The markets in Cameroon are like the wrinkles on your hand—intersecting lines crossing the middle and escaping to the edges. A maze essentially, but a maze you come to know well with experience that rarely, or never, changes. My first experience in the market was exciting. I had been in Bafia for a week or two and Mama Lydie, my host mom, hopped on the moto behind me squeezing me into the driver in front. I felt completely safe. We got off in the center of town and mama Lydie grabbed my purse and swung it around to my front and told me to cover it with my hands and guard it well. We walked through the small paths enclosed on the sides by rickety wooden stands holding tomatoes, peppers, dried fish, and other colorful products I had never seen before. Tucked in the middle of the market was a small building filled with freezers and an overwhelming stink of fish. Our outing lasted 15 minutes tops and I was relieved I got to see the inside of a market without getting robbed.
The Bafia market is relatively small, which makes sense for its village size. After finishing training in Bafia, the group of pcvs heading to the west packed up their things and a bus dropped us off in the regional capital, Bafoussam. From here we all went our individual ways—some to big villages like Bafia, others to small cities, and the rest headed to tiny villages like Bandenkop. In Bandenkop there’s no market to buy household things so my shopping was to be done before arriving to post. I made my list of what I thought was essential (looking back this list is a little embarrassing) and I had asked the language trainers what prices to try for. I set out into “Marché A”, the larger market in Bafoussam, with my purse in front and my list out and ready to cross things off. Every “aisle” had something I needed, but every aisle further I went the more lost I became. I was so overwhelmed by people in their boutiques on either side of me yelling “ma cherie!” or “what are you looking for?” “Asso! Asso!” “ooh look at la blanche” and pointing to their friends. It was more attention than I’d ever had in my life.
I couldn’t let them know I was lost. I asked someone at a boutique where to find sheets. All the sheets were mix n’match so I demanded to only see matching sets. Having a goal made me more confident since I was loosing composure with all this overwhelming attention. I needed to seem confident or I wasn’t getting out alive. The only matching set I came across had gigantic cat faces on everything. I laughed as though it was too ridiculous to buy and he’d better make me a good price if I was going to buy cat sheets (though I fell in love at first sight and knew I had to sleep on them every night). With the help of every 10 boutiques I found my way out of the mass of stands, and took a deep breath of air when I finally found an opening to the streets with my hands full of housewares.
I’ve now been back to that market 50+ times, and have memorized the inner-workings of its’ alleys and paths. Maybe one day I’ll make a map—or just a guide—if you’re looking for fabric go two levels in from the corner with the super market, pass the women selling honey and palmist oil, go up the second set of stairs, pass the police station and take a left for pagne and a right for western fabrics and jeans. What, you want to find traditional things? Enter the market from the side, across from the quincailleries, not the first opening where they sell school books, and not the third where they’re selling cell phones, but the middle opening. At the first level you will run into the man who sells beaded jewelry and nice wooden masks. You can buy bows and arrows from his neighbor there, but if you take a left down the alley, a nice man sells dyes, and other ground up natural medicinal plants as well as old painted masks and traditional clothes. The frippery with used clothing is the entire back side of the market, just past the produce, where you can find curtains and bedding as well.
The best thing about the market in Cameroon is that everyone will help you. If you ask anyone they will either take you to their brother who sells it, or direct you with a point, and when you get lost again you just ask someone new. Bargaining is my other favorite part of visiting the market. There’s many different strategies people employ, but I’ll let you know the best strategies I know and use. First, go in knowing what a good price is for what you want to buy. If you need to ask a local outside of the market before going in, or at least someone who is not next to the mama you’re buying from. The other strategy involves a little studying. After pointing out what you want, looking it over and thoroughly examining whether or not it will fulfill your job, bring up that you live in a village or at least know a village language. If you know one greeting in this language you will make the seller laugh and tell their friends. Becoming a spectacle for a few minutes is a small price to pay to have the seller give you a great price. Lastly, always start with a lower price than what you want it to end at. If they give you a “white-man-price” divide it by three and start bargaining below that. Never get too attached to what you want to buy because there are other stands with the same product and the “walk-away” strategy is the best last-resort strategy there is.
Market in tiny villages is much different than the city markets. In Bandenkop there is Market Day, which falls on every 8th day. This makes no sense for us Westerners, but the market is still based on the old traditional calendar of the Bamiléké tribe, which had 8 days. Bandenkop’s market day falls the day after Bapa’s, it’s neighbor village, and three days after Batie’s. All of which are based on this old calendar. Bandenkop has only 2000 villagers, but our market is extremely impressive. It’s not unusual that I stumble upon anglophones who have traveled from Bamenda to sell their products in the West market days. Ours is an agricultural village so many mama’s have blankets laid out or bamboo tables filled with their harvest. There’s an old man who weaves market bags from raffia with one or two other colors. Frip clothes are even cheaper here, with t-shirts at 200cfa and socks at 100cfa. Usually shirts are 500cfa which is about $1. Bapa has a larger population, and the Swiss even helped build a new covered marketplace, though on market day it’s difficult to find more than tomatoes. No one knows why this is.
Marché Mokolo is the largest market in West Africa by square footage, with the largest frippery in Africa. This market is located in Yaoundé, the political capital of Cameroon. Mokolo is still a scary experience for me. The alleys are narrower than any other market I know, and the sellers are not shy about grabbing your arms to pull you into their stands. The last time I went I literally hugged my purse the whole time and was still scared it would get stolen. The amount of people inside the mass of boutiques is overwhelming for the little space there is. Goods are creatively presented climbing the highest of the existing walls—up is the only place to go. You can find anything you’d ever want to look for, though the prices in the city are much higher than Bafoussam or the villages. Rows of high heeled shoes of every color and every height shine on blankets, while the best in Yaoundé fashions hang on hangers in the boutiques behind with zebra leggings and a skin tight neon club dress is presented on a white mannequin. Short and fat ties are all the rage here, and t-shirts with offensive sayings or funny errors that didn’t make the cut in America or Europe are being sold at “high” prices. Grills for fish and meat are sold just around the corner and down the road men are auctioning off used clothes from the back of a truck for pennies. As long as you watch your back, the markets are the most exciting places.