The Cost of Living
Seven thousand francs. That was 16 dollars for 6 pounds of nails, much cheaper than the stores in town. We had come to Cinq Kilo (sank-key-low) for materials to make tables we could disassemble and stow between events. Another Family Night was coming up in February, but it would be a much larger affair. On the guest list were all of the bethelites, constructors and missionaries from Central Africa and Chad – and the zone overseer from Germany. It would be a grand event with over 100 for the meal.
Claver and Patrick had gotten a design for the tables from one of the IS’s and modified it to fit eight people. The legs were made of square tubing welded together to form an H for each side; braces connected the two H’s and a big square of wood fit over the top. The legs fit neatly inside when they were broken down and stacked.
Earlier, whenever we would do little projects like this, I used to ask why the brothers didn’t want to buy screws instead of nails. Screws always seemed like a faster, sturdier way to put just about anything together. But Africa does a fantastic job of proving us know-it-all westerners wrong. Screws are easy enough to find, but where would you plug in the screw gun? Have a rechargeable? – it’s probably no good. The batteries refuse to charge after a few months in the heat and the dust will kill the bearings after a year or so. Hammers, on the other hand, just seem to work. So I don’t ask anymore.
I read once that a city can only be known through its market. That makes Cinq Kilo the true face of Bangui. Watch a two minute drive through the main road. Though five kilometers out from the city center as its name suggests, it is a journey into the heart of this place, and like a heart it never stops pumping. The market doesn’t stop for siesta or Sundays or holidays and doesn’t respect normal working hours. The streets pulsate with life as money and just about anything else changes hands. Nothing you see is without a price. The shops are filled with Cameroonians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Lebanese, showing just what a crossroads this place has become.
We bought the nails from a Sudanese gentleman. He wore the long flowing garment and lacy skullcap of a Muslim, and his wrinkled face was decorated with a big white mustache that drooped at the corners. I asked him for a receipt. He pulled out a dusty old book and gestured for me to write it out for him.
Next we needed welding rods and anti-rust paint. The welding rods we found a few kiosks down. Shopping areas seem to be arranged loosely by the type of goods you need. All of the bicycle parts are in one section, shoes and sandals, hardware, paints and glues likewise. Booth after booth will have the same materials at similar prices. Grouping like this lets everyone know where to come to buy what they need. No one here is really competing; the village mentality lives even through commerce.
But mind you, this is no North American shopping mall. It’s dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet season. Whatever you buy will have to be scrubbed thoroughly when you get home. The booths are tightly packed and their wares are crammed into every corner. Areas between shops have been covered, further subdivided and stocked so it’s difficult to tell where one seller ends and another begins. Some eager entrepreneurs have just a vertical surface on which to hang their goods. There are thousands of people, perhaps an equal number of rats, and millions of cockroaches making a living in this labyrinthine sprawl. It is a hot, dank place, and the aromas are anything but inviting. The smells excite the senses like a heavyweight prizefighter excites an opponent. One hit and your olfactory sense is down for the count. I always look forward to visiting the Muslims, whose pungent incense stops the odoriferous street at the door.
Once inside, your requests will always be met with a frantic search, with the shopkeeper emerging from the dust with whatever you ask for. If he doesn’t have it, he likely knows who does. But instead of sending you there, your demand will travel word of mouth from booth to booth in all directions until, a few minutes later, a young child will come running in your direction with whatever you need, or the closest approximation in hopes that you will buy anyway. It’s almost as convenient as shopping on the Internet. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is where they got the idea. Jes and I bought some shoes here after we first arrived. She got a nice pair of lightly worn Ecco boots for $3, straight from Europe.
What’s really amazing is that change is made the same way. If you hand over a large bill, the shopkeeper will grimace and sigh and holler over both shoulders. A few seconds later your change arrives, carried in small hands a few francs at a time, until you have the total. Always count it twice.
How they remember what merchandise comes from where and who provided what change is beyond me. It’s a terrific testimony to the fact that, unlike most westerners, Africans have amazing memories. Many children here learn a half-dozen languages without ever setting foot in a school or opening a book. They learn entirely by observing and copying – survival may well depend on it. Once you meet someone, they will remember your name and every detail they have observed about you. After a few meetings they’ll know what clothing you have in your wardrobe and how you like to combine it. Africans are entirely people-centric people.
