Down the Aisle, in Search of Pulse

Eight months after I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, a Nigerian friend said my taste buds had been Americanized. It was April and the dread of winter was behind us. At the Chinese buffet where about ten of us gathered to mark birthdays, it was a raucous affair. We teased each other endlessly about how much of what was on offer we could eat. If someone plated a dish it turned out they didn’t like, we laughed at their less cosmopolitan tastes and told them to know their place enough to choose what they recognized next time. My plate was sparse. I’d plated a small portion of steamed broccoli, shrimp and sushi. When I finished with it, I stood for some cake and pudding because the two friends flanking me prodded me to “eat more!” It was an all-you-can-eat-for-a-small-fee buffet and we ought to be taking advantage of it, poor graduate students that we were. But I felt overwhelmed—there was too much to choose from and my appetite had tanked. Friends stood for third and fourth rounds, their plates piled high with an assortment of dishes which we ahhed at. We laughed and bantered and huddled together for selfies and said “Happy Birthday” over and over to the celebrants. As we stood for photographs in the parking lot later, this friend—who’d found my suggestion of a latte at a cafe ́ a few weeks prior disgusting —jocularly warned that no one should ever trust me with what they eat: I’d lost my Nigerian appetite, and palate.

I was insistent on not acculturating after I came to America. I don’t think this insistence amounted to more than a cautious approach to assimilating my new environment, but America was a country quick to assert and imbue its own culture and politics, and I was going to attempt some resistance. And so, while I laughed at the possible Americanization of my taste buds in the parking lot that afternoon, the possible loss of my Nigerian palate became a nagging worry in the weeks that followed. The accusation was true in some way after all: when I discussed mealtimes with my Nigerian friends, what I ate often sounded alien: pasta—lots of pasta cooked in ways different from how pasta was cooked back home, no soups and swallows, no jollof or porridge beans. Instead: pinto beans salad, cream cheese bagels and coffee—varieties that went beyond a simple mug of black or Peak Milk-creamed Nescafé.

I’d pined for home food shortly after I arrived without as little as a grain of rice from Lagos, which was unusual. Nearly everyone in our ballooning Nigerian grad student community arrived with a travelling pantry: Ghana-Must-Go bags and luggage stuffed with food ingredients, from ground egusi and crayfish to ọkpa flour. Given my nonchalance towards food, I’d assured my family and friends I would adapt to whatever foods I found in Oregon but as the weeks and months wore on, I found the multifaceted unfamiliarity—in geography, weather, time—overwhelming, and wished my meals times were more anchored at home. It was, in part, a longing for home food that led me, a few days to my thirty-first birthday, to the first African market I’d visit. “African markets” as an American phenomenon was new to me. I knew that these were specialty grocery stores where you found food ingredients from home at a steep cost, monetarily and quality-wise but nothing more. I set out with a few friends on a Saturday morning in March. It was a sunny day, the skies bright blue and hopeful. We made it to Flourish Spices & African Food, the popular market in Salem, in under an hour at its small location next to a Subway in a strip mall. The signage advertised “spices & African food” but also a “beauty palace”.

We entered the building slowly and were greeted first, by mannequins displaying headwraps on a towering shelf. Cascading down its layers, jars of Davis brow pencils and body lotions with white models on the bottles bid us welcome. If we were still in doubt of the store’s Africanness, the small stack of Mike Bamiloye VCDs on an adjoining table conferred it as familiar territory. Inside, the market was somewhat busy. To the left was a salon where a man sat getting his dreads relocked. On a television perched above the checkout counter, a religious convention played. A girl pattered around the salon. When I came around to browse the wigs and hair dyes on the shelves, she chit-chatted openly as children often do, and I learned it was her father whose hair was getting relocked.

To our right, a handful of people strolled around the short and narrow aisles created by white shelves of foodstuff: yellow garri, small tubers of yam, bottles of palm oil—some, a startling blood-red and others, a more familiar dull orange colour. There were packets of Knorr, stockfish and ground crayfish. There were small bags of unbranded Nigerian rice, a long grain variety imported from Thailand that could withstand two rounds of cooking (most rice varieties I bought in Corvallis were disappointing: quick to turn to mush, smelled funny, tasted different). There were spices: uziza, utazi, iru, small tins of pepper soup spice, and shito. In an inner store, more. Pap, dried and frozen onugbu leaves, water and amaranth leaves. As we strolled the short aisles, I pointed at food items and called to one of my friends: “See! They have pap! Look! Yam!”

