“Vais aonde, no mercado?” Where to, the market? My neighbors pop their head out of their courtyard as soon as they hear my metal lock click open. Life in Malema, like most towns in Mozambique, revolves around the market. For Malema, it is a conglomeration of three streets and tens of alleyways, seemingly disorganized but all leading to the mostly open-air vegetable and dried fish building. Usually my favorite place to do some shopping, in the past two months, the choices here have become less varied, the vegetables smaller, the fish smellier. ‘Tis the season, tempo de fome.
Tempo de fome, the time of hunger, has its official start in October in Malema. The rains haven’t fallen consistently since March or April, the sun has come back with a vengeance, and Malema is dustier than ever. The common greetings have been switched to “poeira, pa”, said with a bit of a sigh, literally translating to “Dust, eh.”
Malema suffers from two tempo de fomes a year. The first, in April, happens when the corn hasn’t been harvested yet. Corn, usually dried and coarsely ground up and then served as a boiled mush called xima, with variations known as Pap or Ugali in other parts of Africa, is Mozambique’s staple food and Mozambican’s main source of calories. When meals are served, xima easily takes up to 75% of the space on the plate. The second tempo de fome is the one happening right now. This one is different. Caloric needs are met, by Malema standards (in Mozambique, 2/5 children suffer from chronic undernutrition), but essential nutrients are lacking because unavailability and/or unaffordability.
Long gone are the days of 1 metical clementines which supported me from the month of May to August. One infamous pineapple was seen at the exuberant price of 90 mets, though in a few months it will be a fifth of that price. Tomatoes are mini and overripe, onions come bundled up in tiny groups of ten. Five mets per lugar but by the time they are peeled (and you have cried) they are no larger than half a thumb. Green peppers (red, orange, and yellow have never been seen in Malema) are soft rather than firm, double in price yet halved in size. Bananas, once sold on every street corner and in every shade of the spectrum from light green to Big Bird yellow are now only spotted brown, buzzing with flies. Cucumbers, avocados, okra, sweet potatoes, cassava, cabbage, lettuce, oranges, mangoes are no where to be found, peppers and bananas will quickly follow suit. However, there are two produce we can always count on to be available. Tomatoes and onions, the two staples that can be found in Malema all twelve months of the year. I’ve eaten them 100 different ways, cooked, caramelized, fried, raw, smashed, whole, with garlic, with spaghetti, with bread, with beans, alone. Malema is the unofficial capital of onions in Mozambique, which doesn’t make it surprising that I can confidently say I haven’t spent a day without incorporating the humble onion into one of my meals.
I’m lucky to live in Malema, with over 120,000 inhabitants, it is one of the bigger Peace Corps towns, meaning potatoes are available, eggs can be found, and there is a surplus of beans, peanuts and spaghetti. My Achille’s heel: the padaria, bakery, is consistently stocked with fresh white loaves. For anyone on a Peace Corps budget, these are affordable year-round. Though I make way less than my colleagues at school, I don’t have any other mouths to feed apart from my own so I can splurge on potatoes even when the prices subir. But for my neighbors, and even colleagues, potatoes and bread are a luxury during tempo de fome.
But the mercado isn’t only for buying the ingredients for tonight’s dinner. It is the social gathering spot of the community. With the economy in Mozambique slowly recovering from a crisis, what used to be bamboo stalls, barracas, have transformed to large concrete lojas, stores, where one can find dozens of different plates, plastic shelving units, lightbulbs and enormous speakers, tried and tested by every store blasting their own playlist from 6am to 7 pm. Recently, a soft serve and popcorn machine have been installed, making it a favorite hang out spot of students on their way to and from school. Older men spend their afternoons crouching over bao boards, playing rapid fire games while waiting for customers to buy their capulanas, bikes, or even lace underwear (a new appearance in the Malema market). There hasn’t been a day where I’ve gone to the market and found it closed, or even quiet, and it is impossible to avoid a “how are you, how’s your family, and your job, and your house?” conversation with a friend I’ve run into, or a vendor-turned-friend.
The best market days are the days where the market surprises you. Though the market is vast, the items sold at the stores and stalls are repetitive variations of each other. But from time to time, something catches your eye. Most surprises are found in buckets being carried on heads. These mobile vendors usually sell the seasonal fruit, mangoes in December, avocadoes in April, sweet potato leaves in March. But 0n a day I was trying to skip a market run (but found myself out of onions), I ran into not one, but four boys carrying bundles of carrots on their heads. Carrots don’t grow (and aren’t sold, nor eaten) in Malema. They had come from a town 100km over, so I bought 30 carrots to take advantage of the opportunity. Sadly, that was the first and last time I saw carrots in Malema. Second only to the carrot surprise was the time a lady was selling fresh honeycomb out of her bucket! Another once-in-Malema opportunity, I bought a plastic bags’ worth and had it as a (healthy?) snack with my neighbors.
Though I miss the convenience, choices and organization of a typical Western supermarket, the going-to-market and what’s-in-the-bucket rituals will be missed once I’ll be back to the USA (in 37 days but who’s counting?)