There is no real market in my village, though there are a few places where vendors gather occasionally. To go to the market, I must go to the next village over, Ketoukpe (Kay-touk-pay). In Beninese Market Day Counting, the Ketoukpe market is every five days, but in normal counting, it’s every four days. I don’t always need to go to the market since there are various houses I know in village whose inhabitants sell various food items. But when I do go to the market, it’s always an experience.
First, I have to leave my house. This can be a challenge if it’s during the hot hours of the day (Ok, so all of the hours of the day are hot, but especially noon to three) and the electricity is working, since I have developed an emotional attachment to my fan. When leaving I must bring a somewhat empty bag, sunscreen, and some money.
Upon leaving my house, I have to tell my neighbors where I’m going. Then I have to tell my friends who sell things outside my concession. I have to first greet all of them, then explain that I am going to the market. Then I usually have to find a way to respond to the “bring us presents!” requests. These requests are not unusual, and not only because I am a rich yovo.
It is common in Beninese culture for anyone who leaves the village to bring “agban kan,” or “gifts from a traveler.” Typically it is something small, such as cookies or sugar cane, but if one is traveling far they may be expected to bring things one can’t normally find in village, “les bonnes choses,” or “the good things.” Usually I turn it into a joke when people ask what I’ve brought them – “I brought you good luck!” Occasionally though, I do bring back agban kan, because people are always happy to get a present, and it’s a good way to cement relationships.
Once I leave the immediate area of my concession, I start walking toward the market. On my way I will pass: many children who sometimes know my name and wave; several stands selling gasoline from Nigeria; two buvettes; several fields of palm trees, cassava, corn, and beans; a Catholic church; many palm trees that are now home to Village Weaver birds who are bright yellow and chatter constantly; two public water pumps that often have women and children gathered for water; a tailor’s shop that I no longer frequent because the work was expensive and not well done (but you aren’t allowed to say that because it would be rude to point out to a businessperson why you don’t frequent his or her business, so now it’s awkward and I have to pretend I will come there soon); a mosque; a large trash pile; many people who call out “yovo!” or “Melissa!” or occasionally “Katherine!” or “Madame!”; a new friend who sells fried food.
This walk takes about ten to fifteen minutes. As I approach the market, the noise increases, particularly if it’s market day. There are people selling all sorts of things in covered stalls or sometimes just on trays set on the ground. There are your typical Beninese foodstuffs: tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, green leafy vegetables, yams, hot peppers. There are people selling macaroni, margarine, soap, eggs, tomato paste, bread. There are used clothing sellers, plastic flip flop sellers, smoked fish sellers, dried beans and rice sellers, fruit sellers. There are chicken sellers, and occasionally someone selling puppies or kittens. There are people selling prepared food like rice or beans, people selling cold drinks like water or bissap, which I think comes from hibiscus flowers. There are people selling medicine and toothpaste, pens and notebooks, toilet paper and bug spray.
There are also a few Vodun stalls – stalls selling things for traditional voodoo healing. These have all sorts of barks, dried and fresh plants, clay pots, shells, and other things I can’t identify but plan to ask about. Occasionally you can also see dead animals at these stalls, though Ketoukpe is too small to have the dried monkeys that you can see at big markets.
I have a few sellers that I’ve gotten to know and that I like to support. I also have my “student” who sells dried corn. I’ve written about her before, she’s the cousin of my host family in village and while my Gun remains woefully poor and she speaks no French she likes to help me bargain. If I have time I’ll also often get a pedicure from one of the pedicure ladies near my student’s stall. Sometime during my trip to the market I also make time to stop by to greet the money change ladies, who exchange CFA for Nigerian naira. While speaking to them, I also make sure to glare at the zem drivers who hang out by the money changers because they are mean and overcharge so I refuse to use them.
When I’m done with my purchases, I start making my way back home. Sometimes, if I have my moto helmet with me, I can find a free ride part or all the way back. Whether I walk or take a moto, one thing is still the same: I must greet everyone I see, especially if I know them, or if they think they know me. When I eventually make it back home, I am greeted by my friends and neighbors and any children from the primary school who see me. It’s like having a welcoming committee every time I go to the grocery store.