February 7, 2010

Market Day

Standing at the edge of the school grounds I squint out over the long expanse of field before me. My high vantage point provides an excellent view and in the distance I can see a worn sign erected years ago to welcome a brigade of Bangladeshi engineers sent by the UN. In the intervening space baking in the hot sun sits row upon row of improvised wooden stands covered with tin roofs and UN issued tarps. Each stand is filled with wares and an expectant vender, waiting to make the first sale of the day.

Today is market day, a weekly event which brings sellers from all over the region through our town to sell the goods they’ve acquired along the way. Most of the items for sale come from the capital city, Monrovia, but a few vendors sport more exotic fare from nearby countries such as Ghana, Guinea, and Cote D’Ivoire.

From my lookout above it all I can see the familiar items for sale from a distance. Plastic buckets and cookery are piled everywhere. Many stands are entirely dedicated to selling vibrantly colored fabrics which will be purchased and brought to the town tailors to be made into new outfits.

Even from this distance I can see one vendor selling the blue and white patterned indigo cloth which is made exclusively in the mountains of Guinea. I make a mental note to walk by later and see the fabric a little better up close, I’ve always liked indigo cloth and if the price is right I wouldn’t mind having some more clothing made out of it.

I’ve had my fill of just watching now and I pick up my bag and walk down the hill into the market. As I descend into the chaos of hundreds of people jostling to be heard my mind is thinking about the hidden items I may find that day. From a distance the market always looks the same, but it’s only as you wind your way through it that a patient eye can spot some unusual catch. Today I’m trying to find some new vegetables for a stew but I’m not hopeful, I’ve yet to see much beyond the usual fare of onions and chili peppers that one can find any day of the week.

As I weave in and out of the people, wheelbarrows, and children selling homemade doughnuts that dot the narrow walkways I’m constantly barraged on all sides by calls from marketeers hoping to entice me to their stand. “Friend, come in and see.” “Razors, 10 LD each!” “Cold water here!” and of course the ever popular one word invitation: “Whiteman!” I usually respond to these calls with a smile and a wave. I can’t stop at every person who invites me or I’d never be finished. Still I’m careful to take a quick glance at everything I walk past, amidst the cluttered piles of merchandise I know there are treasures to be had.

Then suddenly I see something that catches my eye. Spread out on a worn tarp an old woman has placed her collection of various used jars and containers. Piles of what I would have called trash back in the U.S. but here I know better. I think back to the bags upon bags of cooking spices littering my house and I know that I’ve found a solution. I walk over to the woman and, mindful not to be rude, I greet her before I start examining what she has for sale:

“My sista, how da day?”
“No Ba-o”
“How da bidness?”
“I trying small”
“Thank Go”
“Thank Go”

Now that we’ve said hello we can start to talk business. I crouch down and get a closer look at the containers she’s selling. Among the empty mayonnaise and medicine jars I spy a pile of spice containers, perfect. I ask her how much for each container, she replies that they’re 10LD each (which is about 14 US cents). Although the amount is fine for me I know I’m getting charged a white man’s price. I haggle a little, which is customary, and I end up paying 50LD for the 8 bottles I find. I thank her and tell myself to come back next week to see if she’s gotten any more.

By now I’ve wandered into the food section of the market. I walk past tables of smoked fish and chicken feet buzzing with flies. I pass a few woman selling vegetables but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Dried beans and rice spill out of small sacks. Bulgur wheat is also for sale, along with various other grains I’m not familiar with. I buy a few onions for 5LD each, mentally beginning to piece together my lunch for that day. I pick up a head of garlic at 50LD which I find to be incredibly overpriced but I’m assured that the price is correct due to its rarity (“Da garlic bidness har-o”).

Cassava root and plantains are plentiful this time of year but I’ve had enough starch in my diet for the time being so I pass by them. Just as I reach the end of the food and I’ve resigned myself to another meal of plain beans I spy something red out of the corner of my eye. There, amidst piles of the usual market fare I see a woman selling cherry tomatoes. I smile to myself inwardly and run over to claim my prize. The tomatoes are perfect and I can tell they’re fresh, not moldy and infested with bugs like they can sometimes be. I buy a generous bag full of them for 10LD and I head home to make what I’ve now decided will be some sort of bean chili with rice.

As I walk out of the market I feel exhausted. It’s been almost a full hour of walking in the hot midday sun. I’ve been pushed and grabbed and shouted at. I’ve been constantly surveying the areas around me not only for merchandise to buy but for obstacles to be avoided such as animal droppings and tin roofing jutting out into the walkways. I want nothing more than to go home and relax with a bottle of water in my hammock.

But at the same time I’m already looking forward to next week’s market. I wonder what it will bring with it and in what ways it will change my small corner of the world. As I walk up the dusty road leading to my house I decide that before I get in the hammock for a much needed nap I’ll clean the bottles I’ve bought today and fill them with their spices. Another successful day.