Going to the Saturday market is equally fun as it is depleting. It’s the one day a week that vendors come in from all over. They take over a hillside, and spread their goods on top a blanket, then hope for some sales.
There are women selling homemade palm oil, others practically buried underneath their mounds of shiny tomatoes or cabbages, and people walking up and down with buckets full of the local homemade donut, mandazi. If my kids come with me, they make me promise I buy them mandazi.
Every section sells something different.
But my favorite are the clothes.
It’s like a big thrift store, tossed outside.
This is embarrassing, but before we moved to Uganda, I walked the aisles of my local Goodwill and quietly shed a few tears under the fluorescent lights as I bid it farewell.
I’ve been religiously thrift store shopping since the time I found a gently used pair of Birkenstocks for a few dollars when I was 12, and discovered the magic. Both of Birkenstocks, and secondhand stores.
I have way too many fond memories and know way too much about every thrift store in San Diego. If you’re very pregnant and sweaty and can manufacture that real desperate look in your eye, the lovely ladies of the Goodwill on Home Ave. will let you use their staff-only bathroom every single time.
But just being sweaty and having the look will never get you in.
Moving on to Bundibugyo, in Western Uganda.
The outdoor markets were a delight and a surprise to find. It filled the thrift store shaped hole in my heart.
The sellers here have large bundles of used clothing, bedding, and other materials shipped from countries like China, Denmark, UK, India and America. If you get to the market early enough, you can see them cutting the plastic ties off their bundles, and beginning to organize and spread the contents out.
One week I bemoaned that all my dish towels were getting moldy in this tropical climate, and the closest shop with a dish towel is 8 hours away. When I got to the market that morning, a woman had just unveiled her pile of (new-looking) dish towels!
I looked up to the heavens. You see me!
And to make that miracle even sweeter, the shipment looked like it had come straight from France. The quality of fabric was beyond anything I would have splurged on myself, if it were not in this 50-cent pile halfway across the world. Large, thick, white linen towels with red and yellow images of wheat spiraling down the sides. I had visions of bundling homemade sourdough bread in them, and bounding through fields of wildflowers.
I sat down next to the pile and spent the next 15 minutes rifling through, pulling out at least 10 gorgeous, perfectly clean dish towels. My level of thrill triggered the thought I’m officially middle-aged.
I did mull over the potential that perhaps a quaint little store on a cobblestoned street in Toulouse had been infested with lice, or bedbugs. And they just took their merchandise, donated it all to Africa, and started fresh. But bundled up so tightly- and deprived of sunlight, oxygen, and food wouldn’t most little critters die off by the time they reached East Africa anyway?
6 months later I was blessed again. This time with a shipment of kitchen towels directly from the Dutch folks, thank you very much. How could I tell? The entire thing was blue and white, and when I googled the brands they were straight out of The Netherlands.
A year ago, two days before Easter, my then 6-year-old daughter told me how much she wanted a dress with bunnies all over it. This was a specific, rare, and time-sensitive request.
She’s got her own spirited style, and the Saturday market Taiwanese finds lend to that. For sure.
I said my Saturday morning prayers, and bound off with a friend who was visiting Uganda. Within 20 minutes, as I was digging through a pile from the UK (brands, sizing, and fabric often give it away), I pulled out a perfectly sized pink cotton dress- with lines of black bunnies covering the entire thing!
The person I was shopping with could not believe it happened.
But I had been hopeful.
It was going to be Easter, not that God needed to add more to this weekend and his finishing work on the cross, but a celebratory dress seemed like an easy request next to that.
Getting to the market early is a good idea, because usually it’s scorching hot by 10:30 am. But I hang out at home and eat pancakes with my family, so I typically show up in the heat. That means at some point halfway through looking at piles, I wonder what it feels like to die from heat stroke. I drink the water from my Nalgene, and people stare at me while I do it, and something about that exchange makes me feel very foreign. Very White.
