I love going to market. The crowds, the noise, the smells, the colorful piles of food displayed in dingy stalls . . . it's all familiar and energizing. But it hasn't always been that way. When we first moved to Africa, I avoided market as much as possible. It was much easier for my husband to go, so I could stay home with the baby. I went to market about three or four times in our first six months in Ghana. I hated market. I was scared of it. And I felt guilty for hating it, but I had no idea what to do about it.

Then our situation changed, and we were in a much smaller village with a much smaller market within walking distance of our house. We were starting language learning, and trying to immerse ourselves in the culture as much as possible. We no longer had a big grocery store available, and were forced to buy most of our daily staples from market. A couple times a week I would get myself psyched up and head out . . . and after a while I realized, I was starting to enjoy it. Pretty soon I was going almost every afternoon to buy ingredients for supper or the next morning's breakfast. I had friends there to laugh and talk with, neighbors along the way to greet, and I loved buying my food fresh every day.

But there are a few things that I learned, sometimes the hard way, that I wish someone had warned me about. So I'm going to share some tips with you - in case you haven't yet discovered how much fun market can be!

1) DO dress appropriately. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes (and consider suncreen and a hat too!) but make sure it's culturally acceptable. Market is a filthy place, so at first I wore my oldest, stained dresses to go there . . . until I realized that the ladies around me were wearing jewelry, high-heels and sometimes even white embroidered dresses! My dirty, sloppy clothing was an insult to them, so I learned to dress nicely but still practically - I haven't gone for the high heels yet. :-)

2) DO consider what you're planning to buy and how you're going to carry it. Will your purse hold it? Do you need to take a big tote bag? A basket on your head like the local ladies do is more practical but doesn't always work well for us white women. :-)

3) DON'T carry your wallet in your back pocket and be careful carrying a backpack. Most markets have pick-pockets who work quickly and silently!

4) DON'T be afraid to use their systems. Are there carrier girls in the market who will take your purchases to your car? Men with carts who would be glad to move larger items? Find out how much to pay them, and then use them! Likewise, find out from a local friend what is appropriate for tipping people like parking directors, and also how to handle beggars.

5) DO be polite and friendly, but don't feel obligated to engage with every person who calls out to you. This will depend on your market situation. If you have a very small village market where every seller is also your neighbor, then you will want to make friends with everybody! But in a bigger city market there will be lots of people who just want to try to make a sale. They see dollar signs when they see white skin, and sometimes the only thing you can do is smile or wave and keep walking.

6) DON'T be intimidated or coerced. The people where we live tend to be pretty forceful, and it can be intimidating. Don't let yourself be talked into buying something you don't want or doing something you're not comfortable with. I have found that a lot of the time they are just testing you, and are not at all offended when you stand your ground - of course politely, but firmly.

7) DO be careful about your interactions with men, especially if you are alone. Most of the men in our area have a Hollywood impression of American women, and expect us to be "fresh" with them. Also because of cultural differences, what we would consider polite friendliness, they often interpret as much more. I usually do not make eye contact with men, and try to avoid smiling at them or engaging in conversation beyond absolute necessities for business. Again, this may depend on whether you are in a big city market or a small village market. Wherever you are, be aware of what is appropriate for the culture you're in.

8) DO be careful about what you eat and drink! We love to get snacks while we're in market, but do be wise. We get only hot food, especially food that we can watch being cooked or fried while we wait. Avoid eating uncooked fruits and vegetables unless you take them home and disinfect them. Also be careful about drinks. Even a lot of bottled drinks are homemade and bottled in "recycled" containers. Be sure to buy drinks that are actually sealed!

9) DON'T take your small children along. Of course this is really up to you, but we have found that market is not a good experience for our little ones. They quickly get very hot, tired, and annoyed by all the over-bearing attention from everyone who wants to touch and hold the white children.  The exception is that I take my babies along in a front-carrier, so that no one can take them out of my arms and they can sleep contentedly while I shop. I have found my babies to be a great connecting-point with other women!

Alright, I think that's all on my list - now go have fun shopping! I love the variety, the low prices, and the great cultural experience that market has to offer. I am thankful that I took the plunge and forced myself to get used to it, and I recommend the same to you!

*****

Now it's your turn, ladies. I've only been to West African markets. How do other markets compare? What tips would you give ladies in your part of the world? Please jump in and share here to make this helpful to all of us!

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  • Guest - Katie

    Great Post. I find even the grocery stores in our area require the same advice (proper dress and interactions). I find shopping to be the most stressful and exhausting chore. It was all the constant interactions from people that wore me out. I like the positive experiences but hated the rough experiences like guys trying to take my picture or people trying to take my kid away from me. I learned over time how to put up boundaries with men taking pictures either with strong words or turning away from them. I also stopped taking my daughter to the stores or markets because it was way too much for her. I now go out on weekends or when my husband can watch my daughter. It still exhausts me. I always come home and just sit down, drink water, and stare at my wall for quite some time lol.

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