West African Gallery

A Day in Galoya

Like each morning before it, I awake to the crowing roosters and the braying donkeys just before a fresh, new dawn. The stars are still out as I look out from under the mosquito net across the road to the main part of the village. Hearing the bustle of trucks and animals, I groggily remember that today is Friday. Going to the marketIn Galoya that means two things: it is the holy day for Muslims, but more importantly it is market day. As many as twenty thousand people will trek into town by bush taxi, horse-and-cart or on foot.

Galoya is a village in northern Senegal, on the southern bank of the Senegal River near the border with Mauritania.  On a normal day, it is a lazy, roadside village of two or three thousand. Before dawn, the farmers are usually on their way to the fields in order to get in a full day’s work in the rice, millet, or sorghum fields before the heat of the day. But today is Friday. While a few may go to the fields if it is absolutely necessary, most villagers stay home and visit the friends and relatives who have traveled in town for the market. Indeed, the market is as much of a social event as it is a commercial necessity.

I am a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer in the US Peace Corps; Friday is the day for me to prove my ideas to the region’s merchants who arrive every Thursday night in their large trucks from the market about 40 miles downstream at Hare Lao. They bring with them not only goods from other towns along the river, but more importantly, the hardware and imported goods that come from the capital city of Dakar, a day’s drive away on the Atlantic coast.

From the sound of it, the traders are setting up for the day. In a couple of hours people will buy plastic buckets made in southeastern Senegal, cheap imported rice, spare engine parts for cars or water pumps, vegetables from the large irrigation projects, cloth for the tailors, and the sheep who have been herded into town by the Pulaar shepherds.

After all, this is a Pulaar region. Throughout the Sahel region of Africa, Peuls wander the countryside with their hungry and thirsty herds of cows, sheep and goats. The cows are rarely sold; rather, they are kept as a store of wealth and a source of milk. But the sheep and goats are often sold as meat to the sedentary farmers and fishers along the river.

The first item on my Friday schedule is to walk to my adopted family’s compound to greet our weekly guests from the Mauritanian side of the river. Each week these friends arrive during the night on Thursday, ready for a long day on Friday. They will sell their staples or tomato paste, sugar and grain in order to get Senegalese currency. Then the Mauritanians will buy vegetables, spices, hardware, and other goods which are unavailable on the northern bank of the river.

The Senegal Valley has for centuries been one homogenous culture, but since the countries’ independence in the 1960s the Mauritanian government has closely supervised the border. Unfortunately, the women with whom I have become friends over the past year will this evening once again use some of the day’s purchases to bribe the lighter-skinned police officers in order to return home.

Having breakfasted on fresh bread and butter (there’s nothing like freshly churned butter on a hot loaf of bread!) with my family and friends, we head in among the market stalls. Notebook in hand, I part with my friends and go to work. peanuts in GaloyaWinding through the piles of peanuts or corn or onions or tomatoes or fish I find the merchants that I have come to know well over the past year or weekly markets. I inquire about today’s prices and how they compare with the markets in other towns along the weekly circuit.

After this survey, I discuss its effects with the traders. Some items, like certain grains or vegetables, are often lacking. For the goods which are here, we speculate whether the prices will be more or less next week. Should they save some of the produce for future markets? We will keep track of the patterns so that they will be better able to make these predictions next year when I am back home in the States.

My job is largely to act as a consultant: to give advice to the commercants of the area. There are tailors and shopkeepers and farmers with whom I work on a daily basis; but on Friday they are on their own as I take time to visit with our weekly visitors. Once that task is done, I can set about for some shopping of my own.

I glance around to see what’s in good supply. I check out the batteries, cloth, tea and sugar for good deals. I know all of the usual prices, but I follow the customary practice of bargaining. Typically the seller will offer a price of about twice the final price. If the buyer and seller are friends, the bargaining can take half an hour and involve several insults about each other’s cousins and goats. Usually, however, the market crowds tire me out, and I get what I need and go home to drop off my purchases for the day.

After lunch and tea with my family, I say goodbye to the Mauritanians who will soon begin their three-hour walk back to the river. Once home again, I await the weekly visit of the Health Volunteer who lives a few villages down the road. Today, Jen is a bit late. It turns out that she stopped by Galoya’s Health Clinic to visit our doctor and nurse over lunch. It’s good to see another American after the hustle and bustle of the morning. And it’s even better to relax back into the English language.

For all of the complaints that we hash out, I know that I will miss this place once I return to America. All of the people are so sincerely nice and helpful. For two short years I have lived life as I believe it was meant to be: day-to-day with little other considerations. We worked in the fields when the weather was good, or we didn’t eat as well if the river didn’t flood. The whole village celebrates with each birth, and we all quietly forget about it when, all too frequently, the baby soon dies. We stay up late when the light of the moon permits, and when there’s no moon we tell stories about the thousands, millions of stars which glitter in the black of the West African sky.

And that’s what puts me to sleep each night. I sit, sometimes with my binoculars, and look at the stars and planets. Then I climb into bed and doze off with the desert breeze floating through the netting. The donkeys haven’t stopped braying since this morning, but I’m used to them by now. Especially after a busy Friday.

[By: Rick Weller]