The local market is held on Mondays in my village. Marché Monday. The Franglais alliteration helps me when trying to keep the days straight. There are also more linguistically congruent days: Malnutrition Mardi, Vaccination Vendredi, Sinner’s Sunday, etc. But, Mondays are also easy to remember because it’s my favorite day of the week. Imagine that: a traditionally dreadful day representing the end of the mystery, adventure and freedom the weekend brings; now the day I look forward to most. (The photograph is of huts that house market vendors.)
In the big picture, it’s a scale by which I can gauge my progress within the community. My first Marché Monday, I walked around with a less-than-enthusiastic guide who had been ordered by one of my protective work partners to help me find what I needed and not get swindled in the process. So, to the marché we went. It felt like the first day of seventh grade and having your mom walk you to the front door of the school, then demand both a kiss and an audible I-love-you. My guide might as well have held my hand and hung a placard from my neck that read “I have no idea what I’m doing and am considered incompetent by my peers.” The message, however, was conveyed sans placard, with brilliant clarity.
The next week, I decided not to tell anyone when I was going for the sake of my self-respect and that of a helpless teenage girl standing nearby who may have had the needy foreigner thrust upon her. So there I went, trying to feign an air of confidence, but soon realizing the vanity, abandoned that. I relaxed my arms, letting them swing without cadence, and meandered through the market. I talked to French-speaking vendors, mimed and nodded continually to those who rattled off Bariba. I wandered and weaved through the different huts, trying to avoid outstretched legs and cooking pots over hot coals. Women were sending children on different errands, who would run to perform the chore, only to begin walking unhurriedly once out of sight. Old women presented their wares of different powders atop blankets on the ground. Field workers sat by their metal buckets of yams. Young women carefully arranged piles of tomatoes and onions to ease the task of sale. Food was being prepared. Soy cheese removed from steaming pots. Then there were the sundry items unidentifiable to me. The mystery of the piles of thin, lucid meat aptly referred to as mystery street meat. The jars of pastel-colored almond-shaped somethings. The bell-shaped whatchamacallits that may come from a tree. Then there are the sounds – the honking of motos who mistakenly would try to drive through; the sizzling of oil and the blending of voices. I was enchanted by the marché and all of its’ strange charms.
Each week thereafter came further familiarity with both the marché and the faces of the marché. I have loyalties to both an onion vendor and a mobile bread vendor. I am more familiar with Bariba and can exchange a basic Beninese greeting which includes asking about how their morning was, how their kids are doing, and their mothers, and their fathers, the state of their bodily functions, and how business is going. It’s an energizing experience that provides a fascinating portal into Beninese culture and the soul of my village.