Out the corner of my eye I caught something interesting. Through a cascade of shouting and emphatic gesturing, I could see two men arguing over the price of a toilet. I thought for sure the police would have to be called, but an officer was only a few feet away and simply watched the proceedings with dismissive apathy. Without warning, the shouting stopped, the men shook hands, money changed pockets, and the toilet tank, bowl and various plumbing accessories were loaded onto to the heads of porters and slinked through the crowd in single file.
I turned back to the vendor in front of me and continued to haggle the price of the rods, when a few minutes later I caught site of a big porcelain caterpillar, slinking its way back above the crowd. The traveling toilet had returned. What was wrong? He had forgotten the seat. One of the porters hung it around his neck, and the happy bunch set off again in search of a taxi.
In a place like this you might fear for your safety, or at least for the contents of your pockets. But in reality, it’s much better than it used to be. To buy the things we need, I often have to carry more than a half-million francs, over ten years wages for most people here. According to Claver, five years ago you couldn’t do that at Cinq Kilo. But knowing how important the zone was to the city economy, the government decided to clean it up. In a few short days, they sent the police in and, no questions asked, executed everyone who was a known thief, so the story goes. That sent a message. Now the only thieves you have to worry about are the ones trying to sell you stuff.
Another interesting change in the market has to do with the trouble in Sudan, just over the northern border. Small arms are trickling through and can be purchased if you know the right people. A handgun costs only $14, and bullets are a mere $0.25 each. One of our constructors was offered a fully functional AK-47 assault rifle for only $75, gently used. Thankfully those prices, while cheap for Americans, represent a fortune for most Africans and the city continues to be very safe and have a very low, almost non-existent, crime rate.
In the paint section, we discovered that the whole market was out of black anti-rust paint. Hopeful sellers sent every variety in our direction except the one we needed. We would have to look for it in town.
On the way back to the car, I remembered I needed one more thing – a foam rubber mat for Jes to stand on while she irons. Leaving our other purchases with the guys, I ran along the booths that line the main road until I found an opening and dove into the warren that lay behind them. Some of the passages here are so small I have to turn sideways to cut through. I knew the rubber guy was nearby. I always get lots of curious stares here, since white people are rarely ever seen in this part of town, much less in this part of the market. On the way, I saw a familiar site, children promenading with small items for sale in trays on their head. One girl had a tray full of chewing gum, prophylactics and flip-flops. Curiously, she was walking barefoot. I asked her name.
“Bisous” (Bee-sue). Aside from her name she didn’t speak a word of French, which meant she had never been to school. She was about nine or ten years old.
“How much are your sandals?”
“1,200.” Ouch, a little steep.
“I think I would like to buy a pair. Would you take a 1000 francs?”, about two dollars.
“It’s good.” She pulled the tray off her head to show me the flip-flops, though I could see them right where they were. I selected some pink ones with a plastic yellow daisy between the toes.
“Do you live here in Bangui?”
“No, Guerengou.” Later I found it on the map, over ten miles away.
“How many days a week do you walk to the market?”
“I come everyday. I buy the sandals here and sell them in town.”
“Bisous, did you know that God promises a time when we won’t have to work that hard to live.” She said nothing but nodded in agreement.
I gave her back the sandals and told her she could put them on. She smiled and thanked me. Through her braids I could see two big coffee-colored eyes that radiated gratitude. I thanked her for her time and she disappeared into the crowd.
Our conversation made me think. How many of these humble people would accept the good news if they were not pinned under the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy and sickness? How many millions who live deep inside this vast continent have yet to hear even the first words of bible truth? How would their lives be changed if they had hope and the sustaining power of holy spirit? When Jesus told his disciples to drop their nets into the deeper waters, he must have been thinking of places like Central Africa. It’s not just deep; it’s fundamentally isolated from the rest of the world. The amount of work left to pull up the nets in these deep waters is truly staggering.
I met my guys back at the car after a few unsuccessful minutes looking for the rubber guy. The heat was making me dizzy and I was ready for some fresh air. Besides, my small act of kindness had been noticed by at least fifty people I had seen and perhaps hundreds I had not. I would definitely be remembered here and would probably be mobbed by a throng of needy the next time I showed my face in this section.
In the relative peace of the van, we inched our way through the crush of pedestrians and jockeyed around a long of line of taxis. Mentally, I began to fill out the expense report for all of the items.
I also reflected on my transaction with Bisous. She didn’t complain, but in my heart I knew it was hardly a fair trade. I had given her a pair of sandals that, with the distance she was walking, would be consumed in a matter of weeks. She had given me a smile that would last a lifetime.
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