Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Farmers’ Market

Every last Saturday of the month, a farmers' market pops up in Lilongwe at one of the Safari lodges. The lodge is nestled in a quiet knoll of Lilongwe, tucked down a bumpy dirt path through a copse that opens to a clean, grass filled meadow. The lodge boasts a pool, and a bar, and nice restaurant onsite.

During the Saturdays in question, there’s always a brunch buffet on the veranda, which opens into the meadow area where booths are set up, carnival style. If the buffet isn’t your thing, there are usually some school fundraising booths making pancakes or sausage rolls. Booths range from the usual Farmer’s Market fare - fresh produce, home-made salsa, hummus and jam - to knitted scarves, beautifully carved wood furniture and locally made handicrafts. 

All in all, it makes for a nice festive Saturday morning (or, as my college roommate would say “beats a poke in the eye with a dirty stick.”) It’s all very well-organized, booths are spaced out evenly, and you’ll likely have a leisurely chat with some of the vendors about their organic products and run into a few people you know. After a few Saturdays, you tend to note the same vendors, the same scarves and the same handicrafts, but hey, that happens anywhere.

I generally go if I'm around, because it’s something to do (and there is a particular vendor that makes really great homemade hummus.)

The thing that just slays me though, is that up the street there is an actual farmers' market, filled with actual farmers that occurs every day, rain or shine (not just on the last Saturday of the month). It’s loud, dusty, jumbled and right off the highway, overlooking a trash-filled stream. Park your car there, and you’ll be immediately surrounded by hawkers with peddling homemade mops, windshield shiner, and DVDs (ahem, none of them organic).

Walk into the maze of ramshackle vendor stalls and it’s like being sucked into a living organism.  More often than not, I’m swarmed by vendors shouting out their wares, asking what I'm looking for. They either run off and try to find it or, ignoring my shopping list, continue to wave whatever random produce they have to sell. This hassling and hustling is all done while keeping an eye on my purse, squeezing tomatoes, looking for bugs on the cauliflower and testing the pineapples for ripeness (or over-ripeness). Once I’ve found what I’m looking for, next is trying to negotiate a fair price while calculating my desire for the good balanced with its quality. I’ve had some interesting conversations with Malawians in this market, witnessed the ebb and flow of what is seasonally available, and learned about the global fruit trade (much of it comes up from South Africa; I suspect it “falls off a truck” somewhere).

It’s equally fun, but in a much, much different way.

I find it interesting that the two markets could be so close together in proximity and intent, but so far apart in execution. There are obviously many types of marketplaces (Let’s hear it for malls! I am a child of the 80’s after all). But it serves as a reminder to me that we Americans have taken the idea of a marketplace – the very soul of trade – and spun it so far that for most of us, it exists merely as an abstract or virtual concept. We've reduced this age old transaction to the click of a mouse by the aseptic glow of machine that will never know our true desires.

In truth I’ve probably been to the Saturday Farmers' market more times than the other, but I find the local one more exhilarating (and exhausting). Every time I visit that market, I plunge myself into the heart of commerce; jostle, barter and bumble until I emerge, victorious, with something I needed that I did not have before. I've not only purchased my good, I have won it. Now that's shopping!

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