Musanze doesn’t have a Western-style supermarket, with sections for grocery and deli and dry goods, all presented on clearly marked shelves in a fluorescent, air-conditioned environment. Instead, there are a series of shops with a random selection of dry goods (which are different at each location and typically change every time you go) and the main market. At the shops, I’ve learned an essential lesson about African shopping: DON’T THINK JUST BUY. Cans of coconut milk? Maybe you could make curry? BUY IT. It might not be there when you come back. Remember- there’s only the certainty of uncertainty, and that means that the shop’s pipeline of North African coconut milk could dry up at any time.
At my favorite corner “supermarket”
Fruits, vegetables, beans, eggs, fabric, cooking oil… these items can be bought at the main market, the prehistoric predecessor of Safeway and Tesco. In Musanze, this is a an open area dominated by a wide A-frame structure, that gets almost too dark to navigate on stormy afternoons. Around the main market are stalls and booths, every inch of wall space hung and stocked with good. Clothing sellers pile their wares on the ground on mats. Remember all the clothes that you donated to Goodwill or other charities for distribution to the poor in Africa? Here is where they end up, a part of a globalized second-hand supply chain.
Shoes for sale – the size you see is the size they have!
The market itself brings a little more joy, with row after row of long stalls, broken up by narrow walkways. The fruit and vegetable vendors stack their goods in neat piles, little pyramids of tomatoes and passion fruits, onions tied like flower bouquets. It’s an organic dream: everything from the surrounding areas, as farm-to-fork as humanly possible. Even the method of transport would put Sacramento’s festival to shame: no trucks here. Everyday, you see your vegetables make their way to market, wrapped in massive bags and carried on someone’s head, bike, or moto. Here are a few common offerings, staples to the Musanze diet.
Fish: possibly from Lake Kivu, Lake Ruhondo, or Lake Burera
Tree tomatoes, a new discovery for me
Tree tomato cut open: a little sweet, a little tart
Vegetable heaven: Cucumbers, cabbage, onions, spinach…
On an early visit, I met a young man named Yasigue (not pictured), who (like many others) saw me and decided to try out his English. He’s seventeen and works at the market to earn enough to live on- he dropped out of school several years ago. Despite this, his English is impressive. Now, every time I walk in to the market area, he appears by my side to shake my hand, practice saying my name, and ask what I would like to buy today. We go through the market and he haggles with the sellers, telling me to get these avocados or to avoid those bananas too expensive.
One of the boys who work at the market
At the market, you will find another staple of African life: cloth sellers and seamstresses, with their pedal-operated machines set up in front of stalls. Sometimes they are sewing bright kitenge fabric into dresses and skirts, or tailoring second-hand clothes for their clients. The kitenge sellers have their fabrics folded and scaffolded up the walls of their stalls. They show me the prices typed out of their cell phones.
Seamstresses at work
As an outsider, I am walled off from the secondary function of the market: the spread of news and information, conducting all around me in Kinyarwanda. There’s an interesting dynamic, a cooperation between sellers. When you hand one a large bill (the ATMs and cash exchanges invariably dispense 5000 Rwandan Franc bills, about $7.50, and four avocados cost 400RWF, or $.60), they will move around to their fellow sellers to get the needed change. A system of fairness seems to operate, and not as much competition as you would expect. There’s little haggling, and I seem to get fair prices throughout. While I miss the ease of a supermarket, and the silence of that shopping experience, this is a new world, a new way to connect to the community of people here. New for me, but as old as the communities themselves.