Dantokpa market in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and economic capital, has a reported commercial turnover of one billion CFA per day. That’s 2 million US dollars. Per day. In a place where pineapples sell for 20 cents and a plate of lunch costs 50 cents.
What is Dantokpa market like? The next several posts will feature pictures from the market. But before that, I’ll try to take you there.
Picture your local Walmart. Let’s walk to the house wares department. Now, instead of one department with shelves organized by item (pots and pans here, dish towels there), randomly divide all of the items into fifty separate stalls, each about six feet wide. Pack the items into the stall tightly; there‘s barely enough room for the vendor and one customer to squeeze in together. Each stall is operated by a different person. Frequently, it’s a woman. She speaks only enough French to bargain over the price but she speaks four local languages fluently. She doesn’t have any change so don’t try to break your 1,000 CFA note ($2). She could be breast feeding when you walk up. Or sleeping on the ground. Or she might have her 9-year-old niece filling in for her.
Just as we exploded our Walmart house wares department into fifty stalls, we’ll apply the same process to each of the sections of the American superstore – electronics, automotive, gardening, groceries. Each divided into fifty stalls. What is in those stalls? If it’s for sale in Benin, it’s for sale in Dantokpa. Televisions, new clothing, fruits and vegetables, rebar, freshly slaughtered goats, jewelry, musical instruments, live chickens, motorcycles, pots and pans, Italian loafers, prepared foods, carpets, foreign currency, stoves, bicycles, beds, booze, pharmaceuticals, luggage, Barack Obama paraphernalia, industrial oil presses, baby cribs, hand woven baskets, toilets, used clothing, concrete, living room sets. Most items are grouped together – the electronics all for sale in one section of the market, fresh fish in another. There is a section of the market for buying voodoo talismans including hand-carved wooden figurines, various types of rocks, and numerous animal parts. That section of the market smells…unique.
Now, take all of the back stock from the store room and pile it onto the heads of vendors to sell while walking through the aisles: one hawking Tupperware containers, another used clothing, another fresh fish. Many with a baby strapped to their back. Some of the loads carried are light; most are not. Some tower over three feet high. Each vendor has a wide metal or wicker tray on which all the goods are piled. If you are interested in buying, you can help her put the tray on the ground for a better view.
Remove the roof from the Walmart. The bright fluorescent lights have been replaced by open sky. Luckily it’s not the rainy season. But you wish it was because the sun is intense – think 2 p.m. in Death Valley in July. Take a look at where you are walking. The tiles are gone but the concrete underneath remains in some places; in others it’s dirt. Other aisles are paved with blacktop. Don’t step there! A three year old just finished using the street as a toilet. There are a handful of bathroom stalls but they are few and far between so lots of “business” takes place wherever someone can find a semi-private place. Children are less bashful and go wherever. Watch where you step in general. There are no trash cans so everything gets tossed in the street–banana peels, coconut husks, cardboard boxes, plastic bags. Lots and lots of plastic bags. Thousands of them. The streets are swept each morning, though, and it’s early so it’s pretty clean right now.
Do you hear that? Many vendors have music playing through a cell phone or a small radio. There’s a two in three chance that it’s Chop My Money. Ignore the people shouting at you to buy something from them. If you engage it’s hard to get them to stop insisting you spend some money at their stall. Don’t get distracted: it’s important to listen past the music and the vendors shouting. There’s a motorcycle coming up the aisle behind you moving faster than seems prudent. There’s a car behind the motorcycle, just barely able to squeeze through the aisle. Don’t ignore that guy charging at you pulling the cart with ten 50-pound sacks of rice; he earns money moving merchandise from one part of the market to another. He’s in a rush. And it’s hard to slow down 500 pounds of rice. He will plow through you. As will the other vendors walking the aisles. The loads they are carrying are heavy and don’t offer great peripheral vision.
Dantokpa sprawls, rambling over 49 acres – a mecca of commerce. Our one measly Walmart divided into hundreds of six-foot wide stalls doesn’t begin to cover this area. We must multiply our one Walmart several dozen times. All the Walmarts are packed together into one ginormous megastore, then divided into thousands of stalls. All aisles filled with people selling other merchandise. And motorcycles weaving through. And cars crawling along. And men pulling heavy carts. And children playing. And thousands of shoppers. Welcome to Dantokpa.