Monday, November 17, 2008

Market day (Sing "Bonjour" from Beauty and the Beast to yourself)

My host-mom Annie with her older sister, Khadia (left) and her mom Hawa (at right). They live in another village but come into San every Monday to sell a sauce ingredient I can never pronounce let alone spell.

This is another Hawa (not Annie's mom) who sells tomatoes at the market in my village.

Market day in San requires a few things from its shoppers including: sunscreen, a broad-rimmed hat, patience and a fancy-cloth outfit. Armed with all four (though my outfits leave a bit to be desired since I need to get another "complet" made), I head out each Monday morning to face the crowds and heat to buy my week's groceries that can't be found in my small village 15 miles away.

I try and time my trips carefully, leaving at about 8:45 to reach market by 9 when most of the women have set up their booths and laid out their cloths and baskets filled with vegetables, fruits and grains. You cannot rush the task and there's also the pervading sense of claustrophobia so that I find myself stopping after each purchase to take a deep breath before heading on to the next item on my list.

As I navigate the rows and streets of women hawking their wares, a steady beat from an animal skin drum keeps me in time with the other shoppers. The beat comes from a man who is selling medicine out of old soda bottles relabeled and filled with cures for ailments of all kinds. I hear "Toubabou muso" (foreign girl) and get offered pills that will make me big and fat for when I go back home.

Passing on the pills I head to the meat market where I'm supposed to buy two kilos of beef to make hamburgers with other volunteers tonight. Everyone else in the house seemed hesitant to volunteer for the job and since I'd never done it before and was going to market anyways I agreed to buy the meat. Now I see why folks don't jump at the opportunity. What in the states would maybe take 5 minutes takes about 45 minutes here (including all the greetings and blessings).

I started the process by choosing the cleanest stall in the row of meat sellers. "Sik" removed a hunk of meat from a hook on his stall and hacked off two kilos of meat that he then wrapped in butcher paper and slid into a plastic bag. Next, we navigated through the stalls to a meat grinder around the corner who turned out to be a 14 year-old boy named Brahim who's handy with a sharp knife. For 200 CFA (about 50 cents) he cut the meat into small bits. As he cut, the cardboard he used as a cutting board tore to reveal the bare wood table beneath it. Brahim quickly grabbed a scrap of butcher paper from under the table and slid it under the torn cardboard, nodding to me with a look as if to say "Don't worry, it's sanitary." With no running water, un-refrigerated meat and flies, the torn cardboard is the least of my worries. Once he finished cutting, we headed to yet another location under a hangar to find a hand-crank meat grinder attached to a small bench with a vice. His friend sat on the bench to steady it as Brahim attacked the meat grinder with vigor. I braced my leg against the open end of the bench as we spent the next 25 minutes grinding through the 2 kilos of beef.

Two hours later, relieved of my groceries which I dropped off at my host-dad's horse cart to be taken back to village, I made my way back to the volunteer house. Sweaty, grimy and feet tired after my foray into the market I relax on the couch with the other volunteers, breathing slowly and thinking about the delicious hamburgers we'll eat tonight. After all the work that went into getting the meat (on Brahim's part), I'll savor every bite.

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