There are potatoes on my floor, spread out on a bag next to onions and dirt-coated carrots. They are the yield of my first visit to a Rwandan market. One of the other teachers from the university, a woman named Regina with perfect skin and a heavy French accent, appeared at my door with a driver to take me to buy food. We parked in a bustling lot, immediately greeted by a woman holding a basket of small but vibrant red tomatoes. Regina debated with her for a bit in Kinyarwandan, the local language spoken by every Rwandan, and nudged me gently. “Do you like tomatoes?” She told me later that the woman was actually selling illegally- street vendors are strictly prohibited- but couldn’t afford the fee for a stall in the covered market.
From there, she engaged two young men, probably in their late teens, who were to be our market helpers. They were dressed in royal blue jumpsuits, with the market’s name printed on the front. The jumpsuits were clearly well-worn, perhaps passed between boys, with holes in the shoulders and knees. Immediately, Regina strode into the market area, me trailing behind and attempting to keep up. The market teens came along, taking direction from Regina, with each purchase carefully explained to me. 10 kilos of potatoes- “the best potatoes you can buy, like the hotels do”- bunches of purple onions the size of small baseballs, small bags of peeled garlic like little cream pearls, fresh eggs gingerly stacked in a paper bag.
The market itself was a broad structure, a roof over rows and rows of table-height stalls. Women sat in front of their wares, artfully arranged bunches of vegetables, calling to each other. Regina knew who to go to – she found an elderly woman in the middle, gave her a hug and kiss on the cheek, and greeted her. One of the market teens had grabbed a reusable bag, the sort you find in all of Africa, woven from plastic with sturdy handles. Most of the vegetable purchases were dumped directly into this bag, with smaller items, such as a rainbow of beans, put into a brown paper bag with the top sealed shut. Rwanda is very concerned with the preservation of their environment, and those cheap, single-use grocery bags were made illegal several years ago.
I didn’t bring my camera or phone to document the experience, and I’m happy I didn’t as I already stood out as the only white or Western person among the stalls. Of course, people stared and said things to Regina, clearly referring to me, but she ignored them and pulled me along to her favored sellers for dry goods: cooking oil, tea, long grained Thai rice, packaged pasta, sugar, and salt.
The driver deposited us back at my house and Regina helped me lug the goods inside. “What will you cook for tonight?” she asked me as we unloaded. She showed me the best way to store the potatoes and carrots- on the grocery bags, on the floor- and set to work cleaning the small bell peppers and green beans. When she discovered that my partially-equipped kitchen only had table knives, we ducked across the street to her home and borrowed one of hers. While at the house, she picked up her five month-old from her house girl (as she called her, which I will explain later), strapped him to her back, and returned to help me prepare the vegetables until she heard the sound of the bus that brought her older son home. As she walked out the front door and I placed the hood over her baby’s head to keep him from getting wet in the evening rain, she turned to me. “Now you are not alone,” she said to me kindly as she walked out the door.