How food tasting made me a stranger at a local market

While visiting a rural open market to purchase food items, I ended up being the odd one out. Otherwise, why were many merchants surprised when I did not taste the food items they offered, yet I wanted to buy?

During my visit to “Africa,” I traveled to various places and participated in numerous events as part of my book writing process. The current focus of my writing is on change in food choices and family relations as Africa urbanizes. I will share a series of articles on events that captivated my attention, including the use and meaning of language and symbolism in public and private settings.  

At the market, I decided to stop and observe my surrounding. I noticed that not every passerby was offered a taste of the food items. Did that mean the sellers could read faces of potential buyers. Did I appear more ready to make a purchase than the rest? Or, did everyone in the market know the other, so that I was the stranger? I was dressed in a long grey skirt, a blouse and sports shoes - not peculiar attire as far as I was concerned.

Maybe my sunglasses, but it was just past midday in the hot February sun.

To not appear rude, I maintained a smile and returned greetings. To the persisted ones who followed me, I informed them that I was in search of a different product. “Which one, I can take you to my friend,” was part of their response.

 Sardines,  Omena

Sardines, Omena

I smiled and kept walking on, eyes cast to the ground. I was in the foods section of the market, so I did not want to step on the tomatoes, indigenous vegetables, sweet and Irish potatoes, Omena, assortment of fruits, ripe bananas and more. 

Every so often, especially whenever I noticed someone was watching me as I walked, I stopped and asked for the price, and last price of their food items.

The answer glared at me when I stopped to purchase Omena. I was the odd one out because other buyers paused to taste the offered Sardines before making a decision to buy or not. Buyers like to taste the dried fish for texture, taste and lack of stones within the head of the fish.

When I inquired if half of what she sold me was fish dust, she produced a bag of the dust and told me she sieved the Omena on arrival. My first thought was to ask how to know if that was from that consignment. I did not ask on remembering that local markets operate on trust. Though I asked a question when purchasing ripe bananas.

There are stories making rounds in large urban center, including a notice from the government Public Health section on dangers of using chemicals to ripen fruits. I made eye contact with the seller of the ripe bananas I liked. "How did you ripen your bananas, are they good to eat?  

She did not break the eye contact. "I cannot do that. I use banana leaves and add an avocado to ripen them." Her response confirmed to me that she was aware of my fears on use of chemicals. That the information was not limited to urban centers. 

I turned to her direction and spoke in the local language, an indirect way of invoking our food cultures. "I guess you know we don't do strange things to food."

She bent down and started arranging bananas in groups of fours. "We don't." A short response, yet full of meaning to the seller and buyer. 


At the green banana section, I could tell that some of the sellers were surprised with my knowledge of the different banana species. I insisted on buying the local variety, the ones I grew up seeing on our farm and dining table.

Have you ever been to a rural market? What did you observe in terms of language use (verbal and non-verbal) between buyers and sellers? 

Stay tuned for more stories from the field. For example, how well can you read the seller’s body language. Is it universal or limited to the local community?


First published on February 16th, 2018