The Central Market is the economic heart of the city, pumping out all manner of goods from fresh produce and fish straight out of Lake Tanganyika to cooking pots, second-hand clothes and locally produced palm oil. My favorite part of the market – the fabric stalls. Imagine bright African block fabrics draped, layer upon layer, at least ten feet high, in each kiosk. The colors, brilliant; the patterns, dizzying; the possibilities seemed endless as I craned to see the ones at the very top where they almost touched the sky.
My sister in law took me once. I remember her strutting, with her perfect African gate, toward her favorite venders and showing off her light-skinned family member. We laughed together as we looked at the fabrics and considered which would make good shirts for Claude, maybe a dress for me. All the ladies, some with babies strapped to their backs, weighed in on the right selections.
Another time I went with my no-nonsense Auntie. She refused to let the sellers take advantage of my whiteness, bargaining on my behalf so I could get an armload of fabrics. Her interactions were efficient and stride swift, just what I’d expect from a woman who knew this market from years of such daily exchanges. Arm and arm we made our way out from the darkened paths of the market and into the Burundian sunlight.
But the first time I went to the big market was with Mama Rose, my mother in law. Round and stout, she maneuvered through the tight stalls and clusters of people with unexpected agility. I remember running out of breath just trying to keep pace with her. No one stood in her way for long as she elbowed to the left and shimmied to the right passing all the eager vendors trying to get her attention. She took me out to an enclosed courtyard filled with fruits and vegetables – beyond any farmers market I’d ever seen. Pyramids of mandarins, piles of garlic with long stalks still attached, baskets of purple shallots and bigger baskets of potatoes – it was hard to take it all in as Mama Rose never slowed for my produce tourism. I just recall a moment when we stopped, she making quick purchases and the place pulsating with Kirundi words, brown hands and the energy of local commerce.
She made sure I followed her, grabbing my wrist, as we hopped over gutters and swerved around toddlers toward an exit. She chose the route leading right through the tables of fresh fish, some still wet and glistening, some warm with stink. Oh, and then we passed the squawking chickens in cages and others being plucked for waiting customers. The smile that finally came to light revealed her plan… she wanted to give me a little dramatic flare at the end of our market venture together!
Yesterday the Central Market burned to the ground. Not even the roof was left standing. In the close quarters filled with vendors and products, livestock, shoes, cooking oil and tailors sewing dresses …the flames spread quicker than my Auntie’s swift stride. All those fabrics fell from the sky and burned into ash. The livelihood of all those women went up in smoke. All the laughter I remember then, now turned into wailing and the kind of grief that smacks you to the ground.
And the chaos wouldn’t be contained. On the outskirts of the market looters began to take all they could carry from surrounding street sellers and nearby shops. Before sunset price gouging was widespread in little neighborhood grocery stores. By morning, everyone knew food and sundries would be hard to come by and too costly, even if you did. This would be the beginning of a chain reaction in the Burundian economy, more crushing for those at the bottom, already vulnerable.
My heart soars with pungent memories of the Central Market. A place of commerce and community in the very core of the city – where small fortunes are built one day at a time by women with babies strapped to their backs, by men lacing together the last bit of hope, scrappy entrepreneurs trying to break into the economy and provide for their families. The Sunday fire burned entire inventories, life savings for most clients and the dreams of so many. Now I want to smear ash across my face, across my memories and weep for the loss of life and livelihoods.
The Central Market stood amid the city every day. It was the intersection for local goods and neighbors. It was a place of small transactions and nearly invisible margins. It was the place people got what they needed and made a little living, just enough on a good day. And it’s gone. And now life will be harder.
Lord, remember the place where I walked with Mama Rose and the other women of my family. Remember all those now grieving losses too deep for words. Remember the limping economy of Burundi. Please bring hope in the midst of heartache.