Our carpool spent a few hundred dollars on food items. I hadn’t planned on grocery shopping but I left with a small bag of rice, palm oil, Knorr cubes, yam, garri, stockfish, Davis brow pencils and a tube of hair dye. I even bought a plate of jollof rice, meat and fried plantain that the owner, Madam Olajumoke, had prepared for a customer who was no longer coming for it. The following day, I tried to reorient my palate toward home. I sliced yams into thin strips, fried it and served it with scrambled eggs, a dish I had often back in Lagos. I drank garri with powdered milk and groundnuts. I cooked a pot of porridge beans whose colour and flavour came from palm oil, not curry or tomato puree.

The next African market I visited was farther away. When spring break arrived, I went with a few friends to Portland, about an hour from Salem, to sightsee. We spent the morning hiking at the Japanese Rose Garden, ate falafel and yellow rice at a Mediterranean restaurant for lunch and took photos against bright graffitied walls with my compact Fujilm. On our way home, someone asked if we could visit the African market there.

Mama Pauline’s African Market was quiet when we filed in that Friday afternoon. At the entrance, a middle-aged East African-looking woman and a middle-aged man stood facing a small television perched on the wall opposite the door. An almost inaudible film played, but they broke their concentration to return our greetings. We turned left and walked down the market’s only aisle, looking at food items pristinely arranged on the shelves: condiments, cooking sauces, bottles of spices, powdered milk, and familiar beverages. We got to a juncture, took two steps down and entered the second half of the narrow market. Here, more shelves of garri, rice, iron beans, legumes of varying kinds, pounded yam flour all neatly packed, sealed and tagged with prices in Courier New font. In a corner, a newborn slept, undisturbed, and I was briefly startled upon finding the sleeping baby.

My friends picked what they came for: a large tin of powdered milk, beans, garri, a large tin of Milo. Someone added two packets of plantain chips for the ride home. Back at the counter, the woman, whom I presumed to be Mama Pauline, took a break from the television and scanned the items one after another. They paid, and as we piled into the car, it suddenly occurred to me how silent the market was—how prestine, how orderly, how small, how efficient. How soulless.


Every African market has character. One can buy similar things in many of them, encounter the same kinds of people, yet they are particular, in subtle and conspicuous ways, personal and communal ways. The Ogbete main market in Enugu was where my mother went for serious business: Christmas shopping, New Year’s, clothes for important events, elaborate skincare, curtains and bedsheets or to repair a favourite watch. The optician who fitted our frames had a stall there. It was where we bought textbooks and new yams, large and muddy with soil. If you wanted rolls of fine lace for your asoebi train or a well-tailored suit and brogues made from fine Italian leather, Ogbete was where to go. There was a section blanketed by the heavy smell of drugs and a section subdued by the overpowering scent of second-hand clothes.

Market-going was an occasion when I was growing up. My mother went on Saturdays with shopping lists that filled a sheet of paper. We prepped the day before piecing together Bagco bags, going through the store to figure out what needed topping up, deciding who was accompanying her and planning out routes connecting the different axes of the market. Often, my father would offer to pick us up in the evening. If we listened closely, we heard them next door deciding at which petrol station or parking lot he would be waiting. I must have gone with her at least half a dozen times on my holidays from boarding school. On those trips, she’d have two lists: one for what the house needed and then lists my sisters and I had written in preparation for a new school term: provisions, textbooks, exercise books, a new pair of sandals, new pyjamas or towel, or fabric to make a new set of uniforms.

