Sunday, September 21, 2008

Just another market day

Some mornings my life doesn’t seem so different from anything in the United States. I wake up, put on the exact same blouses and pants I used to wear in DC, and I ride my bike to an office, just like DC real-job days.

Some afternoons, however, get more interesting.

Today was market day here in Mokolo. Just when I think I am starting to learn my way around, buy food without ripping myself off, and not make a nincompoop of myself… well… I prove myself wrong.

One of the best strategies for buying food here is to say how much you’d like to pay for it, then the vendor dishes out the appropriate amount. Donnez-moi cent francs de haricots et cent francs de beignets. One hundred francs of beans and 100 of beignets please. This gets trickier when a) you realize you forgot how to count in Fulfulde and b) you don’t even know the name of the food you want to buy. Mokolo is one of the only towns that produces a foodstuff closely akin to tofu (yes!) It’s hard to find this delicacy outside of market days, so I’d been hoping I could find it again today. While putzing around the market (mind you, Mokolo’s market takes up the space of about 5 city blocks and throbs with people,) I spot a lady selling what I can only hope is my Cameroonian tofu. Most of the villagers who come in on market day don’t speak French. As for my Fulfulde vocab, I’ve got “100 francs” and “50 francs” down, but I was gonna pull out the big cash on the tofu today, 200 francs worth (whopping 40 US cents.) So I point to the orangey blob, hand her 200 francs since I don’t even know how to say it, and… she leaves. I’m a little confused so I stand around like the blanc beacon that I am waiting for her to come back, not quite knowing what else to do. I see a nearby woman break off a bit of the tofu and eat it. So at least I know it’s edible, and not shoe polish. My lady comes back, plastic bags in hand, and carves off a blob of tofu the size of my head. No way is alllll this for me, I’m thinking! Oh it’s my lucky day, and instead of walking away with the fistful of tofu I’d hoped for and anticipated, I’ve got a funny-smelling bag that’s so big it won’t fit in my backpack. Bon.

I make a few other purchases and finally meet up with Brooke for my lunch treat. Boy am I excited to get into that tofu. …If only it were tofu. After I plop my trophy on the table, we break off little pieces of the mystery glob. And pucker. And make faces like “what were you thinking?!?!” It’s kind of berry-esque with a twinge of cleaning product. Brooke takes it outside and asks somebody what it is. Apparently, yes, it’s a berry whose name doesn’t even exist in French, crushed up, and made into a blob for your market-day pleasure! We then fend off a drunkard who comes to us recounting some ill-defined agricultural project he’d like us to finance. Maybe I should have given him Berry Delight to make him go away.

By this time it’s mid afternoon and I am ravished for some protein, so I drag Brooke to a set of huts where I’d earlier spotted beans for sale. And nevermind that 3pm meeting we have scheduled with the Prefet today. I’d already tried unsuccessfully to leave my berry mass in a store, but a small child came chasing after me with the bag, plus my raclette. I should mention that all day long I’d been carrying around one of my earlier purchases, a Cameroonian contraption of a cleaning product—a mix between a mop and a rake, used for cleaning tile floors, (or as a walking stick, or for beating anyone who crosses my path wrong.) Fortunately, we found a small child, the kid of the bean lady at whose hut we’re dining, who was happy to dive into the berry gook. The bean lady mama looked at us like we were crazy. Who would possibly carry around so much of that stuff with them?? C’est un cadeau!” we explain. It’s a present! Everybody loves presents. Berry mess was promptly disseminated among all small children and devoured, and that was one happy happy bean mama. She laughed and told us we were, in fact, crazy. I was so relieved to be rid of it.

After the joyful bean-berry exchange, Brooke and I arrive, slightly late, to a meeting with the new Prefet. A prefet is somewhere between a state governor and a city mayor—a kinda big deal. And I am carrying a raclette. As we sit waiting for Monsieur le Prefet, I feel like that famous picture of the somber farmer posing with his wife and pitchfork. (I had also carried said raclette into the electricity company earlier that afternoon when they menaced to shut off Brooke’s electricity and we had to storm in there, looking as though we would use raclette for the aforementioned beating function.)

My crowning achievement however, and a true feeling of integration, came when it was time to bike home. I’ve learned well from the Cameroonians, as they carry huge sacs, their parents, pipes, bundles of grass, all of the above while riding a bike. So, I craftily put the raclette’s handle through my book-bag straps, with the head sticking out on my right and the long handle jutting out on my left. I may not know how to buy market food yet, but I can officially sport the Cameroonian 5 ft.-wide-load-on-a-bike look. Ca, c’est bien integrée. And as I rode home, raclette-wobbly, I laughed at how I’d thought that just this morning life seemed similar to the DC days.


Rudesby said...

Kate, I adore you. :)

Nate said...

There's nothing in life quite like strapping something five feet wide to the back of one's bicycle with caoutchouc. You'll never look at punctured bicycle tires with scorn again, I promise you that much.

Glad to hear you're doing well with your Fulfulde; the first time a market lady told me something cost "di-di francs", I was pretty confused. "Ten? Twenty? Huh?" How many nouns can you append to "jam" for greetings these days?

Glad you seem to be doing well and enjoying yourself; the drums sound pretty awesome.

Nick said...


Nice to see that your inet access is reliable enough to post regularly. I'm vicariously enjoying your "in the thick of it" adventures -- I live behind high walls these days! ;)


Kate said...

Hey Nate!
Yeah, those fulfulde numbers are KILLING me!! As if it weren't already tricky enough, let's multiply by five. Boo on that. Great hearing from you! I've been enjoying reading your blog as well.