A Morning at Waterside, Monrovia, Liberia

The rain had ceased and the smell of musky earth rose from the ground. I hurried out of a makeshift-shop, where I had sheltered, leaped over rivulets formed by the downpour and flagged down a rickety bus speeding to Monrovia City. Mamie Water was painted on the front above a picture of a mermaid. The lanky car-boy shouted, “Wasa, Wasa,” the colloquial version of Waterside, as he hung on to a wooden post, his shirt flapping in the wind. Passengers jumped down from the bus partitioned by wooden frames into five rows of seats. The car-boy stood next to the bus collecting fares.

I scrambled into the back seat and sat crushed between a construction worker who reeked and a woman who held a small meshed cage packed with chickens in her lap. She chatted noisily in Bassa to a fellow passenger.

As the bumpy journey to Monrovia came to an end, the car-boy sprang out of the bus shouting “Wasa, Wasa, everybody ge’ down.” I jumped off. Passengers waited for the car-boy who had gotten into a fracas with a passenger. The driver rushed off the bus and parted the men. The errant passenger, face bruised, fled and the car-boy resumed collecting fares.

Securing my shopping-bag, I trudged down Mechlin Street, the steep hill that led to Waterside, the busiest and largest marketplace in Monrovia. A hater of crowds, I was eager to get my purchasing done. My list itemized the necessary ingredients for the weekend’s supper.

A sea of brown and black bodies, dressed in bright colors, swarmed the area. Shops and stalls lined both sides of the street. In one area, “dukafleh” spilled over wooden tables. Crowds rummaged through the imported, second-hand clothes. A young man, dressed in a red pullover, tried on a Russian fur hat. He paid and continued his walk downhill, the winter hat on his head, face streaming sweat.

Sewing machines whirred in Fulani tailor shops. The men peddled away, their hands guiding the cloth as they sewed gold threads around collars and down the sides of blue, yellow, green and white brocade garments.

On the side of the hill, Lebanese and Indian storekeepers stood in doorways luring passers-by with enticing offers. A myriad of wares could be found in their shops—cheap cloth, toys, plastic household goods, shoes, and make-up … The goods were mostly imported from China, Korea and Eastern Europe.

As I passed a drug store, I was accosted by hustlers peddling penicillin, tetracycline and aspirin. I scurried round the corner. Water Street’s sidewalks spilled over with traders who sat on low stools hawking kola nuts, chewing gum, cigarettes and sweets, in their “waiter-markets.” They shared the sidewalk with food vendors offering trays of roasted cassava and corn, fried fish and meats marinated in pepper, peeled juicy oranges, full red mangoes and fat yellow bananas. The smell of fruit, peppers and assorted seasonings filled the air. Trucks unloading fruit and vegetables from up country jammed the traffic.

I hurried past rows of “bend-down-boutiques” displaying a specialized variety of second-hand clothing. Some featured hats only; others bras and underpants. Women, with babies tied to their backs, were bending down and sifting through the clothes. Stores offered the latest in fanti prints. Others housed rice, and were besieged by crowds of men and women waving twenty dollar bills. A man heaved a hundred pound bag of rice onto a woman’s head. She walked off, straight-backed and graceful. Pushing my way through the hustlers, I reached the arched entrance to the market.

Potent scents swamped my nose as I walked from stall to stall–the mingling mix of palm oil, fermented white fufu, milky palm wine, smoked meat, fish, crabs, black charcoal dust, fresh cut firewood and tree bark. I proceeded to the back and crossed over to the next building covered by leaky rusting, corrugated zinc. The ground squelched with mud after the rain. Mosquitoes buzzed around my feet and the flies around my head as well as the displayed smoked fish, meat and shrimps. Sellers, waving discarded cement paper bags to and fro, kept flies at bay. Then I came across the monkeys. Throats slit, their heads hung backwards in a huge basin. My stomach heaved and I trudged back to the main market building from which I had come. Passing the magic potions, I arrived at the greens.

Greens leaves covered burlap sacks spread on the cement floor. It was hard to choose but I quickly decided on palaver sauce and rice for Sunday’s dinner. I would cook the traditional Saturday dish, fufu and soup, this evening. I paid for the palaver sauce leaves and shoved them in my shopping bag. My “dash” (free samples) was a handful of bitter balls.

Ahead stood rows of stalls piled high with okras, tomatoes, onions. I purchased some and passed by the yams, eddoes, sweets potatoes and cassava. I needed dried fish, crab and some fresh meat for the soup and strolled towards the butcher’s. The hot pepper smells tickled my nose and I sneezed. Shoppers looked around at the sound of a sudden explosion.

After purchasing the meat, I headed outside the market. A man chased by a large crowd rushed towards me. I tried to jump to safety but was knocked down.

“Thief, thief,” the mob cried.

I glared at them from the ground, my shopping now a mish-mash of multi-colored pap. A woman pulled me onto my feet. I stared at my dirty clothes and bawled.

I walked back up Mechlin Street. The noise and the dizzying swirl of people fading into the background, I paused, sat down on a bench and wondered if I had the strength to go back and shop again. I didn’t.

Althea Romeo-Mark