It was a whole day’s affair. We left after a filling breakfast of bread and tea or ọkpa with custard or akamụ. Once at Ogbete, we worked our way down the lists. My mother, she was a resolute and efficient shopper—one needed to be to wade through the chaos of Saturday market-going at Ogbete. If we were buying provisions we might make the first stop for tins of milk, boxes of cornflakes, Always pads, you name it. She’d have all that packed in medium-sized boxes which we carried to the next stop, her skincare vendor. After she bought her beauty supplies from the affable light-skinned man who owned the store, we’d leave both purchases there and head to our next stop. In this way, we moved around lightly until every item was crossed off the lists. She then called a wheelbarrow pusher whom we hurried behind to every store where we had a load of purchases waiting until we picked everything up and headed out of the market, usually around rush hour, to meet my father.

With time, after I came to learn from my peers that navigating Ogbete—or any other market in Enugu—on one’s own was a coming-of-age ritual, I began to dread the day I would have to go on my own. For one, there was more than one entrance into the market and ending up in the wrong one or an unfamiliar one could elongate the time you spent there. There was the swirl of activity: the cacophony of voices and loudspeakers blasting dated Afrobeats or dirge-like gospel, people going and coming, walking so briskly it seemed they were seconds away from breaking into a sprint. There were also male—and sometimes female—traders groping and catcalling to make a sale. As a teenager tagging along behind my mother, they respected her enough to not reach out for me or my sisters, or to do so when her eyes were fixed ahead of an aisle marching to her next stop. This was the most infuriating part of market-going.

Watching my mother haggle, however, was a small joy in retrospect. And so were all her direct and indirect lessons on how to make a good purchase in an African market. When buying okra, for instance, she said to ask for a knife, pick one of the okra and cut into a little. You’re checking for softness. You don’t want to buy a batch of fibrous okra that would be difficult to chop or earn you a scolding. Buying roasted groundnuts? Open the bottle and throw a fingerful into your mouth to check for crunch and freshness. If a trader offers, take a bite of pineapple or half of an orange. You’re checking for sweetness and juiciness. When buying a tuber of old yam, lift, knock along the body and listen for hollowness. If you are buying a bowl or mound of fresh tomatoes, make sure to lift every ball, particularly the ones at the bottom because traders are more versed in the art of branding than any suit or heel-wearing marketing executive. Same applies to vegetables. Buying grains, however, is often a matter of faith and accumulated trust, that when a trader says their heap of iron beans or bowl of dried fish is sand-free, it is.

After I learned to navigate the market as a teenager, outsmarting traders became a most fulfilling adventure: spotting a bad tomato and asking that it be replaced, or doing the pretend walk away when my price had not been agreed to so I would be called back and the item sold to me. I insisted on paying what I thought was fair for a kilo of meat even if the butcher swore meat was now more expensive and he was in fact selling at a loss. I enjoyed turning bunches of vegetables round and round to see if I was being sold leaves that had been bored into by some vegetable-eating pest. Gotcha! But I can’t say I always won or even that I won often—the pretend exits were always a gamble for one. But it warmed my heart to bring back the freshest produce to my mother, and to have saved some of her money while at it.

Ogbete was boisterous, as all markets are, but maybe doubly so; a little arrogant but in a manner that was charming, and possessed a pride that was earned—from serving the coal mine community in the early 1900s to becoming a commercial nerve centre in the 1960s and surviving near obliteration in the Biafran War.

By contrast, Abakpa, the food market a bus ride away from our home, displayed a rowdiness that hid its modesty. The market was small, with clusters spreading out along streets in the area. The pace was slower and it was easy to find your way around.  This was where my solo trips to the market began. I went during the week for quick fresh food runs or for live chickens that I watched get slaughtered, defeathered and chopped into chunks of meat. Abakpa was like a stubborn child. Merchants would not heed instructions to take their wares inside the market boundaries so the road connecting it to Nike Road had narrowed significantly because of rows of wooden tables displaying vegetables, yams, legumes and beauty products on each side. Abakpa was quirky—it was where we bought animal bone parts for Biology class and where one could find mantra candles decorated with Hindu gods and goddesses. That section had a peculiar pungent odour and was sparsely visited. Who wanted to be seen buying a wealth or love-inducing mantra candle on a Monday afternoon?

