Letter from Katie
[We just received a long letter from Katie that was written at the end of September when she had just gotten to her post in Daagbe. Once she writes a letter she puts a U.S. stamp on it and takes it to the Peace Corps office. Whenever anyone is going back to the states they take the letters and mail them from wherever they are.]
Hello from Daagbe! I moved in a few days ago and all is well – no desire to quite Peace Corps so that’s a good sign. I’m writing to you from my front porch.
Currently I can see: the roof of the primary school, the tops of the mango trees at the school, a man carrying a wooden post (more of a giant branch/small log) that he will use in the construction they’re doing at the other end of my concession, 2 parked motos, assorted wires, satellite dishes and pipes, 3 lizards, 1 chicken, 4 children staring at me, seedling trees someone left on my front porch, and lots of sunshine.
Currently I can hear: lots of chickens at the place down the street that apparently sells eggs, hammering, contemporary Christian music blasting from a radio the construction guys have, someone whistling, occasional motos going past on the road, men talking in front of the mosque next to my house, someone blasting traditional music from their cell phone, and a baby crying.
Currently I can smell: my own sweat (eww…), charcoal fire, the fish sauce a neighbor is making on the fire, dust, exhaust from a guy who just drove his moto into the concession, soap (from my newly-laundered clothes).
Things are good with the house. I’ve realized I need a bunch of things but thankfully tomorrow is marche day in Ketoukpe, the neighboring village, and Sunday I’m going back to Porto Novo to get things that are cheaper there, including lots of lentils and a decent hammer. My biggest complaints so far are that without the bean mamans who sell school lunch I’m having trouble locating enough protein without eating the smoked fish I hate. Also, I don’t have a tool to fix things or hang things up.
Most things I need I can find at the marche: big basins for doing dishes; even bigger basins for doing laundry; various pots, mugs, bowls and cups. Now the problem is finding out prices for everything since in the marche most things don’t have a fixed price.
Enter the art of “discoutez”-ing. For each and every purchase you have to be ready to bargain for it – hard (apparently vendors in the North are much more forgiving but I’ll let you know when I visit there). Discouter-ing is much easier if you have an idea of what the price actually is. You can find this out a couple of ways. One is to ask a trusted Beninese friend – and unless you’re bargaining with a carpenter (who are notoriously difficult to bargain with), ask a woman. Men typically don’t go to the marche. Another way to find the right price is to have the maman give you an offer, then counter-offer significantly less and guage her reaction. You can also try shopping prices with other mamans selling the same thing. I haven’t tried this yet but apparently “I’m seeing how much money I need to bring tomorrow/next marche day is an acceptable excuse for shopping prices without buying anything. The best thing is to establish a rapport with specific mamans for things you buy often and find a price you’re comfortable paying. With this you do run the risk of being slightly overcharged every time, but friendly mamans can be helpful for other things too.
In general marches are exciting but overwhelming even for experienced PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers). There is so much going on and everyone wants your attention (except pickpockets). Marches are also a great place to practice local language. As an added bonus people tend to give you better prices when you discouter in local language.
Marches work on a rotating system that has in some places been in place for over a century. Because many vendors travel to get their products and because one area may not have enough business every day to justify the vendors time, a given marche will be held every 3, 4, 5, or 6 days or sometimes weekly. The same vendors will go to marche day in another town on the other days. Ketoukpe has marche every 5 days, but because of the way they count this means if it’s on Sunday the next marche day is Thursday. Avrankou, the largest town between here and Porto-Novo, also has a large marche which happens on days Ketoukpe doesn’t have marche. Say Ketoukpe is Sunday. Then Tuesday is Avrankou, Thrusday is Ketoukpe again and Saturday is Avrankou. It works out well so if you really need a marche there is one somewhat nearby every other day.
Discouter-ing down to “correct” prices may seem odd when you think about in a context of U.S. dollars – typically we’re talking about arguing over less than a dollar. But it actually gets to the heart of what Peace Corps development model is all about. We’re not here to give out money – that just creates a cycle of dependency on foreign aid and reinforces the belief among Africans that they aren’t capable of solving their own problems. By getting correct prices from zems and in marches, PCVs are helping reinforce the idea that yovos (white people) are not all rich and are not here to give money or other things away. It also helps reinforce the idea that we PCVs are living IN our communities, unlike the USAID and Embassy workers who all live in gated communities in Cotonou.