Generally speaking, I was one of those odd kids who looked forward to going to school every day. I loved almost everything about elementary school, especially that old school smell in the halls–a curious mix of floor wax, cooking meat, semi-gloss institutional green paint, mimeograph ink, Windsong (by Prince Matchabelli For Women), old building, and sharpened pencils.
I also liked writing the first word on a fresh sheet of notebook paper, getting nauseous on the merry-go-round at recess while we boys chanted “All the girls get off and push, All the girls get off and push!” (I believed in women’s equality even as a 5-year-old), drinking ice cold chocolate milk in a carton through a paper straw that slowly sealed up with each sip, making salt and flour dough relief maps of foreign countries, and peeking into the teacher’s lounge to see them having a chuckle at our expense while they took a loooong drag off of a Benson & Hedges.
In junior high, where supposedly most kids suffer their most humiliating years, school got even better for me. I was accepted into a new program called PIE (who can argue with a pastry-themed acronym) which stood for Project to Individualize Education. It was so
far out of the box at the time that I can’t imagine how the folks in my somewhat conservative Midwestern town ever approved it. It was sort of the first version of “differentiated instruction,” which today is the latest buzz phrase in education. Our assignments catered to our interests and abilities, involved hands-on projects, took us out of the school building to learn in the community or at a campground, and made the teachers more of a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” like they were in the traditional classrooms in the school. We PIE kids were a cool mix—lots of educators’ kids, some hippyish kids, artsy kids, out-of-the-box kids, and a few entertaining wackadoodles.
High school was better yet as I found my niche as a theatre/glee club geek with a circle of friends I still stay in touch with today. We explored haunted houses, went on scavenger hunts, snuck into the drive-in in the car trunk, and spontaneously broke out into 4-part harmony at the pizza place.
But there was a part of school that I absolutely dreaded—even more than needing to use the doorless toilet stall in the high school boy’s bathroom (which, just to be clear, I never used). And that was being involved in fundraisers. Especially stupid fundraisers that required me to trudge door-to-door selling crap. Every year I had to sell candy bars labeled “World’s Finest Chocolate” and I certainly didn’t think they were the finest because they were the exact size and shape of a turd.
And of course there were those awful magazine subscriptions sales, which would inevitably lead to one of my potential customers saying, “I’ll order as long as ya got Playboy.hahaha!” Another time I was forced to sell “gourmet” candy canes with flavors like cotton candy and hot buttered popcorn because we all know how gourmet carnival fare is. Selling things, especially crappy, unhealthy things that nobody needs, is not a pleasant task. I’m certain Chick fil-A employees would agree.
I went through an annoying and somewhat uncomfortable ritual every time I started one of these fundraisers. First I’d hit the easy targets—immediate family, then extended family, then neighbors. They look at you with that dammit-I-feel-obligated-to-buy look and you really do want to tell them that they don’t have to buy anything. But then you remember you can’t let down your school and their effort to fund new playground equipment/a field trip to Six Flags theme park/polyester choir robes/a mini bar in the teacher’s lounge/etc. and you wait for them to open their wallet.
Next I’d swallow my pride, lace up my Earth shoes, and head out to do those awful door-to-door sales. Going to the homes of strangers is creepy and uncomfortable for any reason, let alone trying to sell them crap. I would inevitably encounter angry, anti-public school people railing about all of the school taxes they are forced to pay, or super-duper large folks coming to the door in all states of undress, or old people with all their old people smells drifting out of the house as the door swung open.
Granted I had plenty of new experiences in these forced travels. Once when I was in 5th grade I went to the guy’s dorms of our local college and sold many, many chocolate bars in rooms filled with clouds of what I thought at the time was heavily perfumed incense. One of the college dudes said something like, “Whatcha sellin’ little man? Go on, shoot.” Aside from firing a weapon I had not heard that word used to describe anything else, but I quickly incorporated it into my vocabulary back at Webster Elementary School (TEACHER: Jeff, we need to discuss the grade on your last science test. ME: Go on, shoot.). Surely that made me even more popular.