It was, in part, in market-going that my mother, her person, fully came into focus for me. By the time my sisters and I took over market-going, my mother had assembled and handed off a cache of merchants with whom she’d built a trusting relationship over the years—one that allowed her express displeasure over a sale without hesitation or buy things on credit because they knew she would pay. She knew how to temper a particularly tedious market day with snack breaks, humour or family stories we were keen to hear. Even if you did not appreciate the frenetic energy of the market, the promise of her company—or a chilled bottle of soft drink she would goad her skincare or underwear plug to buy us—was enough incentive. Sometimes, if she was feeling generous and could afford to, she bought us things we hadn’t dared to include in our lists but still needed. And after we returned from the market in the evening, worn out from all the walking, lifting and haggling, my mother still had to make dinner. And we were right there with her picking and chopping vegetables, pounding spices, washing chunks of meat, sharing the burden of womanhood for the men in our lives.

My relationship with markets soured irrevocably after I moved to Lagos at twenty-three. Once, during the intervening years, my youngest sister visited from Enugu. She wanted to buy some new clothes and I took her to Tejuosho, a market on the Lagos mainland. Tejuosho was fashionable, always in tune with new trends off and on the runway with cheaper knockoffs. The main market itself was a large complex of about 2,000 stalls that took up almost all of one side of the Ojuelegba-Itire Road in Yaba. The complex was an upgrade following a 2007 fire but many of the stalls—now outrageously priced for the businesses that traded there—sat empty and locked. As the stalls took time to fill up, traders put the compound and street to use creating makeshift shopping stalls that overflowed into the road and spilled onto the train track that ran through the market. It was busier in the evenings, when secondhand cloth traders, targeting a young crop of students from the nearby University of Lagos and Yabatech, spread out their wares on cut-out squares of jute bags, yelling out to potential customers, or simply grabbing the hands of any women entering the market and tugging them towards the heaps of clothing.

That Saturday, we did not enter the market complex but waded through the makeshift stalls in the compound looking for the most compelling displays. When we settled on a shop—after being tugged and pulled and snatching our hands back from sellers who wanted to make a sale—we sat on a wooden bench inside and the young man began to show us his stock. A few minutes later, our eyes started to water. In a blink, we were coughing and tearing up and the shop had become cloudy. We exited quickly. Minutes later, news started to filter in that a trader from whom we refused to buy released some sort of gas into the shop to stop our purchase. I am still shaken by this memory.

Markets have always been tenuous meeting points, particularly among traders. At the small food market close to my older sister’s neighbourhood on the Lagos island, cult clashes are not uncommon. At Ogbete, traders begin their days sprinkling holy water in front of their shops to ward off slow-trading-day hexes from jealous neighbours. Tejuosho is where, one afternoon, as I walked into the market for supplies, I threatened to stab a man with the pen I was holding after he glared at me for asking that he not touch me again. For a brief moment, he stopped and stared, challenging me to do as I’d said. I wouldn’t have. Markets are also known to be sites of vicious jungle justices, especially when the perpetrator is a woman, and a man—or more accurately, his masculinity—the alleged victim.

Still, markets are like cities. One might feel the pulse of a place strongest or discern the psyche of a people by walking the aisles of its market, dealing with its merchants, getting swindled there and observing the people who animate it. There is no shortage of interesting characters nor of lore, no shortage of orally delivered op-eds and manifestos on every subject matter under God’s green earth. You can learn the economics of a country’s ports in its markets, learn what most families will have for dinner, or when the seasons turn. A market is where you go to hear the thumping of an African city.


To hear this pulse, improbable as that seemed, I set off on a Pacific Northwest backpacking trip a few days into 2023. It was not altogether spontaneous. I’d made plans weeks prior detailing on a Notion page all the items I needed to fit into a small backpack, drawing up a list of African markets to visit across the region, writing to my department for a scholarship fund to aid my travel. I set out on a quiet Monday morning in January, a week before school was to go back in session. The bus drove through fog that thickened and thinned every now and then as we made our way through winding roads to Salem. My internal tenor was a muted excitement but also a feeling of expansiveness, at moving in a manner I had wanted to since I arrived in this country.

