Saturday, March 5, 2011

La Femme Groupement Marche Association

Tesvie Market
This and That About Village Markets
Every Monday (chaque lundi) is market day in Tchekpo.  Each village has a specific market day and each market sells a little bit of everything, but each village has a specialty.  Tesvie’s market is on Friday’s.  It’s one of the biggest in the prefecture (county.)  Tesvie has everything.  The market is huge, and people come from far away to buy and to sell.  Tesvie’s specialty is it’s bread.  They have sucra (sweet) bread and salle (salt) bread.  I love their bread.  My preference is Salle bread.  I buy at least two loaves a week.  I usually don’t buy my bread at the market.  I almost always buy it from a vendor on the main road as I’m leaving Tesvie.  The woman I buy my bread from is a big, robust, friendly woman.  She knows me now.  It’s a pleasureable moment when I see her.  She smiles and her eyes light up when she sees me coming.  Just for me, she pulls the loaves from under the table.  Under the table is where the freshest bread is kept.  Occasionally she will give me a cadou (a
 gift) of a free loaf of bread.  She’ll throw an extra loaf in the sack, look at me and smile, and say, "a cadou…for you, mama.”  There are at least twenty or thirty bread sellers along the main road.  They sell to people going to and from Lome.  Practically everyone who travels anywhere in Togo drives on this road.  Probably a hundred bush taxis a day drive by.  The bush taxis are conditioned to slow down at this fork in the road, and five to ten bread vendors charge the taxis….pushing their loaves of bread in every open window.  Most passengers have their money ready to buy.   Friday is the biggest day for the Tesvie bread vendors because of all the people who travel into town to go to the market.

Ahepe is twenty minutes east of Tchekpo.  Ahepe’s market is on Tuesday.  It’s a smaller village and it’s market specialty is fruit and vegetables.  Taglibow, another thirty minutes to the east is a large village, and has a large market.  It has the best Salle bread.  It tastes like sour dough bread from San Francisco.  Taglibow also specializes in batik fabric.  Handmade, tye-dyed.  Beautiful.  Another thing I like to buy in Taglibow is their avocado sandwiches.  It’s street food, but it’s so good.  Basically it’s guacomale on their Salle bread.  There are a half dozen other villages within an hour of Tchekpo…all with different market days and times.  There’s one village (Zafi) that has only a night market on Thursdays. 

Tchekpo Market (selling Piemont)
Tchekpo is best known for it’s palm oil.  It’s made from the cassava plant.  Farmers in Tchekpo grow a lot of cassava.  Every morsel of it is used for something.  It’s a huge potato looking vegetable, about five times bigger than a potato.  Primarily it is used in the making of Sodebe.  The local liquor.  I was told that the Sodebe sold in Tchekpo is the finest liquor in all of Togo, Benin and Ghana.  Well that’s what the people in Tchekpo say.  They export their Sodebe all over Western Africa.  The making of palm oil is a time intensive, completely non-automated, very messy process.  It’s also a bit dangerous when they cook it.  Combustible. The family compound down the road from me had an explosion since I’ve been here. The compound exploded while they were processing the Sodebe.  It flattened the entire compound, leaving the family homeless.  Luckily and miraculously no one was hurt.  Tchekpo also specializes in growing and selling piemont….a very hot and spicy pepper.  You can’t find potatoes or vegetables in Tchekpo though.  I have to go to either Tesvie or Taglibow for those.

The Weekly Gathering
La Femme Marche Groupement Association
There are over seventy-five women in the Womens Group Market Association.  They all sell their products every Monday at the weekly market.   They all have their own little patch of land where they grow their products.  They walk the however many miles to the farm every day and tend to it, then on Mondays they load everything up, bring it to the market, and set up their booths.  Monday’s you see streams of women and children walking to the market carrying a variety of huge items on their heads. I love market day.  It has the feel of a county fair.  The vendors set up early and many sell late into the night by candle light.  It’s especially interesting to walk through at night by the candle light.  People are happy, and busy.  When I go to the market everyone greets me, and they ask me to buy something from them.  They are perfectly fine if I don't.

Every Tuesday morning the women from the women’s market association meet to clean and sweep the market, using palm branches.  Much to their delight, I join them at 6:30 A.M.   I sweep the market with them.  When we get there it’s a mess.  Trash and food and garbage everywhere.   The market is located just off the main road.  The ground is dirt and sand.  It’s bumpy and rocky and rutted.  There are numerous thatched roofs (paillots) that give the vendors some protection from the sun and the heat on market day.  For the Monday morning sweep everyone is working, no one is telling anyone what to do.  No one is complaining about anyone not carrying their load.  Everyone just works.  I sweep the market every week so that the women can get to know me and trust me.  They’re not quite sure why I’m there, but they very much like it that I participate.  The first few times I went to sweep the market they refused to give me a palm branch broom.  Now I have my very own broom.  There is a technique…an art to sweeping dirt and sand with a palm branch.  I still don’t have it down.  It has not escaped my notice that someone always follows me and sweeps where I have swept.  They work in unison until the job is done.   I have to say that Tchekpo has the cleanest market of any I’ve been to. After sweeping the market they gather around the table where the President of the Women’s Association is sitting.  They hand her their little accounting books, and she records how much everyone has sold, and how much money they have made.  Then they have a short meeting to discuss any issues.   They are on there way home or to their farms by 8 A.M.

