Behind the veiled faces of “our people”

Sarah Lagot Odwong mugshot


I sat in the passenger seat waiting for my mother to come back from her fresh vegetable hunt. The place? Nakawa Market. I’ve come here every week since I was a child and I’ve forged relationships with many of the vendors.

My mother made sure to always tag my sister and I along on her shopping sprees. This evening was no exception. I observed the haggling outside my window.

Our regular sukuma wiki vendor had her back turned to the roadside. I got my phone to take a picture of the busy evening roadside market scene.

However, I was confronted with dark, heavy stares. People here are very suspicious of cameras. I took the photo hurriedly and hid the phone from sight.

“Bitano bitano, enyanya bitano bitano,” a vegetable vendor yelled. (“Shs500.. tomatoes Shs500”).

However, her voice was drowned out by the hive of activity.

A metal fabricator here, a second- hand clothes dealer there, the cries of vendors calling out to customers rose and fell like an all-too-familiar song, one whose lyrics I have heard since childhood.

Customers bend over to take their pick and haggle over goods. The vegetable lady sighs loudly in desperation. A customer wants to buy two heaps of tomatoes at Shs600.

The Shs1000 she is charging for the two huge mounds of tomatoes is already too fair a price, especially in this Ugandan economy where prices are rising by the minute. She resigns herself to the customer’s haggling and painfully parts with her tomatoes for Shs700.

The customer’s tomatoes are packed in a black polythene bag and she walks off with a victorious gait knowing she has got a great bargain.

The vendor throws the coins she has received into the money purse tied-up on the edge of her lesu wrapper. She pulls up the lesu so it can be firm around her waist.

She resumes her shouting, this time, calling out customers with promises of “tomatoes fresh, tomatoes fresh.” Ten minutes later, no customer has yet shown up. She’s agitated.

Because I am so close behind her and her colleagues, I overhear their conversation. Her two children did not report to school for third term. She’s broken that she can’t raise their tuition.

I remember all too well times when we lacked. Sometimes, I heard my mother pray in the middle of the night, asking God to open the floodgates so she could provide for us.

This woman could be my mother in another life.

I went over and bought tomatoes for Shs2000. I did not need them but I thought to myself, “Nobody ever died from eating too many tomatoes anyway!”

I thought of her children going hungry because she had only made sales of Shs700 in the time I was there. Shs700 can’t even pay taxi fare to Kireka.

She happily packed my tomatoes in a green plastic bag and gave me “nyongeza” (two extra tomatoes). I thanked her and walked back to the car with my load of succulent red tomatoes.

My mother came back and we joined the heavy evening traffic heading out of the city centre towards Bweyogerere.

On the way home, my mind wandered off to the people we encounter daily. Like most Ugandan families, we have “our people.”

The hairdresser called Rita that my mother, sister and I go to in Wandegeya, the mechanic Kayinja who fixes my mother’s and my sister’s cars (and frankly every other relative’s), Otim the special hire guy, Elly our birthday cake baker, my boda-boda guy David and all “our people.”

I am sure my brother probably also has a rolex and a T-shirt guy somewhere in this dusty city.

Many times we take them for granted. We interact with these people daily and we don’t really know their stories. We act like just because we give them business all the time, they should be obligated to us.

I didn’t know our Nakawa vegetable lady was having all these financial woes. I would never have haggled so wildly over tomato prices with her like I’ve been doing in the past (sometimes way too enthusiastically for tomatoes that are already very cheaply-priced by Kampala standards).

Tonight, I sit and reflect on the relationships I have with these people. Just because they don’t talk/blubber about their lives, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a story.

I will think twice, thrice and even four times the next time I go to the market before haggling ferociously with the vegetable lady.

You just never know why that vendor is refusing to give you a discount. Know their story. Be part of their story.


3 thoughts on “Behind the veiled faces of “our people”

  1. Reblogged this on agaboshemei and commented:
    Breathed piece of writing…a craft of words can build, break or tear or mend a soul. This is to the Journalists who contribute to the building en getting together broken pieces of the soul with the craft of words.


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