My team had been in Freetown for two days but my luggage was still nowhere. The plane expected to bring it was diverted to another airport due to a thunderstorm.
Because we had no time to wait for it as our project was outside Freetown, I asked to be accompanied to buy some clothes and toiletries. Aminata, a local Sierra Leonean lady, graciously agreed to take me to the Freetown Central Market.
"Do you have a cellphone? Do you have money with you?" she asked me as we walked to the market. "They pick pockets here."
"No, nothing that can be stolen," I assured her. I had no cellphone. I had money but it was in a money belt under my clothes.
"Ok, don't talk. If you want anything just point. I will do all the talking," she said. I closely followed Aminata as she walked briskly. I noticed how straight her body was, like most women in the city, and if fact, Sierra Leone. I thought that maybe this posture was brought about by having to carry things on their heads from a young age. I noticed my slouching shoulders and straightened up.
The market was a very busy place. Vendors had their wares on the street sides or on the street itself.
Freetown market (photo from panoramia.com)
We stopped by a boy who sold bright-coloured blouses, and he immediately started pulling out tops from his basket on the ground.
"I prefer t-shirts," I told Aminata. "Cotton t-shirts... Like what that boy is wearing," I pointed to a teenager walking by. I wanted something comfortable.
"You want a boy's shirt," Aminata made sure she heard me right. I assumed t-shirts were unisex, so I said yes. She led me to a stall selling what looked like over-sized faded boy's T-shirts worn by teenagers. I picked out the smallest ones I could find that looked the most feminine. My fault. I said boy's shirt.
Next, Aminata brought me to a narrow alley where there were little stalls on both sides and more sellers in the middle. We went to a stall selling skirts and female tops. Ladies clothes! That's more like it, I thought.
"Ok, just choose what you want," Aminata said as she handed me cotton skirts and tops to try on. I fitted them over my own clothes in the fitting area that was covered by nothing but a couple of shirts.
"Remember you will be away for month," Aminata continued, handing me more clothes to try. She also got a few items from the adjacent stall. I had never bought as many items in one shopping trip. I was beginning to like it. Aminata, though younger, was acting like a doting mother.
When I said I had enough, she began haggling with the sellers. They talked in their language animatedly and sounded like they were arguing. It was very interesting to watch. Finally they calmed down and Aminata took out leones from her purse in thousand denominations. One US dollar is equivalent to more than 3,000 leones.
"What else do you need?" she asked.
I was embarrassed to say undergarments aloud, so I whispered, "I need some brassieres."
"So you need some BRA?" she asked loudly. "Do you want custom-made or the ones from bills?" I did not understand what she meant. From her explanation, I gathered that container goods were received in Freetown, perhaps as donations, I'm not sure, and some secondhand ones found their way to the market. She called them bills or bales. I can't remember now. Custom-made ones were new.
"Custom-made," I replied. Have we been buying secondhand? Is that why they look faded? I wondered. I couldn't care less now, but please, no secondhand undergarments.
She approached a lady who was selling brassieres arranged on a flat round basket in the middle of an alley. The bras came in various colours and embroidery. I thought they were a little flashy for underwear. Or were these also outerwear?
"She needs some bra," Aminata told the vendor and then she lightly touched my chest. Excuse me? I was caught by surprise and was unable to react. I have two real ones, in you case you have any doubts.
"Small," she added. Excuse me! How can you tell that with this thick denim top? If I didn't know any better, I'd think that was adding insult to embarrassment. I was half-amused and half-shocked and took everything in stride.
The vendor started fitting several bras one after another over my top. I stood there like a mannequin trying to ignore the people watching me. As the only non-black person in the busy alley that had so many male vendors, I was attracting attention.
Yes, that's OK with me. No, too small. Too big. Too pointy. Too...orange?!
This is hilarious, I thought. I don't care. Nobody knows me around here. They will not remember my face.
We bought a few more items then I was done shopping. I didn't bother to ask who was covering the cost of the purchases--the airlines, the project or me. I was pleased with my new set of clothes.
(to be continued, Destination: Makeni)