She squatted on a low stool in the back corner of the stall, her weathered hands working tirelessly to shell the substantial bag of colorful beans stationed in front of her. Her hands betrayed her age, despite her youthful smile’s effort to make me second guess.
I nudged Gabriel with my elbow, cautious to not draw too much attention from the crowds pushing past us in the market. Lifting my chin, I nodded in her direction.
“That’s the one. Let’s try her.”
We slowly pushed our way through Jinja-town’s Central Market, cautious to not step on the discarded pieces of fruits and vegetables that created an obstacle course along the narrow, dirt stained paths that ran between stalls.
Ahead of us, an impatient man knocked over a sac of yams as he tried to squeeze past two women engaged in a heated battle over the price of maize. We were forced to pause in our progress towards the bean-shelling woman while the yams were collected and restored to their sac. As we waited, I took the opportunity to look around the open market.
It smelled of overripe produce, dirt covered potatoes, sticky fruit, earth and the sweat of laborers. Vendors called out to one another and enticed potential customers with their offerings. Its energy was electric and could be felt from blocks away.
From experience, Gabriel and I knew it was important to establish friendships at the local market. In Sapporo, we bought all of our sashimi from one man. In Hobart, Gabriel had his meat pie lady at the corner bakery. In Nhulunbuy, there was the favorite local butcher.
Our desire to make a connection stemmed from a few reasons: the first, because we knew that if we were in business with someone we trusted, we would not be overcharged because of our skin color — a reality we daily face in Uganda. Second (and more importantly), because we wanted to invest in someone who was hardworking and honest.
The average monthly salary in Uganda is 610,000 UGX, or 168 USD. That average factors in professional salaries, like those of engineers, pharmacists and government officials. Most laborers make less than 1,000 UGX per hour, or 0.28 USD. As can be imagined, it is difficult to feed a family on such wages (without even factoring in school fees or other basic living costs). While our own salaries are 0 USD and we rely on partners to sponsor our work in Africa, we are blessed to have enough to live on.
We stood a few minutes more before we could successfully navigate around the spilled yams and continue towards the bean-shelling woman. I didn’t know why we felt so drawn to her, especially since we had struck out three times already that day in attempt to befriend a produce lady.
The first woman was too eager to see us approach her stall. Although she told me she was giving us “the local price, not mzungu price,” I knew better. We continued on without purchasing anything.
The second stall we approached had an older, kind looking woman. But she seemed to express no interest in us at all — she did not welcome us or ask us what we looked for or even offer a price, despite my betrayed high interest in her plantains. We moved on.
Next, we decided to try a gentleman’s stall, to see if we would have more luck. The man we approached was attentive and named a competitive price, but when we examined the fruit he offered, we found he was trying to sell us second-rate mangos and overripe avocados at first-rate prices. Discouraged, we ended the negotiations and moved past.
Unsure what to do and ready to start haggling on my own so I could bring home a pineapple, I stood frozen for a minute. Central Market is the place to get your fruits, vegetables, clothes, household items, live animals, dead animals, tools and more. It meant there were hundreds more fruit and vegetable vendors, without even taking into account the other vendors selling miscellaneous items. Altogether, there are more than 3,000 registered vendors at the market.
I decided to start looking for the items on my list instead of a vendor to befriend.
That’s when I saw the joyful smile and the weathered hands, beside a large cart of pineapples. By the time we arrived at her stall, I forgot what I had planned to say. So I handed her our list instead.
“Osiibye otya, nnyabo. We need these items. Do you have?”
“Bulungi, kale. Eh, some. These ones I have.” She pointed to the cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots on the list. I looked around her stall and noticed she was selling avocados.
“You also have avocados. It’s on the list, here.”
“Yes, but they are not good. No avocados for you today.”
I looked at Gabriel and tried not to smile as I heard her name authentic local prices. He switched over to Japanese so we could privately discuss the prices and what we wanted to spend on each item (fairly certain no one else in the market would understand us).
Meanwhile, the woman examined each vegetable requested — sometimes thumping them with her fingers and sometimes smelling them — before placing them in our bag, or back in the produce bin.
“Can you help us get the last items from other vendors? We do not know the best price. And they try to sell us old fruit.”
Displeased at my words, she clicked her tongue. I worried for a moment that her displeasure was at my request. And then I truly worried when I wondered if she was so displeased that she would not sell us our bag of produce? But then —
“Many corrupt people. Yes, I will help.”
She hopped up from her stool with more agility than I could have imagined possible in her bones. And then she pinged from one stall to the next in her quarter of the market, returning with arms laden with delicious looking and smelling fruits and vegetables.
One pineapple, two kilos of Irish potatoes, one kilo of tomatoes, a hand of sweet bananas, four bell peppers, three avocados, four mangos, half kilo of cucumbers, one large papaya and four large carrots for 20,500 UGX — roughly 5.68 USD, or the price of one pineapple in the States.
Living in a developing country on the equator can be difficult, frustrating and hot. But does have its perks at times.
The woman's name is Florence.
She has a grown son named Kenneth who sometimes runs her stand when she is in the village. She loves to wear colorful, bold patterns. Florence has worked in the market for many years, although she still has one of the smaller stalls. She’s a hard worker, spending 12 hours a day at the market, six days a week.
When she’s shelling beans, she has to resist the urge to eat them as she works — they’re one of her favorite foods. Her English is much better than my Luganda, although still elementary. We manage OK.
Florence is stubborn, but has a good heart. If I tell her I want cucumbers but she cannot find any that meet her approval, she will refuse to sell them to me. I’ve watched her yell at other vendors for trying to give me bad fruit, or vegetables past their prime. She carefully inspects everything that goes into our bag.
Could we manage without her each week? Absolutely. Are there other vendors who have better prices or larger inventories? Of course.
Instead, we chose to invest time into building a relationship with her, and financially invest in her livelihood. By doing so, we can empower her through her hard work to be successful in the competitive market.
A Thank You to Our Sponsors
By sponsoring our work in Africa, you have directly helped us invest in lives within our community. Florence is only one of the many we have started a relationship with. A big THANK YOU to those who have already partnered with us! If you are interested in becoming a sponsor or would like to learn more, let’s talk.