Sunday, March 22, 2009

Market Day in Africa: A Peace Corps Reminiscence

Waves of 100-degree heat shimmered off the rice fields as I walked the two miles to market. Carrying my cloth satchel, a few recycled plastic bags, a porcelain bowl, and a small glass jar, I slowly passed a tired donkey plodding along, his head hung low, as he pulled a heavy cart loaded with sacks of millet. With each step I took, puffs of red dust settled on my legs and sandaled feet.

Market day in West Africa is a far cry from a quick run to Safeway in Seattle. It's an adventure.

As Peace Corps volunteers serving in The Gambia, a small West African country, my husband Bruce and I lived as our hosts lived. We hauled our own water from the well, swept our mud-brick hut with a short locally-made straw broom, cooked our own meals, and bought our supplies at the open market and small stores. We didn't have personal transportation, so we did as the local people and walked every place we went.

I heard my name called as I trudged along.

"Mariama! Salaam Malekum!" The name, Mariama, is the African version of my real name, Mary. The traditional Arabic greeting, Salaam Malekum, is heard throughout West Africa. It means "May peace be with you."

"Malekum Salaam, Naba," I answered the friendly African woman. She fell in step with me and we conversed in Mandinka, one of five local languages and the one Bruce and I learned during Peace Corps training.

I found Gambian women to be extraordinary. Their lives were not easy--they worked hard under very difficult conditions. Their strong bodies and graceful bearing impressed me. Typically, Naba carried a baby straddled across her back. Her wide-awake little son observed his world while held close to his mother's warm body. When he became hungry, the woman simply switched him around to her breast. At the market, Naba and I parted, each to her own errands.

I'll go to the meat market first, I decided with dread. The butcher's shop, a small mud-brick building with a corrugated tin roof, was somewhat removed from the regular market. A large concrete counter separated the butcher from his customers. Goat, sheep, and beef carcasses hung from the ceiling.

The meat market crowd pushed their way to the counter. I, too, elbowed my way through the crowd. Whack! A hunk of beef fell off the carcass, severed with a mighty machete blow. Splat! Blood and bits of bone splattered on my dress and neck. Cringing, I held fast to my hard-fought place. Several flies left the main event, the beef carcass, and landed on me.

The butcher spoke a little English. "What you want?"

"Biff stek, please," I answered. In The Gambia, previously a British-held colony, many words sound English but are pronounced with a local dialect. Whacking off a piece of meat for me, he placed it in my porcelain bowl. Then, as a treat, he dropped in a little pile of wrinkled brains. Trying to show gratitude, I smiled, but knew I wouldn't eat them; I'd give them to our neighbor. As I left the meat market, my personal flies came too. I considered the benefits of becoming a vegetarian.

Fragrances bombarded me as I entered the main market, a large open-sided structure. Spices, sold by the bulk, were lined up in little bins. Large flat baskets displayed fresh roasted peanuts. The peanut vendor tore a scrap of paper--any type of paper--and folded a little package to hold the peanuts, still warm from an earthen oven. We briefly haggled over the price, an expected exchange, and I dropped the equivalent of a dime into his hand.

A baker sold piles of fresh baguettes. The earthy aroma of yeast permeated the air. Pankettas, flat yeast dough deep-fried in palm oil, quickly disappeared, breakfast for many shoppers.

I skirted around unpleasant smelling, fly-covered dried fish. We never bought it, though we'd eaten it in Gambian cooking and found it tasted as bad as it smelled. The fresh fish was lovely though and the catfish appeared to still be breathing. Anything that's still breathing must be fresh. I bought a catfish, slipping it into one of my plastic bags.

Chickens roamed freely, pecking at the ground. Some weren't so lucky and hung upside down, feet tied to a rod. They never seemed to struggle, awaiting their fate. As I shopped, I saw many women carrying live chickens in the crook of their arms as they conducted their shopping business.

The astonishing noise level rose as a bush taxi beeped his horn as he dropped riders off. Donkeys brayed as they arrived with their heavy loads. Gambians often talked in a loud boisterous manner and now they shouted to be heard. Children darted about, squealing with their games.

Sewing machine treadles click-clacked in the background. There were no ready-made clothing shops in the village where we lived. When the need arose for a new dress or shirt, one bought the material and described to the tailor the style desired. Because of the heat, clothing was generally loose-fitting so exact measurements weren't required, but these skillful tailors created an amazing variety of garments on their treadle machines.

