The only way to adequately convey what going to the market in West Africa is like is to compare it to a video game. There are so many things coming at you at once and you have to try to be as aware as you can of your surroundings. This post is based on markets I’ve seen in Guinean towns and cities but the markets I’ve seen in Senegal, Mali and Sierra Leone have all been very similar.
I wish I could get a video for you guys but I would risk injury so I will share the pictures I’ve managed to get and try my best to describe what its like.
You will enter into alleyways shielded from rain and sunlight by rice sacks but you cannot wander around aimlessly and browse. Or rather you have to practice alert browsing because people are bustling through and often carrying heavy loads on their shoulders or heads. You have women walking around selling things on their head, men calling out to move because they are carrying heavy sacks of rice or vegetables or hauling heavy wheelbarrows. One time a man was carrying a heavy piece of raw meat and someone didn’t move out of the way in time so he got meat juice on his the sleeve of his sweater. =/
People will jostle you to get through. The people who do this are not being inconsiderate. That’s just what you have to do if you want to get through.
There are wooden stalls where people will set up their items but if there are no stalls in that area people will set up on the floor. Depending on the area of the market, you will see women selling piles of fruits or vegetables, piles of fresh or dried fish, piles of soap, small piles of single serving sauce ingredients, piles of shoes, etc. Grains and peanut butter will be displayed in buckets and you can buy these items by weight.
Aside from large sacks of rice imported from India, I don’t see people buy in bulk. This makes sense for fish and meat since most people don’t have refrigerators but they will buy small quantities of things they will used daily such as powdered milk and coffee.
Women sell most food items in wooden stalls or on the side of the street while men are usually the owners of boutiques. Boutiques are more established stores where you can find manufactured items such as mayonnaise, mustard, toothpaste, candy, cookies, powdered milk, etc.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a one stop shop here. There are generally clusters of people selling the same or similar items in one area so if you ask someone they will direct you there. Depending on the size of the market there’ll be an area where you can find live chickens, meat, kola nuts, used oil containers (used to collect water), rope, calabash bowls, plastic and metal plates, cloth, etc.
The alleyways I described are pedestrian only zones. New obstacles await if you are in areas that are accessible by cars and motos.
Motorcycle taxis will be parked in these areas trying to get passengers. They will be coming and going so you need to watch out for them.
Sometimes there are big trucks passing by in narrow streets. They have to go super slow as there are stands and things being sold on either side. People will move aside and wait for the truck to pass. There aren’t always sidewalks and even when there are they usually aren’t clear so you are usually walking in the street. The area may or may not be paved so during rainy season you can add puddles and mud to obstacles you need to watch out for.
No matter how long I spend in West Africa I am still amazed (and a bit frightened) by the liveliness of the markets. There is no better place to get an adrenaline rush and/or headache.