In Togo there are local savings and loan associations called Tontines.  Tontines are banks set up for associations to save money collectively, and to loan money to it’s members when needed.  This Women’s Group Market Association belongs to a tontine.  I go to the tontine meeting every Thursday at 8:30 A.M.  The group is 99% Voodooese, so there are voodoo rituals mixed in with everything they do.  The meeting is held at one of the primary Voodoo Sanctuaries in Tchekpo.  This particular sanctuary is also where people go when they are sick or they go here to perform any rituals or offerings to the gods.  The weekly Tontine meeting  is a smorgasboard of activities.  Many women go through a healing ritual before and during the weekly meeting.  There is a semblance of an altar inside the sanctuary structure.  There is a fountain and plants.  The women who are receiving a healing or a blessing  stop in front of the door to the sanctuary, bow for more than a few seconds, and cross themselves.  A greeting to the gods.  They sit on a stone bench just outside of the sanctuary.  No one from the meeting is paying any attention to the women who file by one by one for their blessing.  They disrobe from the waist up.  The voodoo priest talks to the woman for a few minutes.  I think to find out why she is here.  What does she need? After he’s talked to her for a few minutes he goes in the sanctuary and quietly says a few prayers.  He comes back out holding a primitive small bowl, stands over the woman, chants a few prayers and dabs her with white dots and white squiggly lines on her shoulders and back and neck.  They must have this ritual fairly often because I see men, women and children walking around the village all the time with these white dots and squiggly lines.  I find it very fascinating that voodoo rituals are performed simultaneously during their business meeting. Voodoo is intertwined with everything they do.

The President of the Tontine
The meeting always begins the same way.  The President of the tontine (not the same woman who is president of the association) stands up
 and chants a prayer.   Half singing, half talking.  I like the sound of voodoo chanting.  She’s very dignified.  People come over to her throughout the meeting. They bow to greet her and say a few words.  She emminates intelligence, dignity and respectability.   She has a very quiet and noble demeanor.  Everyone sits on benches, or little stools they have brought with them.  In the middle of the meeting area there is a table which six people sit around.  Two men and the rest women.  This is where the money is collected and officially recorded, and where dues are paid.  It’s all done in Ewe (the local language.)  Every bit of it, so there’s still a lot I don’t understand at depth.  It appears to be extremely well organized, and the money very well accounted for.  One by one, each woman is called to the table.  She hands her book and her money to the money counter.  Two women count the money, and the counters hand some money back to the woman.   Everything is double done.  Double entry accounting, I guess one coul
The Accountants
d say. The money is counted twice, by two different people, both when it is received and when it is given back.  The amount is entered by one man and double checked by the other man.  The women who count the money have several different small clear plastic bags of money they are working with.  They also have a bucket of money under the table.  Part of what I can’t figure out is that I don’t know how they determine how much the woman gives to the association, and how much she keeps, and I’m still not sure how they decide what to do with the money that goes into the association, but they all seem quite satisfied with the way it works.   Eventually I will learn the entire process. 
The Beauty Shop

Selling Cocoa Nuts
Tontine Social Hours
The meeting is every bit a social couple hours as it is a business meeting.  There is a bucket of water in the middle for anyone who is thirsty.  There is always a woman selling cocoa nuts. Almost everyone has one or two.  The cocoa nuts appear to be part of the ritual.  I think possibly the cocoa nuts have the capability of putting everyone in a festive mood…..a burst of energy.  There is a woman just outside the perimeter of the meeting, and she works on half a dozen womens hair during the meeting.  Braiding, coloring.  Their hair-do’s are an art in itself.  I find myself not only studying the intricate hair styles, but being in awe of how they so quickly and artistically do it.  A few women bring snacks to sell.  Clacko is my favorite.  It tastes like hush puppies and is served with spicy hot sauce.  And then there is a woman who gives pedicures.  I kid you not.  She sits on a tiny little stool at the women’s feet, moving the stool from person to person as she completes each one.  She has a very professional, mobile nail polish rack.  The rack works very efficiently for the woman.  It’s kind of like a stacked/layered lazy susan.  She has at least a hundred different colors.  On the top layer there is a bowl with cotton and something like nail polish remover.  She’s very quick, and can easily do a dozen womens toes in an hour.  It costs one cent to have your nails done, which is less than an American dollar.  I have mine done.  She doesn’t just do one color, she usually adds a couple colors and a little design.  It’s really quite artistic, and quite innovative.  The women love it.  She also cleans the toenails well, and cuts the cuticles.  Isn’t that something??  All of this variety and activity at their business meeting.   Talk about multi-tasking!  I think this business model has merit!
Pedicures of course (my feet)
There is one woman who comes to every meeting.  I’ve never seen her at the market.  I think she must be a voodoo priestess.  She dresses in a deep raspberry colored cotton dress that is wrapped around, shoulders bare.  On each arm she has the same color twine bracelets wrapped around her upper arms.  She has closely cropped hair.  She’s very beautiful.  Her dress and her arm bracelets would be a hit on any chic Hollywood starlet.  She seems much more serious than the rest of the women.  At one meeting I was taking notes, and she sent someone over to tell me that I could not.  After weeks of gaining their trust, I was allowed to take photos of the meeting.  She again sent someone over and I was told that she was not to be photographed.  Aloughba told me it had something to do with a voodoo superstition that photographs violate the soul.  I’d like to learn more about this woman.

I’ve had some poignant moments sweeping the market and attending the tontine meetings.  For lack of a better word, it feels like a spiritual moment sometimes, or raw truth.  There is a collective contentment that can’t be suppressed, and possibly may even be enhanced by the poverty and hunger they experience.   It impacts and impresses me the way they work and play together. I sit and I watch, and participate when I can.  There is a rhythm and beauty in how they work together towards one goal.  It’s very Walden-ish….their world.

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