I eagerly learned what vegetables were available that day. With no cold storage, the availability of most vegetables depended on the season. Tomatoes were available five months of the year, lettuce only about two months. One of our favorite vegetables, okra, was sold about nine months of the year. All year long squash was available as well as imported onions and potatoes.

Friendly women called my name, urging me to come to their attractive displays and buy the vegetables they had grown. Some men sold items too, usually businessmen who bought imported food to sell at the market.

Approaching one of my regular vendors, I admired her tomato display. Most fruits and vegetables sold by the pile, not by the pound. Each pile of five tomatoes displayed a similar assortment--perhaps one large, two medium, and two small tomatoes, in various stages of ripeness. One selects an entire pile, not one from this pile, one from that. I purchased two piles and a piece of squash.

A large rat streaked by my sandaled feet with a cat hot on its trail. Cats fend for themselves so catching that rat was serious business.

I spotted oranges, also arranged in piles of five. Although ripe, the oranges were green. Their tough skins required a sharp knife to peel. Once I counted fifty-two seeds in a single orange.

I remembered I needed rice and crossed to the other side of the market where a vendor sat next to a burlap bag. The man measured rice into my plastic bag, using a tomato paste can as his measuring device. Rice was grown locally, thanks to the Chinese who taught Gambians to cultivate this essential product. It was good rice but didn't keep well. After a week or so it turned wormy and then it became chicken fodder. Our chickens loved it.

I needed flour. A warning stenciled on the side of the 50-pound flour sack read, "This is a gift from the United States of America. Not to be sold." I purchased two scoops and moved on.

I had the feeling of being watched. Now I looked around quickly and sure enough, there she was, peeking out from behind a post. It was a game we played, the peanut-butter lady and I. Either she would sneak up on me, or I tried to come up behind her. We giggled like little girls at our joke. This delightful, tiny woman, beamed a huge smile showing beautiful white teeth. Her family grew peanuts and stored them for use during the year. Before going to market, she pressed fresh-roasted peanuts into a paste.

There was nothing more delicious than this fresh peanut butter, which they called peanut paste. Gambians prepare a sauce with it, called domoda, adding tomato paste and perhaps a bit of meat, spiced with hot peppers, and served on rice. Scrumptious! They couldn't believe we spread peanut paste on bread, nor could they believe how much we bought! I held out my jar into which she plopped five two-inch balls, plus one more as a gift.

The market loomed bigger than life. The smells, noise, heat, and activity, seemed to be the essence of these people. I considered the market place The Gambia boiled down to the essentials. One struggled to conduct business, haggling over prices, jostling crowds, suffering with the heat and flies, but this ritual highlighted my week. While buying provisions, I'd visited with friends and shared with them their ancient marketing tradition.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: Cowgirl Dreams by Heidi Thomas

Nettie Brady dreams of being a rodeo champion, but she suffers challenges from more than wild steers. Her mother’s strong disapproval and disappointment weigh heavily on this conscientious teen. It seems everything stacks up against her dream of becoming a rodeo star–family crises, a broken wrist, even nature pits its wrath against her. But no obstacle is tough enough to keep Nettie from the freedom and elation she feels while riding a half-ton of writhing muscle and bone.

Later, when her life is full of Jake, a young cowboy, her dreams appear to be within reach. But Nettie again is torn between family expectations and her own preference for a simple wedding ceremony. She loves Jake, loves working beside him, but her heavy heart longs for her mother’s approval. Will her dreams ever become a reality without pangs of guilt?

Heidi Thomas excels in describing the flavor and excitement of the early rodeo days. But more than that, she captures the social attitudes of the times, and the daily drudgery of every day living on a Montana ranch in the 1920s. Cowgirl Dreams captures readers’ hearts with the throbbing cheers of a rodeo audience and with the aching desires of a young girl who yearns for her family’s love and acceptance.

Publisher: Sundowners, a division of Treble Heart Books

Monday, March 9, 2009

Walking Through the Millet: Peace Corps reminiscence

Woman at a village well

The dirt path wound through a field of thin, withering millet. Although this staple grain towered above our heads, it wouldn’t produce much this year.

"This field is dry," I commented in Mandinka, the primary tribal language of this tiny west African country, The Gambia.

My walking companion nodded, his black face glistening with sweat. "Yes, we need more rain."

