Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
The Guissongui Show
by Sarah Erdman (Côte d’Ivoire 1998–00)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience
YOU CAN’T JUST ZIP BY THE VILLAGE MARKET to pick up tomatoes or a bar of soap. (There’s really nothing zippy about West African village life at all.) You have to go expecting you might not be back for hours, even if you don’t need much. As the token toubabou, or white person, myPrinter friendly version market forays take up most of the day. I stand out like something spotlit among the twisted lanes of villagers sitting behind their piles of produce. The market is unwittingly my stage: I have to make the rounds, and greet everyone because eyes are on me always and they’ll all know if I’ve skipped someone. So before shopping, I tuck my basket under a friend’s table and visit every corner of the market, shaking hands, asking after families.
     A handful of men sell kola nuts and kerosene; otherwise merchandizing is women’s work. They lay out empty rice sacks in the dirt, divide their wares into tiny clusters so that no one is feels compelled to buy more than they need. I pass little heaps of dried mushrooms collected in the bush, dried okra slices, small groups of lobed tomatoes — some smushed and smelling of sweet rot. There are bunches of leaves to pound into sauce, bitter, green eggplants smaller than my fist, heaps of tinselly fish dust for flavoring, pads of homemade shea butter used to fry millet cakes or slather on dry skin. Towering above all the miniature collections are fresh hot peppers, tall pyramids of brilliant red and green and yellow, shining like Christmas lights.

“Saturday Night Live” for the vendors
The women perch behind their rice sacks, in riotitously patterned and ruffled shirts. They ask me how my house is, how my health is, how my husband and children are. The normal response to all of the above is “They’re there,” even if one is sick, widowed, and barren. But in my ventures into the local language, I’ve recently learned to tell the truth. When they ask, I shake my head and suck my teeth and say “I don’t have a husband,” or “I don’t have any kids.” These responses are “Saturday Night Live” for the women of the village. Their faces crinkle into grins, they hoot and laugh and slap each other on the back. The minor turn of phrase has been such a hit that I’ve added a few extra phrases to my repertoire. They say, “Why not, Guissongui?” calling me by my village name. And I say, “I’m not looking for one. Maybe later, kids? I don’t want them quite yet.”
      My march through the market stops every few feet to repeat this conversation with each huddle of women. It’s like I’m auditioning them for the part of Incredulous Old Lady. Each asks exactly the same questions and each attempts to eclipse the last one’s performance during the “collapse with laughter” part. Some add their own creative flair. One grabs her breasts, shakes them and says, “Why don’t you want kids? You’re ready to have them.” Another grabs my breasts. The ritual never seems to lose steam. Week after week, the women clap and pitch forward, chortling as though they’d never heard the joke before. It’s a game we play out to the fullest. They always feign surprise at my answer, letting out a shocked “Ye?” and cocking their heads before laughing. I always shrug with practiced disinterest at the whole husband idea. And they laugh.

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