A Writer Writes

    The Guissongui Show

    by Sarah Erdman (Côte d’Ivoire 1998–00)

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, my 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.
(Incidentally, every time a male Volunteer comes to visit, all my assertions get shot down. The women wag their fingers, “Hah! You do have a husband!” as if they’ve been onto my ruse from the very beginning. I’ve gained a hundred “brothers” trying to convince the old women they are not my lovers.)

Basic Life things
Aside from vowing celibacy, I use my marketplace rounds to rehearse any other Niarafolo phrases I’ve picked up during the week. After four months in the village, I can say basic Life things regarding washing, eating, going, buying, and enough key colloquialisms to send all parties into a discussion about how I’ve mastered the language, no matter how long the conversation has been. It’s relatively easy to guess what people are saying. Nonetheless, my vocabulary is slim and my understanding of grammar nonexistent. There doesn’t seem to be one tutor who can help me regularly — I have between 2 and 200 who tell me contradictory things all the time. I’ve only recently discovered that ki mi den means “I don’t like it”— not to be confused with kuh me den, which means, “I like it.” It’s a phrase I’ve espoused — but apparently haven’t learned — from the get-go. Market women stuff little gifts into my basket every week, and I’ve been diligent about insulting them every time. When they’ve offered me a gift chicken or extra onions or a free bowl of porridge, I’ve smiled big and said, “Thank you! I don’t like it!” Somehow this blunder has morphed into a success — add it on the “Reasons to Laugh At Guissongui” list. I figure as long as I’m laughing too, they’re laughing with me, right? Either way, being fallible and laughable closes the gap. It makes me more approachable to those who still assume that, as a white woman, I must be treated differently, and less alien to those who just don’t know what to make of me at all.
     So I move past chattering women in cell phone-print sarongs and bright scarves, clasping hands, asserting my singleness, and eventually buying sugar and soap and matches and leaves to make leaf sauce. If I don’t have the correct change, they’ll just expect me to come back later and pay up. That’s what everyone else does — there’s a paperless credit system that runs like clockwork. Each woman — and there’s not one among them who knows ciphers — has a list of her debits and credits etched in her head. I, however, forget to pay routinely, and am constantly being tapped on the shoulders by sellers I’ve unintentionally swindled.
     And for everything I buy, these women in flip-flops who have rarely left the village, who save up their market earnings for months to buy a new outfit for Ramadan, fill my basket with extra handfuls. I wander home each week as the sun slips west with several things I’ve paid for plus bowls of peanuts, heaps of hot peppers, spare rolls of sweet bread, bags of millet fritters, and bunches of baby bananas, all piled into my basket by grinning women who dismiss my protests with a wave of the hand.

As the daughter of a Foreign Service officer, Sarah Erdman grew up on the fringes of the Mediterranean and Washington, DC. After, studying history at Middlebury College in Vermont, she worked as a health Volunteer for Peace Corps/Cote d'Ivoire. There she instituted an infant care program, trained village health workers, and raised funds for the construction of a maternity clinic. She is currently living in Washington, DC and completing a book of stories about her years in the village.