June 5, 2007
I went to Kejetia Market looking for chickens to photograph. Bird flu had recently been reported in Ghana and I’d written a column for the Yukon News about the impossibility of containing a food chain pandemic in this part of the world. It needed some visual accompaniment.
Public photography is difficult in Ghana. People are easily offended by the camera, as I discovered several times. The chickenheads, as I found myself referring to the market women who carry baskets of chickens on their heads, did not want their pictures taken, even when I offered to pay double market price for one of their birds. Can’t say I blame them; it felt incredibly shameful and inappropriate to even ask, for the chickenhead’s existence is wretched and she knows it. But sometimes that’s the job.
I’d be a better man if I could say that it never occurred to me to try taking their pictures anyway, covertly, without permission, but it did and I attempted it. With our little digital point-and-shoot cupped in my palm and a newspaper draped over my wrist I walked slowly past the chickenheads, clicking away. They never caught me, but the results were crap, useless, and I was a bit of a scumbag. But I digress…
Finding the chickenheads took some doing. Kejetia is a vast network of wooden stalls with corrugated metal roofs where vendors sell everything imaginable, from slugs to cell phones. The marketplace is ringed with broken streets choking on the overflow of stalls and vendors.
During my quest for poultry I resolved to bisect the network, to walk right through the centre of Kejetia — something I had never done and have yet to do, for I got lost in the labyrinth and though I found my way out I missed the pulsating heart of that crazy, busy place. Another day…
When I made it to the far side I decided to up the ante and actually buy something from the outer stalls, where fresh produce is common. A middle-aged crone selling tomatoes yelled at me, and I went over.
She wanted to sell me 5,000 cedis worth. I told her I would take only 1,000, because the rest would go bad before I could eat them. There was a language barrier, but she agreed. When I handed over 1,000 cedis in coins, she started dancing and singing.
I couldn’t understand the words, but her performance was obviously for the benefit of her neighbours and passers-by. The gist of it was that she had gotten money from the oboroni and everyone should look at her. I put on my poker face and asked if I could please have some tomatoes.
Then things started to get weird. She waved me away and flagged down a passing waterseller, paying with some of the coins I’d given her, but I stood firm and repeated my request.
“Five thousand,” she said.
“No. One thousand.”
“I gave you one thousand. I would like one thousand of tomatoes, please.”
A small crowd began to gather. Slightly miffed, the woman put a few of the smaller tomatoes in a bag along with some green legumes I did not recognize. She held the bag out but pulled it back when I reached for it. She looked at my eyes through my sunglasses and then poked herself in the crotch.
“You come,” she said. She pointed at my crotch, then poked her own again. “You come here.”
It’s times like these that test the poker face. Can it be kept straight when a haggard market crone is making such a proposition? The sunglasses helped and I did not respond, but I didn’t look away, either.
She mistook my lack of response for miscomprehension. “You come.” Poke, poke. “You come here.”
“She is saying she likes you,” said a woman standing behind me with a bowl on her head.
“I know what she’s saying. I’m saying I only want tomatoes.”
The interpreter laughed and explained to the crone that I wasn’t interested in her, just her produce. Everyone laughed except for the crone and me. She seemed genuinely offended and I was still waiting.
The interpreter intervened and tried to grab the bag and a fight almost broke out. Finally the crone gave me the tomatoes and I thanked her, unsmiling, and left.
I wonder what she would have charged for a photograph. Don’t think I’ll be going back to find out. (G)