That morning, I returned to a near-empty Flourish where I learned my first visit had erroneously suggested an ever busy market. Madam Olajumoke, the owner, was in her office when I arrived and we spent the next hour conversing about shipping food across American and African borders. Flourish started as a salon ten years ago. Food came a little later. When she followed her husband from Lagos to Atlanta in the early 2000s after they won the visa lottery, she’d dreamed of owning a three-pronged business: a salon, a food market and a restaurant. Three years after arriving in the US, they moved to Oregon, where they knew no one. While her husband worked, she was plagued with a deep loneliness and longing for familiarity. After she shared her business plan with an uncle in New York, he sent her two shipments of food ingredients. “It was everything I needed apart from frozen foods,” she said to me. To lower her operation costs, he connected her to wholesalers in nearby California—the area’s largest wholesaler of African food is Mexican—from whom she continues to make purchases. Some food items she still ships into the country in 500-pound boxes on airlines directly from Nigeria and Ghana. “When I pay in naira, I could pay over a million or so to ship them,” she told me about the shipping costs. My eyes grew wide. She laughed. One needed heart to do this kind of business in the U.S. Last November, the ofada rice she imported from Nigeria was seized. She was told certain agricultural practices make ofada imported from Nigeria unsafe for American consumers. She was unaware that there had been changes to rules regarding its importation. The bags of rice worth ₦600 000 had to be trashed. Another time, USDA inspectors came into the market unexpectedly. They dug into her freezers, red-tagged her ponmo, ordered her to thrash her supply of cow feet because it was unlabelled, and wanted to know where the catfish she stocked was supplied from. Then they called her suppliers to confirm that she was being truthful. As we spoke, her daughter came in to confer with her on a hair appointment. Then a pastor from church stopped by to pick up something and they spent a few minutes in a back-and-forth of pleasantries. She was no longer pursuing dreams of owning a restaurant, but she was expanding on what she had built in the past decade: producing sauces to make cooking Nigerian food faster—or simpler for non-Nigerians, making cooked food customers can buy when they visit, taking all the experiential knowledge she has gathered and selling it to anyone looking to start an African market or cook African food in the Pacific Northwest.

An hour went by quickly. I wanted to keep conversing but she needed to run an errand and offered to drive me to the train station. There, I boarded a bus to Portland, had an early quiet dinner at a Thai restaurant seated by a window looking out into Powell’s, spent the night at a hotel in Chinatown and took an Amtrak to Seattle the following evening. I arrived at night and found lodging in a hostel next to Pike Place Market, a farmer’s market in downtown Seattle. In the morning, I wandered the market with two women: Suzanne, a spirited retired linguistics professor from Honolulu whom I encountered at the Portland train station and who brought me to the hostel, and Joy, a Ghanaian exchange student we ran into at breakfast.

Pike Place was tame. Across the road from the market, we walked past mounds of fruits and a small cheese factory and fresh seafood. Suzanne bought rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves which reminded me that I missed ọkpa. Underneath the building’s awning, traders and artisans were still setting out their wares. We walked the length of the market and stopped at the exit overlooking the waterfront to admire pricey ponchos. Inside the market, many stores were still locked. There was nonetheless a pleasing variety expressed in their signages that reminded me of Ogbete: bookstores, a coin collector, a Black Magic performer, restaurants, cafés, bakeries, stalls of poultry, fruits, vegetables, and spices. It was Ogbete with less grime, less frenetic energy, more curation. When I returned alone later that evening to buy dinner, I overheard someone say with some disappointment, “This is just a tourist place” as if to scold its attempt at imitating an open-air market in Africa or elsewhere in the world, and failing at it. In the market’s defence, it was much livelier and came close to what I’d been seeking so far. If it looked anything like it did during its early years, I thought poring over sepia images of its past, it would have mirrored the disorderliness of Ogbete or Abakpa, been less touristy, more suited for the son or daughter of the soil who knows to find order in the madness.

After wandering through Pike Place, Suzanne left to catch a train to her home in Freeland, and Joy got called to finish some schoolwork. I took the bus to a market on Rainier Avenue. West African International Market (WAIM) had ample space, big by American African market standards, I was learning. Shelves lined three sides of the walls and in the middle were smaller shelves stocked with all kinds of flour, spices, grains, snacks and canned foods. It was empty when I walked in. Its owner, Fatoumata, was a slow-speaking woman who was welcoming when I told her about my trip. The market was her late husband’s idea. They opened in the mid-2000s, and while he worked at sea for a large fishing company, she ran the business, raised their children and studied for a management degree. He died two years after she graduated, and the business lived on. Her stock came from many places across Africa: Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Liberia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, where she hails from.

