The Night Market

            Going to the Night Market is a daily event. It has become so routine that I don’t know what I will do without it, or such things aren’t on every college campus.  The Night Market is maybe 100 meters from my dorm, just past ISH II.

            It is called the Night Market, though it is also open in the day. On the way to class in the morning I would often stop by and get an egg sandwich–fried eggs with vegetables put on half a loaf of oiled and sometimes toasted bread. There are five or six different people that make egg sandwiches, but eventually you find your favorite. You go to them, they recognize you. In fact, I shifted my egg-sandwich loyalties once this semester and I don’t think I will live it down, especially since my new favorite is right next-door.

            The people who sell egg-sandwiches always also sell bread, half a loaf for 50 peswas, the full loaf for a cedi, or a small loaf for 60 peswas. The people who sell egg sandwiches also typically sell general provisions and goods. Pots, pans, hangers, toilet paper, cookies, soda, rice, sachet water, dress shirts, power adapters, pens, paper, notebooks, drink mixes, plastic buckets, phone credit, and more are all piled in a heap, some days more unkempt than others. This is the first category of Night Market shops.

            The second category is the fruit ladies. Their shops are, like the egg sandwich/general store sellers, all in a row. They have all kinds of fruit, sometimes an errant vegetable gets in there too. The fruit selection and price varies seasonally. When we first got here we reveled at the succulent imported mangos. By late March they were gone and there was a mango-drought before the small local mangoes were ripe. Now the large ones are back, neatly bookending our trip. Pineapples, bananas, and oranges are always common, the latter always neatly arranged on a special ring-stand–a 3-D orange menorah–that cannot possibly be practical for anything else. From time to time, guest fruits will make an appearance. Starfruit appeared for a fortnight, as did a strange spiky fruit I regret never having tried. You can usually buy bags of cut up mango or pineapple for 50 peswas. Interspersed amongst the fruit ladies are one or two people selling vegetables, dry rice, and tins of fish.

            The third category consists of the people who sell prepared food. These are in the third row of shops, behind fruit ladies who are behind the general merchants. Some people make rice: jollof, waakye, or plain (50 peswas minimum). Eat it with other toppings, all a la carte: hard boiled eggs, fried plantain, cabbage salad, dried fish, fried meat, and others. Spicy palava sauce is complementary. One family (these night-market shops are all family endeavors) makes kenkey, another banku, another redred. Two shops sell fufu, two others sell yam or sweet potato chips. A few weeks ago we stumbled on a shop hidden in the far back corner named “Sarah’s Kitchen”. You can get a chicken sandwich, chicken wings, french fries, or other more American foods. In all of these places, you can get your food to-go in plastic bags, or each shop has their own seating area and plates and bowls.

            A few shops lie outside the three categories. There are two seamstresses, a book seller, and a place to buy music and DVDs. On the far end of the market is a kebob grill that is quite popular. Just don’t get the goat; usually one of the pieces is just a hairy piece of skin and fat.

            Prices are fixed at this market (granted, food prices are fixed at all Ghanaian markets), though, like anywhere, you can sometimes get discounts if you build up a rapport with the sellers. Scott got two extra chicken wings when he told one of the people at Sarah’s Kitchen that it was his last day. Alanna bought a pineapple for only 2/3 of the price by asking, “do you have pineapple for one cedi” instead of asking “How much.” Evan got the recipe for jollof from Margtee, the most popular rice seller.

            Margtee’s rice shop will someday become legendary. There are always twice as many people waiting in line for her rice as for anybody else’s. Like anywhere else, you order rice in 10 peswa increments, then your food is passed along and you choose your extras. I wonder what it must be like for the people next to her. They sell the exact same product for the exact same price, but they clearly can’t do as good of a job. Day in and day out they have to watch their competitor be more successful. In fact, the lines for Margtee’s get so long that they often curl past the outside of her shop and past her neighbors’. Within the past week or to the lady next to her has set up chairs as a barrier and scolds people who stand in front of her shop.

            I think one reason Margtee is so successful, aside from the quality of the food, is that they are always open. Whenever you want rice, you can count on them to be open. Then, once you go there once, why not go again? Humans are creatures of habit after all. A thousand economists, psychologists, or sociologists could write their Ph.D. dissertations here. For example, someone could analyze how supply and demand affects the pricing here. The prices here, surely, are higher than elsewhere in Accra and many people think there is some sort of price collusion. Someone else could study the remarkable fact that the sellers know the prices for everything. This is no big deal for the fruit or rice sellers who may have only a dozen items in their inventory, but for the general merchants there are hundreds of different items, some that rarely are sold.

             A visit to the Night Market rarely happens without an encounter with Louisa, who is also somewhat unaffectionately called “the basket lady” or “tantalizing” for her overuse of the word. In fact, students last semester made T-shirts with her face on it and big bold letters underneath. Louisa stands on the way from ISH to the Night Market every evening holding a basket of prepared food. Every night she has a different selection of food. Sometimes she has Ghanaian food like vegetable stew, but often times she has more American foods. At least as close as you can get by using Ghanaian ingredients. There is the banana or mango bread (made without baking powder), the pizza, the pie, and who knows what else. Whatever she makes is “tantalizing.” As my friends and I walk by, she is sometimes just sitting and watching us, sometimes sprawled out on the grass, sometimes in conversation with a small cluster of customers, almost exclusively Obrunis.

            Louisa does not stay in the background. “Come have some of my tantalizing…” she will call out, or “Make sure to come back for dessert” or “Tell you friends I have…” She is never aggressive, per se, but just very assertive.

            There are rumors that her food preparation is somewhat unsanitary, and rumors about other things. There is truth to some of them, but as for others all I can say is that there are certain people that it is easy to start rumors about.

            The Night Market will be one of the things of Ghana I miss most. Not only is eating there cheaper than cooking your own food, but it has so much character. It is a place, but it is also a community. It is resilient. Throughout the harmattan, a think layer of brown dust built up on the canvas roofs of all of the shops (each shop is a 4×4 meter tent). The rain comes in and the shopkeepers all cover their goods with tarps and hunker down. The rain runs off the roofs onto the ground, making bright Martian-red puddles on the ground. As the rains stop, the tarps get peeled back and business resumes. Women brush water away from their storefronts. People splash through puddles to pick up their lunch.

            And when you go to get food, and when you choose to eat there, there is no space to spread out a newspaper or a book and keep to yourself. There is only room to eat with friends, and if your friends aren’t around that day, you can just take time to yourself and relax. Is this a reflection of the people-centered culture? African time? In any case, its how things work in Ghana.


One response to this post.

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