Given my gastrofanaticism and not uncommon episodes of voraciousness, some of our readers may find it surprising that I have yet to say much about food on this blog. I admit, this is partially due to a lack of culinary inspiration from the local fare. But more on that in a later post…
Although I am about to describe for you the market where I regularly buy all manner of produce, let me first address a misconception you may have about Uganda: there are supermarkets here. In fact, at least once a week, I traipse over to one of the Indian-owned supermarkets where one can find canned goods, packed juices, dry goods, etc.
BUT! Far more often, I trek down to Kamwokya market. The market can be a little hard to find: you turn up a narrow alley, walk along an uneven path along a runoff ditch, wind past the charcoal vendors (to whom can be attributed the thick black coating of the ground), walk under a little wooden “gate”, and voila! There’s the market:
As you can see, the market is covered (although perhaps not decisively so) but it is still somehow sufficiently light. Within the market, different strategies for selling fruits and vegetables seem to be at work: some of the vendors appear to be trying to offer everything that’s in season, as if angling to be your one-stop shop in the market. Others are much more specialised, selling only leafy greens,for example, or only tubers.
There is some variation in prices across the market on any given day, but the much more significant price variation is across time, as different fruits go in and out of season. Theoretically, the prices are negotiable, and occasionally I will haggle, but it’s hard to put too much effort into negotiating over what amounts to a few cents.
While the central area of the market is filled with all kinds of produce, the edges of the market are the preserve of the butchers.
By virtue of being sequestered behind their respective counters all day, and not having the freedom to mill around that is afforded to most of the produce vendors, the butchers seem much more eager for conversations with passersby (or at least with this passerby). This puts me in a bit of a quandry: I am all too happy to stop and chat with these amicable fellows, but I am usually not inclined to linger long, much less give business to my jolly interlocutors for reasons which should be apparent from a cursory glance below:
And this leads me to an important observation regarding the market: The raison d’etre of the market is not purely economical. Although its most obvious purpose is to allow the exchange of goods for money, that is not its only function. For example, when I go to the market, I always seek out Medi the gregarious merchant. It’s not that Medi’s wares are far superior to everyone else, but he is always happy to see me, and is determined that I will learn Luganda, one phrase or name-of-a-fruit at a time.
Moreover, the vendors don’t seem to regard each other as competitors even though, in a strict supply sense, they are. The market is also a social space, and it would be uncouth, presumably, to upend the social harmony with overly-aggressive economic practices (Such sentiments seem to hold only in actual marketplaces, like Kamwokya market, and not in the abstracted ‘marketplace’ of the world outside).
For hyper-conscious American consumers, eager to eat healthily and ethically, the main food safety concerns stem from anxiety over a corporate, factory-farm food system that treats its products as industrial commodities, and not as food that will one day enter people’s mouths.
For me, a dutiful market-goer in Uganda, the food safety concerns are much less esoteric…
Meh, who cares? Eat up, everyone!