||A Writer Writes
YOU CANT JUST ZIP BY THE VILLAGE MARKET to pick up tomatoes or a bar of soap. (Theres really nothing zippy about West African village life at all.) You have to go expecting you might not be back for hours, even if you dont need much. As the token toubabou, or white person, my market forays take up most of the day. I stand out like something spotlit among the twisted lanes of villagers sitting behind their piles of produce. The market is unwittingly my stage: I have to make the rounds, and greet everyone because eyes are on me always and theyll all know if Ive skipped someone. So before shopping, I tuck my basket under a friends table and visit every corner of the market, shaking hands, asking after families.
A handful of men sell kola nuts and kerosene; otherwise merchandizing is womens work. They lay out empty rice sacks in the dirt, divide their wares into tiny clusters so that no one is feels compelled to buy more than they need. I pass little heaps of dried mushrooms collected in the bush, dried okra slices, small groups of lobed tomatoes some smushed and smelling of sweet rot. There are bunches of leaves to pound into sauce, bitter, green eggplants smaller than my fist, heaps of tinselly fish dust for flavoring, pads of homemade shea butter used to fry millet cakes or slather on dry skin. Towering above all the miniature collections are fresh hot peppers, tall pyramids of brilliant red and green and yellow, shining like Christmas lights.
Saturday Night Live for the vendors
The women perch behind their rice sacks, in riotitously patterned and ruffled shirts. They ask me how my house is, how my health is, how my husband and children are. The normal response to all of the above is Theyre there, even if one is sick, widowed, and barren. But in my ventures into the local language, Ive recently learned to tell the truth. When they ask, I shake my head and suck my teeth and say I dont have a husband, or I dont have any kids. These responses are Saturday Night Live for the women of the village. Their faces crinkle into grins, they hoot and laugh and slap each other on the back. The minor turn of phrase has been such a hit that Ive added a few extra phrases to my repertoire. They say, Why not, Guissongui? calling me by my village name. And I say, Im not looking for one. Maybe later, kids? I dont want them quite yet.
My march through the market stops every few feet to repeat this conversation with each huddle of women. Its like Im auditioning them for the part of Incredulous Old Lady. Each asks exactly the same questions and each attempts to eclipse the last ones performance during the collapse with laughter part. Some add their own creative flair. One grabs her breasts, shakes them and says, Why dont you want kids? Youre ready to have them. Another grabs my breasts. The ritual never seems to lose steam. Week after week, the women clap and pitch forward, chortling as though theyd never heard the joke before. Its a game we play out to the fullest. They always feign surprise at my answer, letting out a shocked Ye? and cocking their heads before laughing. I always shrug with practiced disinterest at the whole husband idea. And they laugh.
(Incidentally, every time a male Volunteer comes to visit, all my assertions get shot down. The women wag their fingers, Hah! You do have a husband! as if theyve been onto my ruse from the very beginning. Ive gained a hundred brothers trying to convince the old women they are not my lovers.)
Basic Life things
Aside from vowing celibacy, I use my marketplace rounds to rehearse any other Niarafolo phrases Ive picked up during the week. After four months in the village, I can say basic Life things regarding washing, eating, going, buying, and enough key colloquialisms to send all parties into a discussion about how Ive mastered the language, no matter how long the conversation has been. Its relatively easy to guess what people are saying. Nonetheless, my vocabulary is slim and my understanding of grammar nonexistent. There doesnt seem to be one tutor who can help me regularly I have between 2 and 200 who tell me contradictory things all the time. Ive only recently discovered that ki mi den means I dont like it not to be confused with kuh me den, which means, I like it. Its a phrase Ive espoused but apparently havent learned from the get-go. Market women stuff little gifts into my basket every week, and Ive been diligent about insulting them every time. When theyve offered me a gift chicken or extra onions or a free bowl of porridge, Ive smiled big and said, Thank you! I dont like it! Somehow this blunder has morphed into a success add it on the Reasons to Laugh At Guissongui list. I figure as long as Im laughing too, theyre laughing with me, right? Either way, being fallible and laughable closes the gap. It makes me more approachable to those who still assume that, as a white woman, I must be treated differently, and less alien to those who just dont know what to make of me at all.
So I move past chattering women in cell phone-print sarongs and bright scarves, clasping hands, asserting my singleness, and eventually buying sugar and soap and matches and leaves to make leaf sauce. If I dont have the correct change, theyll just expect me to come back later and pay up. Thats what everyone else does theres a paperless credit system that runs like clockwork. Each woman and theres not one among them who knows ciphers has a list of her debits and credits etched in her head. I, however, forget to pay routinely, and am constantly being tapped on the shoulders by sellers Ive unintentionally swindled.
And for everything I buy, these women in flip-flops who have rarely left the village, who save up their market earnings for months to buy a new outfit for Ramadan, fill my basket with extra handfuls. I wander home each week as the sun slips west with several things Ive paid for plus bowls of peanuts, heaps of hot peppers, spare rolls of sweet bread, bags of millet fritters, and bunches of baby bananas, all piled into my basket by grinning women who dismiss my protests with a wave of the hand.
As the daughter of a Foreign Service officer, Sarah Erdman grew up on the fringes of the Mediterranean and Washington, DC. After, studying history at Middlebury College in Vermont, she worked as a health Volunteer for Peace Corps/Cote d'Ivoire. There she instituted an infant care program, trained village health workers, and raised funds for the construction of a maternity clinic. She is currently living in Washington, DC and completing a book of stories about her years in the village.