ONE of the best ways to
explore the culture, customs, and cuisine of a country is to visit a market.
There you can observe the local people, taste their food, and buy their wares.
You will also meet colorful traders who do their utmost to communicate with
you—whatever your language.
You would be hard-pressed
to find more fascinating markets than those in Africa.
They teem with people and products of every sort imaginable. There you can feel
the pulse of Africa. Come with me to visit a
typical market here in Douala,
Getting to Market the African Way
In many large African
cities, the cheapest and quickest way to go to the market is by getting a ride
on a motorbike. On almost every street corner, motorbike riders offer their
services. If you pluck up enough courage, you can arrange for one of them to
give you a ride. In Cameroon,
this popular system of transport is unbeatable for both price and speed.
For the less adventurous,
more conventional taxis are also abundant. Several passengers will often pile
into the same vehicle to share the cost.
Hundreds of Stalls
The first-time visitor to
the market may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and stalls along
the streets. Hordes of people, including children, carry merchandise on their
heads. A closer look reveals that their baskets contain live chickens, peeled
oranges, and assorted medicines, among other items.
Hundreds of wooden
countertops are laden with such vegetables as cabbages, carrots, cucumbers,
eggplants, squashes, string beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, yams, and various
types of lettuce. Visitors from a different continent may not recognize all the
produce, as some items are local favorites not common outside Africa.
Perhaps the most colorful stalls are those selling red and yellow peppers, so
fresh that they glisten in the morning sun. Many stalls offer avocados,
bananas, grapefruit, melons, pineapples, oranges, and lemons. They look so
appetizing, and the prices are tempting! Yams, cassava, and rice—the mainstays
of local produce—are also well represented, along with imported onions and
In one of Douala’s markets, many of
the stallholders belong to the Hausa and the Fula peoples. These merchants
stand out because of their typical long blue, white, or yellow robes called
gandouras or boubous and their friendly greeting in the Fulfulde language. A
relaxed atmosphere is part of the market environment. On this visit, one
stallholder, Ibrahim, selects three big onions and hands them to me as a gift.
"Tell your wife to fill them with spicy rice and cook them slowly,” he
A little farther along,
freshly butchered meat—mostly beef and goat—is for sale. Strong men carry huge
carcasses on their shoulders and dump them onto tables. The butchers,
brandishing long knives with dexterity, invite customers to choose their cut of
meat. Live goats, chickens, and pigs are also on sale for customers who prefer
to do their own butchering.
Come Eat at a Chophouse
A marketplace without
somewhere to eat is unthinkable. In Cameroon, food stalls at the market
are known as chophouses. Some play loud music to attract potential customers,
but there are also quiet places where one can order a typical African dish and
meet local people. The menu will probably be written on a blackboard, and any
who are not familiar with local dishes may need help to interpret it.
Two basic items are rice
and fufu, a pounded mash made from manioc, plantains, or yams. You
will also find grilled fish, beef, and chicken served with sauces made from
okra, peanut butter, or tomatoes. The pace is unhurried in the chophouses, and
there is ample opportunity to chat.
Two waitresses come over
to serve us. One is carrying a big tray with metal plates full of steaming
rice, beans, and fufu. The staples are flavored with an okra sauce and
garnished with meat and fish kebabs. There is also a small jar of hot red chili
sauce for those who like their food spicy. The second waitress brings a towel
and a basin with water so we can wash our hands. This is necessary, since local
dishes are traditionally eaten without utensils. It is not uncommon for a
customer to pray before eating and then to hear guests at a neighboring table
join in to say "Amen.”