In this chapter, Dublin visits the outdoor market in Lomé to find supplies for his new home.
Dublin stepped out of his taxi and onto the sand covering the Rue de Commerce. Money Road. The boulevard is home to the banks of Loma, scores of black market moneychangers and the largest outdoor marketplace in West Africa. The market is centralized in a three story building, but stretches out for several blocks in all directions, stuffed with chickens and jewelry and raw steaks blistering in the sun. On the first floor of the market, vendors push all kinds of food, from rice and millet to yams, peanuts, steaks, lamb and wild rat, peppers, spices and canned coffee. It smells. The great vendors of pagnes occupy the second floor. These are the famous Nanas Benz, the Mercedes Mamas. In West Africa, if you are fat, you are affluent. And these women are giants, physically and economically. They sell some of the finest cloth on the continent and often employ several servants. Usually the Mamas sit back and watch the transactions without actually doing any work. If there is a question of quality or price, they uncoil from their chairs, shaking their fingers and damning the doubts of the buyer. They are the ultimate in luxury and resilience.
On the third floor of the market building, Dublin bought a green coffee cup and two orange bowls, a bucket for rubbish and a large orange washbasin for laundry.
Back out on the street, a young boy carrying a goat walked by him as he passed a shaky table of rotting roma tomatoes and green bell peppers, while a woman balancing sixteen large suitcases on her head slid by a girl selling scissors and toilet paper. He was looking for soap through the arms and legs of two hundred people slipping around each other like bait in a bucket. He didn’t know yet that some people sold their goods in the same place every day, that some of them had lower prices or better quality than others. Expatriates and tourists built up legends about such people, such as the flip-flop vendor across from Ecobank, the mask seller in tiny Woodworkers’ Alley, and the cassette vendor circling Boston Pub. He asked two or three people where to find soap, but they shook their heads.
Just then, he felt a leathery, cool hand crawl into his, and he turned to see a tall man in American clothes and dark sunglasses standing next to him. As time passed in Africa he almost got used to holding men’s hands, which felt odd sometimes, reassuring at others. But he didn’t know this man at all, and we are all familiar enough with American culture to know that it was uncomfortable for Dublin. He left his hand there, anyway.
“Hey, man, let me tell you about Alice.”
Oh, great, Dublin thought. A crazy. But the man started up again.
“Yeah, you new to Togo, so you need to see Alice. She have acrobats.” He looked over the top of his glasses. “At the home of Alice.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Chez Alice. Hotel in Lomé. For the white people. But they have acrobats there, and you like it.”
“Yeah! They great. Come and see it on Wednesday night when the sun go down. I will look for you there. But now you come with me, I show you around a little bit.”
They walked around the market for another hour or so (he knew a friend who sold soap), and Dublin bought him a Fanta for his gratitude. He learned a lot in that hour and was shown secret places he may have never found on his own. The woodworkers in the Alley of the Grand Market pressed him as he visited their stalls. Men and boys chattered at him and showed him masks plated with silver and beaded with small white seashells. They took him to a small café to eat fufu with chicken sauce, but he wouldn’t try it. They laughed at him. They told him about the fetish markets that sold monkey skulls and magical branches that produced large erections. Boys with wooden cartons filled with cassette knockoffs of American pop singers and young Indian divas clamored around him. Girls begged for francs, pulling on his T-shirt. There were no old men, and no couples with children. This was not a family neighborhood. This was all business, and it was the closest thing to the empty America Dublin knew. The differences were that Dublin could sense nature and life all around him in Lomé, and people were outside under the open sky, and lips didn’t remain tight for even a second when strangers met. It was Money Road, but the human beings had cast off their masks.