TIME ZONES: A Morning With a Street Vendor in Niger

The Marketplace Where Everybody Knows Her Name

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By Maggie Fick
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 28, 2008

NIAMEY, Niger Holding a gigantic aluminum pot and a red leather coin purse, Zeynabou steps out of a taxi, surveys the bustling market and strides toward her first target: a woman selling spicy green peppers.

She weaves through the crowds in her flip-flops and long skirt, greeting the various vendors. Nearly everyone calls out her name.

Zeynabou operates a street food stand in the center of Niamey, the capital of this West African country. Customers from all over the city come for her couscous in sauce with kopto, or greens. "There is one man who has been coming for 20 years, since I carried the food on my head" in the days before she could afford her own stand, she says.

But on this morning, Zeynabou, which is how she is known in the market, is on a mission: She's at the market to shop for the fresh ingredients she will use in her dishes all week.

Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world and has one of the world's highest fertility rates, at about eight births per woman. Most women work at home, preparing meals and caring for their children or the children of neighbors. But many women in the capital have jobs outside the home to supplement the income of their husbands. Zeynabou and her husband, a security guard at a gas station, are somewhat prosperous, making enough to care for their nine children.

It's only 10:30 a.m., but the Sahelian sun is high in the sky and Zeynabou's face is glistening with sweat.

She decides to buy all of the vendor's green peppers, a big bowlful that will make enough ground hot pepper to season her dishes for several days. She throws them into her pot and heads for the red plum tomatoes. She purchases several large black plastic bags of them from another woman. Next, the garlic and onions.

Then she ventures into an area of crowded, covered stands, where mostly male vendors sell canned vegetables, cooking oil and dry goods. At each of the next several stops, she asks the vendors about their families and work.

"I get good prices from them," she says. "I buy the tomatoes and onions from a few different women. It just depends who is in the market when I am there."

But the kopto always comes from the same women. "They are my friends, I have known them for about 20 years," she says.

For the smaller purchases, Zeynabou, 46, keeps coins in her purse, but for expensive items, such as the big jugs of vegetable oil, she pulls bills out from under her skirt, where she hides money in several carefully hidden knots of cloth.

"We are not in the rainy season right now, so the green leaves I buy cost more," she says. "Rice has gotten more expensive lately. Oil is expensive, too. In fact, all of the prices have gone up."


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