But mostly, they came from Nigeria and Ghana. When a shipment was journeying through the Atlantic, she said a prayer for safe crossing. Custom checks were painfully rigid. Bans or seizures were sometimes arbitrary. “One of our biggest markets is dry catfish,” she told me, but then customs placed a limit on the quantity one can import and then she started to hear many were just being discarded at the ports. “Many are no longer in the catfish business because it brings a lot of problems.” Fatoumata did not think anything oppressive about these rules: it was the government’s duty to protect the stomachs of its citizens, broadly speaking, by monitoring what foods came through its borders. Often, inspectors dropped by unannounced. “It’s like the way you came!” she exclaimed. “I thought you were an inspector.” She ate what she sold so the random inspections were not a bother. We joked about the ubiquitousness of Nigerians, who were her main customers, and their close contenders from Ghana. Halfway through, she stopped to sell packets of stockfish to a man whose daughter sent him to buy them. As she sorted through a heap of root herbs next to the window, she pointed me toward another African market a block away.

Gambia International Market was dim and airless. When you walked in, it wouldn’t occur to you that you were in a food market save the peculiar smell of dried fish and spices mixed with mustiness permeating the store. To the right of the door, small bottles of Arabian oud perfumes—one I remember my mother used to buy from her skincare plug at Ogbete—lined the shelves. I took a picture and sent it to my sister. Do you remember these, I texted. To the left was a wall hanger stuffed with grey and brown kaftans and jalabiyas. Behind the counter where a young hijab-clad girl sat were tiny hand-labelled vials of perfume oils. I walked down the short aisle, turned left, took a few steps and made another left turn to circle the entire market. The food items were familiar; brands and products I’d seen in WAIM and Flourish. Back at the counter, the girl told me her father ran the market. He was out. I could wait if I wanted but she was not sure when he would be back. Minutes later, Abubakar came in. He wore a grey jalabiya and a head warmer, and his beards were orange from henna dye. His eyes were deep set and swollen and he regarded me with suspicion, did not let me record our conversation and responded in measured sentences. He said the market started in response to the neighbourhood’s growing Muslim community and was originally a perfumery and fashion store. Food came a little later. I presumed he believed me to be a covert USDA inspector and only after he had dismissed me to continue business, after I told him I’d come all the way from Oregon and was heading to Spokane to visit more African markets, did he appear to soften.

I went to Spokane because I couldn’t get to Boise, Idaho. Spokane was a long bus ride from Seattle, but the breathtaking and quick-changing landscape more than compensated for it. This must be the mythologized allure of the Pacific Northwest, I thought, sitting by a window and fighting sleep—vast land cleaved to the horizon, waters like moving sheets of glass, majestic mountains with their heads in the clouds seeking the face of God. In Spokane, I found lodging in a motel east of town where I slept fitfully for two nights because of an abundance of security warnings and “we take no responsibility” disclaimers by the establishment. On my full day, I took a bus towards the city centre to African Market & Beauty Supply (AMBS) on Sprague Avenue. A hijab-clad high schooler behind the counter told me this was the only African market in Spokane. It had the same smell of spices like the rest and was stuffed with shelves of food, like the rest. The store owner was away and as I ambled in between shelves, it occurred to me that there were more ingredients I had not previously encountered here: millet, fonio, herbs and spices that were unrecognisable to me but seemed to be more of East and North African origins. The beauty section was cloistered with a rainbow of weaves, jewellery, Ankara and lace kaftans and the kinds of hats that the wife of a megachurch pastor would wear. When I asked her if I could photograph some of the food items on the shelves, she went in to inquire from a voice I’d been hearing conversing in an inner room. I could not, she told me when she returned, which I found amusing. What if I needed to show someone who wanted to make a purchase? There were photos online, she responded. At Ogbete or Tejuosho, traders would’ve shown me how best to photograph those shelves for the chance to make a sale.


