Friday, May 31, 2013

Mid-March - My day as a Marché Mama*

My day as a Marché Mama*

In my Women’s Group Garden, we had a large public bed planted full of lettuce.  The produce from the public beds is meant to be sold for the profit of the group as a whole, to pay for things like supplies or repairs to the irrigation.  The only problem – not many people were coming to the garden to buy the lettuce, the women said it just doesn’t sell.  People aren’t much into salads here.  I was sure they were right, but wanted to find out just how hard it is to sell lettuce here.  So about a month and a half ago, I suggested that one of the women harvest a lot of lettuce from the public bed and bring it to our weekly market on Sunday to see if anyone would buy it.  I offered to go sit with the designated woman in the market to observe how things went.  Bana, my “host mother” from my concession and also a member of the gardening group, offered that her 10-year-old daughter Nafisa could sell the lettuce. 

Sunday came along.  I got back to my concession after church to find that they had harvested an enormous big metal basin of lettuce for the market, much more than I’d counted on.  We washed the lettuce together, and then I got things together for the market.  It felt sort of like packing for a picnic – I brought a colorful printed-cotton “pagne” (wrap skirt) to spread the lettuce on, an orange plastic bucket of water to sprinkle the lettuce with and keep it fresh, my umbrella in case it was too sunny, and my wooden stool to sit on.  Nafisa’s friends Alia and Abiba joined us as well, and we set off for the market.

From interning at Green String farm in the states, I learned a bit of how much work goes into taking part in a farmer’s market in the states.  You have to develop relationships with the people who organize the market, and pay to rent a stall, for example.  Anyone selling anything on the street in America needs a permit.  Not so in Benin; you just show up.  Lots of other people were already selling vegetables when we got to our market, but the girls chose a shady spot and we sat down on the ground with our lettuce.  As expected, business was not exactly brisk.  People were interested and asked what we were selling, but I did not get nearly as many stares as I expected.  Selling things in market is such a normal thing for women to do, that it wasn’t particularly odd that I the American was doing it too.  In fact, it probably seemed more odd to people that I was gardening and not bringing my vegetables to the market.

After a while with no takers, we moved to a busier spot in the market.  Little by little, we did sell some lettuce.  We were selling it in small bundles for 50 francs – about ten cents – and we only sold 800 f (about $1.75) worth in the three hours we spent in market.  I noticed some interesting things – most of the people who bought lettuce from us were educated men, probably those who had traveled or lived elsewhere.  Several of the people who stopped by asked how to prepare it – which made me decide to try making salads for my women’s group to demonstrate how it’s eaten.  Although business was slow, in the weeks following our market experiment it did seem that more and more people were stopping by the garden asking for lettuce.  Ironically, when people became interested in buying it, there was none left in the garden.  We’ll have to stagger our lettuce planting better next year to have a longer season.

Even just from a cultural perspective, it was interesting spending time as a “Marche Mama,” sitting on the ground to sell my vegetables for hours, instead of just being one of the customers breezing through the market on my way through village.  As a shopper in Benin, I’ve often bought something at the market only to find the vendor has no change.  I’ve given her my money and stood there, sometimes impatiently, as she says “there’s no change” and then sends a small child off somewhere to borrow change for me.  That day in the market, I found myself on the other side of that exchange – sending one of my assistant lettuce sellers off through the market to search for small change as a customer waited.  It was different, watching the bustle of the market from a vendor’s perspective.  It definitely showed me a new side of life in Peonga!

*”Marché” is the word for market in French, and the women who sell food at the market are often called Mamas

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