Relationships Are The Foundation of West Africa’s Markets: But Mama’s Gone!

Our orange lady, who passed away.
Mama, with my wife Lynn

In Mali, we develop market relationships. People we frequent regularly to buy our needed items, and with whom we develop life long relationships.  This is a powerful and life enriching dynamic enshrined within the Malian market culture and it’s probably so for most of Africa.

I pray that the open markets of Africa never, ever, become the impersonal experience we have established in much of the west.  In the West we have a tendency to go shopping wherever it is most convenient at the moment, because we have no real connection or interaction with real humans in the big box store system.

However, in Mali we are buying from market women we develop a relationship with, So we go out of our way to buy from them,  and will often do without until we can connect with our “Friend” another day.

After a market relationship is established, from a short time honored faithfulness of greeting and buying from an individual, we enter into a stage where little dickering or bargaining is required. We now receive the best and most fair price possible, from our “friend” without much discussion.  We have become inseparable market buddies.

People like Mama, who’s family’s income is  inseparably bound up in my faithfulness to the relationship. Mama is counting on many dozens of people like me to be faithful to buy her fruit, regularly. The relationship we have between us is the only thing that distinguishes her huge heaping basket of fruit from the other thousand women displaying the same wares.   But she is our go-to person for oranges and mandarins. We have dozens of such people and relationships all over the market. There is no one stop shopping in Sikasso, Mali, so each relationship is centered around a few specific food items each person specializes in.

Long before we moved into the market area to live, we would venture to the market and and pick up oranges from “Mama” and haul them across town on the motorcycle. Every day Mama was in the market selling oranges and mandarins, though an odd huge papaya could be scored with her too. Upon moving into the heart of the main market area Mama was now located only 150 meters or so from our front door.

Sadly, when we returned last fall (October 2013) Mama was no longer there on the corner. We inquired about Mama with the huge, jolly, unusually plump and round middle aged woman who always sold right next to Mama. She said something in Bambara, and the only thing I could gather was that Mama passed away. I gave my condolences, but did not have the courage to shop on the corner anymore. I have yet to establish a new relationship with an orange and mandarin lady, and have been doing the western shotgun approach that is frankly too impersonal for Mali. But marketing on the basis of relationships is a much more life enriching experience.

Therefore, maybe this term we will go see our plump lady friend right next to where Mama used to sit on the corner of our back alley path,  Maybe we can establish a new relationship, one moving forward from the connections Mama made for us.  We need to fill the relational gap, and this lady could probably use us our  help too.

Oh the giggles from mama and the plump women next to her the day we took this picture. The plump lady was laughing and jokingly making stabbing actions toward Mama with her knife (She was using the knife peel oranges to sell) humorlessly implying she was not happy because Mama was taking our business away from herself, and getting pictures taken too.

Now that I think about it,  I guess we already have a relationship with this lady. She will be among the first people we greet the first day we arrive in the market next month.

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