Lockdown Journal: Day 39 (The Arabbers)

by | May 4, 2020 | COVID-19, Johannesburg, USA | 17 comments

Read all my lockdown journal posts.

It’s Day 39 of the South African lockdown.

I woke up late, supremely unmotivated, and spent much of the morning conducting a photoshoot with three horned melons (also called kiwanos, African horned cucumbers, spiked melons, and many other names).

horned melons
Lockdown photo 39: Horned melons/African horned cucumbers. I’m not sure if they’re a fruit or a vegetable.

I’ll have more to say about the horned melons in a future post. I’m currently waiting for them to ripen and then I’ll hopefully make salsa out of them.

In the meantime, I’m devoting the rest of this post to a worthy cause in my home town of Baltimore, Maryland.

The Arabbers of Baltimore

I grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. My grandparents lived nearby on a farm called “Squirrel Hill”, where my father grew up with his four younger siblings. My sister and I spent a lot of time there.

While I was growing up, there were always a few horses living in the fields of Squirrel Hill. They were mostly older, smallish horses, who retired at Squirrel Hill after years pulling food carts through the streets of Baltimore. I didn’t appreciate what this meant at the time, but the horses at Squirrel Hill were arabber horses.

My dad’s sister Mary Mac lived in downtown Baltimore at the time, in a neighborhood called Sowebo, which is short for South West Baltimore. (Sowebo has an interesting connection to Soweto, which I explained in a 2013 blog post.) Mary Mac and her husband Steve were friends with the arabbers — the men who pulled brightly painted horse-drawn carts through West Baltimore, selling fresh produce to the community.

Arabbers in Sowebo, 1990s
A photo Mary Mac sent me of arabbers and their horses, sometime in the 1990s.
Another arabber photo from the 1990s. (Photo: Mary Mac Mason)
Three generations of arabbers — the job is traditionally passed on from father to son. The man on the right is the grandfather, Donald “Man-Boy” Savoy, who has since passed away. (Photo: Mary Mac Mason)

[In case you’re wondering, the term “arabber” doesn’t have a very pleasant origin. According to this article on eater.com, the word dates back to 19th-century England, when street kids were sometimes referred to as “street arabs”. There is so much wrong with this analogy but I won’t go into it here as it really has nothing to do with Baltimore’s arabbers of today, who take great pride in the name.]

The arabbers and their horses have been supplying Baltimoreans with fruits and vegetables for more than 100 years, and it’s remarkable they’ve survived until today. The work the arabbers do is particularly important now in West Baltimore — a low-income area without enough access to fresh food.

This video explains the arabbers much better than I can.

When Mary Mac lived in Sowebo, she and my grandmother, Cooncie, became very involved in helping the arabbers preserve their livelihood and way of life. Mary Mac and Cooncie helped found the Arabber Preservation Society (along with Steve and cofounder Dan Van Allen) and also helped take care of the arabber horses, many of whom found their way to Squirrel Hill over the years.

Man-Boy Savoy
Man-Boy Savoy at Cooncie’s funeral in 2011.
Mary Mac and Reeses
Mary Mac with her goat, Reeses, in 2015. As you can see, Mary Mac is an animal person. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of her with the arabber horses. She’ll probably be angry with me for posting this — oh well.

The reason I’m telling you this story now is because the arabbers are playing a vital role in Baltimore’s Covid-19 response. Right now, instead of selling fruits and vegetables from their carts, the arabbers are delivering food donations, masks, and Covid-19 information to those most in need.

Please watch this news clip from Baltimore’s WBAL TV, which explains what the arabbers are doing. (I think the arabber in the video, Anthony Savoy, is Man-Boy’s son.) There’s another story about it here and a video here.

I normally promote South African Covid-19 causes, but just for today I’m asking on behalf of an American cause. If you can, please support the Arabber Preservation Society. As the arabbers are providing this essential public health service to their community, their way of life is more threatened than ever.

Donate through PayPal here.

Heather's family in 1976
Just for kicks, this is my family in 1976. Which one is me and which one is Mary Mac? (Photo: Tenney Mason)

I miss you Auntie!


  1. dizzylexa

    During my childhood we also had horse drawn carts selling fruit and vegetables, we called them ‘Sammy’ irrespective of who they were. We always had fresh fruit and veggies that were seasonal, sometimes I wish we could revive these traditions.

  2. Margaret Urban

    What a great combination of family history and city history; loved it!
    As a ’60s song goes –’We don’t know what is lost ’til it’s gone’.
    I hope the Arabbers will be around for many more years.

    • 2summers

      Thank you! I’m fortunate to have a very interesting family.

    • catji

      Yes. 🙂 Amazing.
      The first pic, before i scrolled down and read the caption and saw 1990s, I was puzzled, thinking it was much earlier but odd that there were boarded-up windows.

      The song, Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” 🙂 …”They paved paradise, put up a parking lot” 🙂

      • 2summers

        I had exactly the same thought when my aunt sent me the picture. I stared and stared at it.

  3. Catrina

    Great info about the arabbers!
    Haha, I’m cheating because I remember that photo from your post where you mentioned Cooncie.
    You’re the little blond girl on your Mum’s knees and Auntie is smiling behind you. You and Mary Mac could be twins!

    • 2summers

      Yes! I was also thinking we looked alike at the same age.

  4. Rosemary

    What a great culture to have! Such a good idea! We should be doing it here in the UK and SA – why don’t you pass the concept on on SATURDAY. With your permission I will forward the video on to the local council. It probably won’t come to anything but worth a shot. (I remember having a similar idea when I was a kid when my mom ran out of flour, eggs etc).

  5. AutumnAshbough

    Great cause! I can’t believe I grew up in DC and never knew about the arabbers!

    • 2summers

      Hardly anyone does…It’s so limited to that one neighborhood. Which in itself is so interesting.

  6. David Bristow

    Such a wonderful story. In Cape Town there is a cart horse association that looks after the horses which ply the Cape Flats suburbs with their various trades. Each year there is a massive cart horse event (lots of racing and betting) near Macassar, reminiscent of the New Year’s Cape Carnival.

    • 2summers

      That’s also very cool. Horses and carts are just cool.

  7. eremophila

    Loved the story. Reminds me of the rag and bone man who had horse and cart, calling out to buy rags and bones.
    Back in the 80’s when I lived out bush, 100 miles from shops, I grew food, and including those horned melons! Haven’t seen any for years!

    • 2summers

      Oh wow that’s amazing! I figured they were only grown in Africa but I guess it would make sense for them to migrate to Australia at some point.

      • eremophila

        I was in a very hot dry climate, but used small amount of irrigation.


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