I think about my sister-in-law who took her dog on a walk into a California desert canyon on a hot day. And I can’t really remember, but one of them passed out, and they eventually came back alive but somewhere in the story someone had to be doused in water and carried.
I sort through boy’s trousers, looking for something made from corduroy. And I feel a little lightheaded and clammy. And I wonder if this is how my sister-in-law, or her dog felt right before going dark.
I’m a bun that’s been slid into a preheated oven, and I’m too hot to bargain between the equivalent of 50 cents and a dollar, so I just go with what the lady says and I get out of there.
Everyone I live with, including my teammates, know that if they tell me their favorite color and a piece of clothing they need I will return to them like a deep sea diver, excitedly lugging back a chest of gold treasures.
I actually didn’t set out to write about the markets, rather I was planning to tell a story about a little orphan boy who was on the brink of death, whom I met at the market, and had tapped on my shoulder in the midst of a crowd and asked for me to buy him a fish.
I think overall what I’m getting at is the same. They are the themes of feeling seen. And of gratitude. Which seem to be the place I so often land.
And of miracles.
I was reading the other day one of Paulo Coelho’s fictional characters who says, “What have you done with the miracles that God planted in your days?...Pitiful are the people who must realize, when they are finally able to believe in miracles, their life’s magic moments will have already passed them by.”
So take a short segue with me here.
I was going to say how I bought that boy his fish, not because I am a hero, I mean- let’s review the reasons I was at the market in the first place. Retail-therapy thinly disguised as cultural immersion and caring for my family. But he looked so terrible- and he was so emaciated that I wondered how he was even alive. I wondered for a second if I could actually be looking at a ghost?
Buying him a fish was the least I could do.
The story goes on, where this little boy and something about a brightness in his face despite the deterioration piqued my interest. He figured out where I lived, and he had a sixth sense for visiting me there at just the exact moment where I had nothing else going on.
So over the months he’d visit (from his town which was far away), and I’d give him some bananas, and he’d rip off the skins and in his hunger push the entirety into his mouth as if a banana was meant to be eaten in just one bite.
He only spoke Lubwisi, but something about the way he spoke made it easy for me to understand and easy for me to speak with him. He also made me laugh and smile.
Each time he came, he’d look a little healthier. And frankly, I was shocked.
He had tuberculosis, was malnourished and I don’t know what else.
But I saw him dressed in a baby blue suit, sitting at church one day, with a healthy full-face and strength in his body. He turned around, smiled, and waved at me and the kids. I wondered why he was at our church, when he lived so far away.
And then, he stood up and walked to the front. He stepped up a few stairs where everyone could see him. And he sang a song, with his arms raised up in excitement like he’d just found the pink dress with bunnies on it. And he had a certain aura of joy and singularity of focus, held only by the fully restored. Directed upwards towards his great Healer.
And his song didn’t stop.
For like, a reaaaallly long time.
And I looked around and wondered what other people may be thinking. But when you’re a foreigner, you do that a lot, and you never really know.
So I stood up and hunch-walked my way up to my Ugandan friend.
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s appreciating God, for saving his life.”
And she didn’t seem annoyed at how long it was taking. Were we at the 15 minute mark? I don’t know. Quite possibly. But she was smiling, and nodding. On his team. Because she was, she told me later, a staff member who was actually on his nutrition team. So she was thanking God too.
I went back to my seat, and basked in the full circle moment. I shared with my kids that this was a boy I had met who was sick and almost died. My 5-year-old sons face fell. But God used doctors, nurses, BundiNutrition, and medicine to heal his body.
And this isn’t a given. Not everyone here gets healed from tuberculosis. So this is his way to thank God for that.
My kids had a look on their faces that I couldn’t explain. Curiosity, mixed with happiness and confusion, maybe. Who knows? I made a mental tab to unpack that later with them.
I just knew it was a gift to witness a small part of his story.
Amidst all my musings of the Saturday morning market, this has been the
best bundle to watch unfold.