea of stalls.
He thrusts a batik, a traditional East African fabric, towards the potential buyers. The material is dyed in russet, orange and red strokes, the colors depicting two women, one strumming a guitar.
“You like music? Look what I got for you!” Bosco shouts at them above the noise.
One of the visitors, petite hands cupped over pixie ears to drown out the noise, is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the flag of Switzerland.
“You Swiss? What, the Swiss not like music?” Bosco asks the party, as they shake their heads simultaneously at him, their noses curling as if they’ve just smelled something putrid.
“You look like Martina Hingis!” he snaps at another young woman in the party, in reference to the Swiss tennis player. “Are you Martina Hingis?” he asks.
But the tourist averts her eyes from him and rushes on to the next wall of art.
Bosco laughs. Everything the trader does is accompanied by a hearty laugh.
‘We all hide behind masks….’
Next, Bosco targets a middle-aged Italian visitor. Her face a façade of thick make-up and massive tinted sunglasses, her skin tanned to the texture of rough leather, courtesy of hours spent sprawled on beach sand under the harsh African sun.
Bosco’s fellow traders poke their heads out of the darkness to steal glances at the woman’s naked legs, the length of her limbs accentuated by a short pearlescent dress and ruby stiletto heels.
Bosco smiles. He cheerily present the Italian with a wooden mask -- its face almost covered with leaden dreadlocks plaited from elephant hair.
“The Chokwe mask, just like a Rasta from the Caribbean, but this one is a Chokwe from Angola,” goes the seller’s pitch.
The Italian woman scoffs, finding Bosco’s product less than appealing, her glittered eyelids fluttering superiority and her pocket full of dollars that allow her to insult at will.
Bosco cackles at his failure.
“The Chokwe is a bigger mask, so it’s very nice to hang on the wall. I don’t know why so many people want a Picasso on a wall. Mask is much more interesting,” he winks.
To brand Andrew Bosco an exuberant eccentric would be a gross understatement.
The 37-year-old was born in Kenya, and grew up in that country’s capital, Nairobi. As a young man, he moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he learnt the “true art” of selling.
“European people, they like masks. In fact, we all hide behind masks!” Bosco exclaims.
Punu masks, from Gabon, are among his best sellers. He fingers a creation with small eyes, and a thin face.
“The Punu people, they are very spiritual, they know how to make beautiful masks. Always have a white face, representing the soul of the ancestor. The Punu people, the women, they receive cuttings in the forehead, the scars are decoration,” he explains, highlighting patterns carved into the wood representing ritual scarifications.
Bosco continues, “A very painful way to decorate, but that’s how women are – they will go through all kinds of pain in order to make themselves appear beautiful. I see many western women here who have obviously had (cosmetic surgery). That must also be very painful. So you see, women are the same all over – from the Punu in Gabon to those in Hollywood!”
Bosco’s ebullience is infectious. He does, however, appear irritated when tourists, eager to get a closer look at his wares, knock over his displays. As a pile of masks crashes to the floor, the East African snipes, “These people, I am sure they drink lots of beer baridi (cold) before they come here, because they always hit my stuff….”
‘The day I fell in love with South Africa….’
Commenting on his decision eight years ago to move to South Africa, the businessman jests, “I migrated down here, like a wildebeest crossing the Serengeti.”
Expanding the metaphor, Bosco says his friends in Dar es Salaam told him of “green pastures” in South Africa.
“So I came here to look. I’m still looking!” he cracks, adding, “One day the pasture is green, the next yellow. I think all the world is like that…. I thought I’ll make my fortune quick (in South Africa) but it’s taking years!”
Bosco says while he was adapting to his new home, it was “little strange things” that surprised him.
“When I came here, I found they are carrying babies with towels, you know. In East Africa, (to do that) is a bad omen, to carry your baby on the back with a towel and stuff….”
And he remains “bothered” by South Africa’s cold winters.
“In East Africa, we are close to the equator. Our climate is very mild. But some time here, it’s raining and it’s blowing wind,” Bosco whimpers.
Bosco insists he feels “totally part” of South Africa - not least because of his marriage three years ago to a local woman, with whom he has a baby daughter, Mercy. “I adore them,” he says.
“The day I met my wife, was the day I fell in love with South Africa,” he sighs. “In my culture (of the Kamba people of Kenya), when you move you marry that side; you don’t pick from home; you take (a wife) there.”
‘A lazy old man’
Bosco offers his love of the sport of cricket as another reason why he feels no desire to leave South Africa, a country where the game is extremely popular.
“When I came to South Africa, I found that their cricket is in a higher level…. Here, people they love cricket a lot which makes me happy because I’m a cricket fan.”
Then there’s food.
“South Africans love meat, as do East Africans. In Kenya and Tanzania, they have nyama choma (barbecued meat), and here you basically have the same thing, only they call it braai. Here, they have pap (porridge), and we have the same thing in East Africa – ugali.”
Despite Bosco’s obvious assimilation into South African society, he says he “felt humiliated” by last year’s brutal attacks on foreign-born Africans by local mobs accusing the “outsiders” of crime and “stealing” jobs.
But he’s optimistic that South Africans will undergo a “mind shift.”
“I think as they go on they will come to understand that a foreigner is not a bad person, he’s just somebody who’s searching for a green pasture,” Bosco contemplates.
Gazing ahead into his future, he ruminates, “I don’t want to be working when I’m 50. I want to be a lazy old man!”
Bosco says he wants a big house, on a shamba (small farm) near a “quiet” town.
“I will watch maize grow and cattle eat. Then I’ll eat the maize and eat the nyama (meat) from the cattle. Win-win,” he snickers.
Even as another clumsy tourist bumps his masks to the ground.