I tried not to think about the heat, now soaring close to 100° F. My dress stuck to my back, the long skirt caught at my legs. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked at a 22-bed bush hospital and was walking home at the end of a tiring day. "It's too bad we can't get ... water ..." I groped for the correct Mandinka word.

“Irrigation," he prompted.

"Yes, irrigation."

"It is too far from the river for irrigation, Mariama."

We stopped at a snake's twisting track, its thick impression in the sandy soil still fresh. The Mandingo held out his arm, holding me back until he determined we were out of harm's way.

We resumed our trek. The trail narrowed and I automatically stepped behind my companion. "Couldn't water from the river be piped in?"

"But how? Irrigation systems need motors and fuel and they are expensive."

We reached the end of the footpath which opened to the village. Pungent smoke from cooking fires greeted us. Voices and laughter drifted from behind woven fences which surrounded the compounds, each containing seven or eight round mud-brick huts capped with grass-thatched roofs.

My new friend gestured to the right. "I will go this way now."

"Yes. Thank you for walking with me."

"Mariama," he called over his shoulder. "Your Mandinka is very good."

Highly complimented, it was only then I realized my entire conversation had been in Mandinka; his had been in English. Without my even realizing it, we had been practicing each other's language.

Monday, March 2, 2009

I Wouldn't Call It Writer's Block

I don't like the term "writer's block." It scares me. I do admit to an occasional lack of ideas. A sort of inspirational drought. This is one of those times. I sit at my computer, browsing my folders of submitted articles, some published, looking for revelation. The phone rings.

It's my husband, reminding me of a date we have with our daughter this evening. He chats away while my eyes dart back to my monitor. "The most interesting thing is happening here." His voice is full of enthusiasm. "A Canada goose built a nest right outside my office window. Sometimes I feel like an intruder, watching this little family." He goes on to say that he put up a barricade to three of the parking stalls near the nest, just so the goose won't be frightened off and leave her roost. The gander stays close, even sitting on the nest while the goose waddles off to find food. "Remind me to take my camera tomorrow—the goslings should be popping out any day now."

"Umm," I answer. "Well, I need to get back to work."

I open a file, an article recently published about our trip to Hell's Canyon. I could submit that for reprint. I glance at my watch. In a few minutes my neighbor will take me down to pick up my car that's been repaired. My mind wanders to the owner of the shop. He manages a busy automotive shop and has several mechanics working for him. He has only one leg and uses crutches—he's about the age to be a Viet Nam vet. I admire his courage and his stamina. He must work twice as hard as the rest of us to get his job done. A couple of years ago I broke a small bone in my foot and I griped about that inconvenience. With crutches, you loose the full use of your hands, too. I wonder what his story is, how he lost his leg. I wonder what my bill will be.

It's nice of Jenny, my neighbor to take me down to the shop. She's pretty preoccupied right now. Drugs have taken over her son’s life. "I've learned so much about addictions," she told me once. She says she could write a book, but she's too tired.

Maybe instead of a reprint, I should rework that Hell's Canyon story.

A few years ago we moved from a regular neighborhood to a new home on five-acres. Moving is always time consuming and it was hard to think of anything else for awhile. It's what we always wanted to do, but I'd wished I'd known then what I know now. For one thing, having your own water well opens up a world of questions. What's involved in a water test? Do we have to worry about efficiency calculations? Why did our white clothes—especially my nylon panties—turned a blotchy brown? I just hoped I wouldn’t get in a car accident. After researching the Internet and consulting a chemist, we've finally answered most of these questions. All this took chunks of time away from writing though.

Okay, settle down now and find a topic.

Only two weeks after we moved in, the American Red Cross called. I go on three or four national disasters a year, working as a volunteer. I've responded to hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in places like Louisiana, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kansas. This time Red Cross was involved in helping with the Kosovo refugee program at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The job was fascinating and I felt a little part of history as I learned the refugees' scary—often tragic—stories. It was humbling, realizing all they had lost. By the time I got home, my mind was a jumble of all I had seen and heard.

Our four children all live within an easy drive of us. I love getting together with them, even if it is time away from writing. I have to smile when I remember what our oldest son said once when he was about three. A radio newsman announced a traffic snarl on our local freeway. Because of fog, he warned of a seventeen-car pile-up. "Wow," my little son had said. "Seventeen cars! How high would that be?"

Okay, now. Get back to business. What can I write about?