I did not want to return to Corvallis but I had run out of money and time. The night I returned to town, I was physically exhausted yet I yearned for the road and its transience, arriving in someplace new every few days and seeking out an African market. If it was the familiar pulse of a market or a semblance of it I sought, I knew now that I would not find it, not here. The African markets here were the same. There was no sprawl, no effervescence, no tug and pull, no one half-sprinting before or behind me. There was little human interaction to observe. And I could not haggle, could not scoop a handful of grain or shake soil off a bunch of vegetables before buying because everything was cleaned, bagged and tagged. The farmer’s market in downtown Corvallis, like Pike Place, came close. It had the feel of the open-air markets, aisles flanked by stalls disparate in their stock: a butcher next to a flower shop next to a honey shop next to a bakery. I could hold up a corn cob to inspect, turn a ball of tomato this way or that before buying although there was really not much to check for. But merchants were glad to engage in conversation if you wanted to learn the name of a strange vegetable or chat about how not to kill a cactus. There was music and dancing and laughing, love and commerce transacted by an idyllic river. 

It isn’t really just about where one shops for food then. For a few months, I shopped at the university pantry, only, you didn’t quite have to pay. I remember walking through the medium-sized building, selecting cans of corn and bags of almond nuts—as many as I was allowed for a one-person household—dropping them into an orange shopping trolley and marvelling that I did not have to pay for them. Once, I mentioned this to my father telling him how the groceries helped me offset my spending at supermarkets like Safeway and Winco. He was quiet for a moment. Was I struggling so much I could not afford to buy my food? I tried to assuage his worry. I told him many other international students went there and it was kind of a social security feature across America, one I found moving. In the university pantry, we “shopped” with dignity and I often thought, as I walked through the pantry picking items off the shelves, how back home, most philanthropy that involved free meals also involved excessive filming and documenting which, to me, was dehumanising. Perhaps this was why he sounded a little wounded and sad. I worry about you, he said, how you’re coping over there.

When I frequented the pantry, I went bimonthly. I left with canned chickpeas and sweet corn and peas, or a packet of spinach. If I came early enough, I might leave with chicken breasts or a carton of milk. There was always enough wheat bread to go around. And if the other Nigerian students had broccoli or other vegetables they did not know how to work with in their paper bags, I was more than eager to take them. With time, grocery shopping at the pantry became an occasion to catch up with the growing community of Nigerian graduate students; to learn who was in town, who had difficult courses or professors or coursemates, to hear about their experiences living in Corvallis, being black for the first time in their lives. I went to observe the growing Indian student community and how we, the ubiquitous Nigerians, paled in comparison. I went for reactions to the new vegetables and fruits that we often encountered in our bags of fresh produce. Word about social gatherings and meetups spread faster and wider there. I went because I could be a fly on the wall, watching people interact with each other and with what they ate, their glee when there was something they fancied on offer for the day. I went to get lost in conversations happening in Hindi and Mandarin and Yoruba and Cantonese.

Perhaps this was part of why I now missed Ogbete, why even with the likelihood of catcalls and groping hands, I longed to be back there ambling into the market from the road along which the Catholic cathedral sits, ignoring young women calling out, “fine aunty, come and make your hair” or the young men asking, “baby you wan fix nails?” All the while, people might be short seconds away from breaking into a sprint around me. I would catch a squabble here, laughter there, or get caught up watching two men quarrel jocularly about the February 2023 elections and Peter Obi’s candidacy. A hum of an Afrobeats tune and maybe the faint shrill voice of a doomsday preacher would accompany me until I turn into another aisle. Then another, and another, and another.


Photo by Photos By Beks on Unsplash

Kosisochukwu W. Ugwuede

Kosisochukwu W. Ugwuede is an essayist, photographer & journalist from Enugu, Nigeria. Her essays & photographs have been published in DIAGRAM, Psaltery & Lyre, Lolwe, The Forge, Agbowó, and The Sole Adventurer among several others. Her work was shortlisted for the 2023 Koffi Addo Writivism Prize for Nonfiction, and has been nominated for Best Spiritual Literature and Best of the Net anthologies. She is a graduate of Oregon State University’s MFA in nonfiction writing program and holds an undergraduate degree in Microbiology & Biochemistry from the University of Nigeria.