Monday, March 3, 2008

The Kagoro Market

“I love you.”

The three little words that most people long to hear, eclipsed for many Canadians only by “Spring is here” or “Leafs win Cup” (one being an annual expression of relief, the other decidedly not). Normally, I would be pleased to be on the receiving end of such a declaration of affection. On this particular Saturday, however, the person uttering these words is Joseph, one of the vendors I have just met in the Kagoro market. As far as keeping the customer satisfied, it beats “Paper or plastic?”, especially since I didn’t actually buy anything from him. Although I’m sure his use of the phrase was more in keeping with the love he has for his favourite football team rather than an expression of a more profound ardour, I still can’t bring myself to say, “I love you, too”, so I offer a mumbled “Na gode” before retreating to the next stall, where Gideon promptly offers to find me a good Nigerian woman to marry.

Such is the shopping experience in the weekly Kagoro market, a much more social event than visiting the local Loblaws. For six days of the week, the heart of Kagoro beats quietly, with only a few small shops offering the same basic goods as their neighbours on either side. A wide dusty avenue cuts through the centre of the village, an apparent waste of space at odds with the clustered nature of the rest of Kagoro. Poor planning, one might be tempted to sniff, as the ruts carved into the middle of the thoroughfare render it impassable to all but the most dedicate disciples of Evel Knievel. The only clue offered to the bustle lying in wait is the empty framework of poles to the north of the village centre, standing like the skeletal aftermath of a destructive blaze.

But what a difference a day makes. Beginning early Saturday morning, vendors begin arriving to set up their stalls within the framework and the deserted avenue is transformed into a labyrinth of commerce. The sellers number in the hundreds, and the effort to showcase their goods usually means the market isn’t fully set up until noon. In the daylight hours then remaining to them, the merchants will compete with their neighbours for the naira in visitors’ pockets. Presentation is key, so tomatoes and onions are painstakingly laid out in small piles for maximum exposure near the passageways. Ultimately, the competition is a friendly one, as vendors spend much of their time in conversation with each other or sharing a laugh at my attempts to haggle. If one doesn’t have the right amount of change, his or her companions help fill the gap. With the amount of produce up for sale, I can’t help but wonder what happens to the unsold fruits and vegetables at day’s end. Very little is wasted, I’m sure, but the volume on display suggests that the vendors’ families must be receiving the majority of the perishable items, perhaps a welcome addition to the table, but likely a poor substitute for the much-needed income that failed to materialize.

My first few trips to the market ended with me staggering back to the Pink House, clutching my bag of tomatoes like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. It was all too much – sensory overload of the highest order. The constant motion of people, the shouts and animated conversations, the smells of the freshly killed meat on display. Substitute sweaty shoppers for the recently departed animals and you’d swear it was the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day. As the sole white visitor on any given day, I was an instant celebrity, though my stardom lasted only as long as I lingered at my new best fan’s stall. The market seemed impossibly vast, with row upon row of people eager to make my acquaintance. The layout was the very definition of haphazard, as though people set up their shops wherever they could find space. How anyone managed to find anything was a mystery my shell-shocked mind couldn’t solve.

The reality is obviously much different than what I perceived through my overwhelmed senses. A pattern does exist, as the vendors have grouped themselves according to their specialties and the goods they have for sale. One alleyway is dedicated to clothing, while its neighbouring path focuses on hardware and electronics. On one corner, the stalls with household goods are clustered, while the grain sellers have grouped themselves near the edge of the marketplace. Each vendor, for the most part, occupies the same spot week after week, the result of a paid arrangement with the village. So, I now know where to find the only vendor in the market to regularly have green peppers for sale, so I make a point of visiting him every time. The same can be said for vegetable oil, oranges and bananas. For a place I initially deemed chaotic, it’s all begun to seem downright orderly.

By far, the most entertaining shops for me are the ones representing Nigeria’s version of Blockbuster. Pirated versions of movies are completely illegal, of course, but there is no attempt made to police their sale and the DVD’s are everywhere. Regardless of one’s position on the ethics involved, even the most dour defender of copyright protection would be amused by the packaging dreamed up by the video pirates to boost their legitimacy. Logos of every major organization from BMW to the NBA appear on the front of the packages alongside the always trustworthy “Soni” brand. Single discs boasting an incredible 48 movies are sold under such titles as “Adventure Daring Youth Idol” and “Seabed Disaster Thrills”. Often, it’s a stretch to see what the collected movies have in common with each other. My favourite so far is “Hollywood Top Notch Musical Classics” which featured “The Sound of Music” next to such timeless toe-tappers as “Kingpin” and “Goodfellas”. The hills are alive with the sound of me whacking some rat fink bastard?

