One of my favorite days each week is Monday – the local market day. When brainstorming topics for this blog, I thought it would be interesting to describe this integral part of village life that is so different from anything I’ve experienced in the United States. I haven’t yet taken pictures at the market, as to avoid the attention that a camera would bring to me. I hope that my description helps you paint a mental photo of what the market is like. Photos to come at a later date.
My town has about 7,000 – 10,000 people and is certainly the largest town within 30 miles both north and south of it on the main paved road. Small farming villages dot either side of the paved road from Bamako to here and beyond. Market day draws people from my town and most of these surrounding villages, and likely swells the population to 15,000 or more each Monday.
Around 9 a.m., you can feel the pulse of the market. Most people ride into town on their donkey carts just after sunrise, stay in town all day selling, shopping and greeting, and head home as the sun starts to head west. For many of the people in small villages, market day is the only day of the week they leave their village of 200 – 500 people.
The main road, which normally boasts small shops, bread bakeries, motorcycle repair stations and street food stands, is closed to traffic on Monday and explodes with shanty-like stands selling everything from beauty products and vegetables to kitchen supplies and bike tires.
Walking through the market is always a feat. There are people everywhere. Donkey carts are trying to weave their way through side streets. Hand-driven carts are packed so high with sacks of rice, millet or henna that their handlers have to navigate the streets blindly.
I usually walk (with purpose) through the market, greeting those with familiar faces and politely ignoring those who yell “Tubabu Muso” (French woman) or “blanche” (White).
My first stop is always a small stand that one of the women from the shea butter association sets up each week. She pitches an umbrella to shelter herself and her family from the sun, lays out plastic grain sacks on the dirt ground and displays her wide selection of plastic goods – buckets, cups, spoons, plates and bowls, water jugs, etc. Some days she sells a couple dozen products and other days very little.
From under the shelter of her umbrella, I’m able to sit back and take in everything, while occasionally hopping up to greet a neighbor or a woman from a small, nearby village that I haven’t seen in a few weeks.
The typical scene is something like this:
A small group of uncooperative goats are being dragged through the market by an anxious herder hoping that the price will be right today. A woman, dressed in colorfully printed fabric, dodges the pack of goats while balancing a baby strapped to her back and the bucket of milk on her head that she’s selling in small plastic bags.
Across the street there is a man sitting on the ground surrounded by his wares – prayer beads, skull caps, old versions of the Koran and wooden tablets. In front of him two old men pass by carrying their prayer beads on their way to the mosque for midday prayer.
I hear a motorcycle engine rev and see the exhaust billowing, as a tedious repairman tries to identify the problem before he gets to work. A group of women selling dried vegetables is sitting next to the smoking motorcycle, and they cover their noses with scarves to block the fumes.
After spending some time chatting with the plastics seller and her family, and observing the market scene, I head off to my next stop – a stand were another one of my friends sells fried dough and candy.
On the walk there, I have to dodge children running through the street trying to guide old bike tires along their sides with sticks. Women call out to me from their stands, “Come, buy fabric,” or “Come, by lettuce and tomatoes.” I usually reply to them with, “Ala ka sugu ja,” a blessing that wishes them a good market day.
Women that I’ve never met before take a guess at my name, “Rokia, Djineba,” just so they can start up conversation, and women who I see everyday correct them by saying, “Her name is Fanta.”
I pass a group of men sitting in front of their store, who invite me to have a shot of tea. If it’s ready, I’ll accept their generosity and take it.
Right before I cross over the bridge before getting to my friend’s stand, I pass a man with women’s purses draping both of his arms. Another man has T-shirts stacked on a cart that he’s pushing through the market. They are stamped with familiar text like, “Saint Joseph’s Bible School,” or “New England Patriots, Super Bowl Champions,” or “Jefferson County High School Tennis,” and it makes me wonder what kid in America wore that shirt before it made its way here. If those clothes could talk…
As always, I see the anxious customers surrounding my friend’s stand waiting for their treats, before I’m able to see and greet her. After I sit down, she always puts a couple of fried dough balls in a piece of paper bag for me and refuses my payment. Most of the time, I’m able to sneak the money (the equivalent of about 5 cents) into her change stash when she’s not looking. This part of the market is much less crowded and I usually spend the afternoon there with her, asking questions about her business and her life. I’m thinking about introducing her to fried okra, and seeing if she thinks it would be worth selling as a new product.
Certainly, the greatest problem with the local markets is a lack of diversity. Although there are many products being sold in the market, there are far more vendors than there are products to sell. For example, my friend who sells plastic materials does so along with about 7-10 competitors within view. Similarly, the other women I visit during market days, who sell fried foods, sit at the side of a road with 10 or more other women who are selling the exact same product for the same price.
While living in America, I took for granted one’s ability to develop a new idea or product, access capital and create a thriving small business. Here, because access to raw materials, information and capital is difficult to come by, small business owners are limited to selling or making a very narrow scope of products and services. For this reason it is very common for people to see, or hear about, a business that is thriving and replicate it in a storefront across the street.
So there you have it – the small town Malian market in a nutshell. Please let me know if there are other things you want to know about life in Mali. I love sharing the information and want to make sure I’m talking about things that are of interest to you!