Three months in to my stay, the market has become an attraction for me. The sensory overload has settled back into an active lively groove, and I look forward to the energy I find there. I’m still an object of fascination at the market, but the reaction is now one of curiosity rather than shock, which is an improvement, since it tends to lead to actual conversations. And the odd declaration of love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The colors are spectacular and the abundance a little surprising. We in the so called developed economies constantly hear about starvation and drought in developing nations, and esp in Africa. Yet the lushness of tomatoes and onions displayed with such artfulness tells quite a different story. I do not for one minute question the reality of poverty and need and even desparation, but I do see a marked contrast between our "First World" convictions and the "Not First World" realities. The very fact that there is local commerce on the scale you describe and picture is enough to make me stop and pause. Is it our sense of Western guilt that causes us to think of "the others" as being on the edge of oblivion? is it our smugness as a have economy that dictates our conviction that the other is simply a have not? This is not to deny the difficulties, but it is to question our assumptions and presumptions. We have our own poverty to deal with, and I don't just mean people living on the streets. Our developed "lushness" is filled with waste and depreciation and obsolesence driven by the need to consume. I recall being in a Loblaws looking for yogurt so that I could stock my refrigerator for visiting guests. They requested zero fat no calories fruit-on-the-bottom, etc, etc. I was a bit put off by the precision of the request, but I was totally caught off guard by the wall of possibilities at the yogurt section. I had never seen such a display of over-abundance, and I was literally stopped in my tracks as I began to explore and search, looking for the precise type of yogurt ordered by my guests. I stood muttering to myself, reading the labels in a stage whisper, and only after an inordinate amount of time doing this did I realize people were giving me wide berth -- I was talking out loud to myself like some kind of maniac just released from 999 Queen West. I was stunned into inertia by the array and variety and detail.... all of which, in retrospect, represented a kind of poverty. A poverty of limit, a depleting of reticence, a diminishing of possibility overwhelmed by order of magnitude. My nephew, who works on projects in Africa [Zambia, Tanzania, etc], hosted a group of African coworkers in Toronto one summer. They even spent a weekend up at the cottage. He expressed disappointment that these Africans wanted to get things just like us. Yes, they were overwhelmed by our over-abundance, but more so, they became crazed as instant consumers -- they wanted a piece of the action, the TVs and stereos, CD players and iPods, all the gadgets that we consume without even questioning their need. Their desire overcame their need, just as desire replaces almost all our values in the West. His disappointment was about their fall from grace and innocence: their "purity" coming from a non consumer economy was tainted by their desire to consume once they entered the world of rampant consumerism. Somehow this was a retelling of the fall from the Garden of Eden, where innocence gave way to knowledge of good and evil, without the ability or wisdom to distinguish one from the other. My nephew and I never spoke about this further; we are both busy Westerners constantly on the move. I would like to have explored his reaction deeper. We work and live with assumptions of innocence and guilt, purity and taint. They tend to verge on smugness, paternalistic condescension, and somewhat hurtful innocence of our own. We all need to categorize as a way to "control" and combat chaos. Our assumptions, esp those about others, are our way to ensure we stave off chaos all around us. the poverty stricken African is somehow innocent and possibly purer than we overstuffed Westerners are...a common story found in all our literature as we lambast ourselves while simulataneously ensuring we reach max comfort.
This is getting too heavy, or too guilt conscious. Let me end with one last thought: the markets in China are just as interesting, diverse, and chaotic in a structured and ordered way. Not quite on the dusty ground, but close enough. Being the "talking monkey" or white ghost has its unexpected charm on occasion, ranging from stares to touch [people sometimes stroke the fur on my arms -- not hair, but fur]. One market I've avoided in all the cities I've visited in China is the bug market. Beijing [a city I dislike anyway] is supposed to have the best. This is where you can go for a midnight snack of deep fried moth larva on a stick. In the ancient city of Hangzhou, I meandered through the even more ancient market [restored and refurbished for tourists and locals alike]. This is where I ate dog meat stew for the first time and lived to tell the tale. This is also where I refused to go to the scorpion stall to choose my live black scorpion to be deep fried and popped into my mouth -- a delicacy the locals were eager for me to try as part of the afternoon entertainment. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint them because I just finished a massive fish lunch at the local resto and was afraid of heaving it all up in public should I try the local scorpion delicacy. My cast iron stomach has its own limits.
On the chaos note, I suggest we Westerners are deathly afraid of chaos and will do anything to control it and even deny its very existence. I've been in Ontario to recall the earlier days of farmer's markets in such places as Hamilton [once in an underground parking lot], Kitchener [outdoors even in winter], St Jacobs [horse and buggy as well], Kingston [in an outdoor parking lot], and so on. Chaos, in a quaint Canadian sort of way, was endemic, but now it is all gone. Each of these places is neat and clean, with specific "farmer's market" buildings housing the stalls. We have electricity and running water, even toilets dammit. Parking is orderly and to be paid for. Was it TS Eliot who said: man cannot take too much truth [reality, chaos]? or was that Jack Nicholson on the witness stand?
Keep up the good work and the great stories. Victor