Another time I was selling the gourmet candy canes in the middle of winter, just after two or three feet of snow fell. As I tried to hike up someone’s icy front stairs I took a tumble and my box shot from my gloved hands. One hundred gourmet canes flew through the air like tiny candy missiles, landing in a deep snow bank, leaving only tiny pencil-sized holes in the surface. Let the Arctic treasure hunt begin.
Eventually I would end up either eating my entire stock of wares (hello, acne), or begging my parents to buy me out (hello, no-allowance-for the next-year). It made me feel weird to make other people feel weird about buying something they really, really didn’t want. It also helped me realize that I was certainly not cut out to have any career requiring me to hawk anything. Avon or Amway just wasn’t in the cards.
Which brings me to Bamako, a city chock-full of people selling everything, everywhere, all the time. I’m not sure there is a square foot of dirt along any road here that isn’t occupied by a vendor selling things from dawn to dawn. They stand behind piles of rusty-colored
dried fish (I hold my breath when I pass these piles), mounds of what looks like bundled weeds (sheep food I think), little tables of soda bottles filled with gas, large Styrofoam panels holding sunglasses (though I rarely see a Malian wearing sunglasses, despite how freaking sunny it is), racks holding bike tires wrapped in gleaming gold cellophane (never had rubber looked so sexy), or mounds of produce—including the most orange cartoon-looking carrots you’ve ever seen.
Or the vendors walk right down the middle of the street carrying their wares, selling to people stuck in traffic. It’s amazing how much shopping one can do from a car here. You can buy soccer balls, plastic inflatable Santas, laminated maps of Africa, Malian flags (and right now, French flags too—for chasing off the bad guys), cell phone accessories, fist-sized plastic sachets of water or juice that you bite the corner off of and sip (it’s best if visitors abstain from this practice, unless you fancy a case of dysentery), those really orange carrots, electric mosquito zappers that look like a tennis racket, phone cards, Chinese folding fans like those that Geisha girls hold, and gigantic toilet paper multi packs. And that was at just one intersection.
Bamako is the only place I’ve been where there’s more to buy in the grocery store parking lot than in the grocery store itself. The last time we exited Supermarche La Fourmi (which translates as The Ant Supermarket, and has a logo of a shopper with a woman’s body and ant’s head pushing a cart) we encountered the following in the parking lot:
- the fake Polo shirt vendor
- 5 or 25 phone card salesmen
- a tiny guy with a huge box of green apples
- the basket maker guy
- a lady with twin girls who wanted a little cash (apparently it’s good luck to tip the mother of multiples)
- the bootleg CD/DVD seller
- several produce vendor ladies (one with extremely mannish hands who may or may not be a lady at all).
And all of this happens in a parking lot that is exactly 7 cars wide and one car long, and that requires you to back out into two lanes of heavy traffic. This is why my shopping trips are always preceded with a wine or gin tasting (don’t worry, I’m not the driver).
All of this selling-mania got me to thinking about my aversion to selling stuff. Do these Malian vendors actually enjoy what they do, or just put up with it because they have a family to feed? Do they wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work, even if it means dodging cars in the middle of a dusty road or sitting in the blazing sun behind a pile of smelly dried fish? Can selling an inflatable Santa or a plastic pouch of water bring inner satisfaction?
When they see me are they thinking, “Cuh-ching! Here comes Mr. Moneybags with his fancy Nike sneakers. He can afford anything!” (It’s worth noting than even though my 2-year-old Nikes are from a discount place in Florida, they still cost more than our maid makes in three weeks, and we pay her at the top of the scale.)
Maybe they dread it too. Maybe they can see that look of anxiety and embarrassment on my face when I utter a quick, “No, merci” and fumble for the car door handle (which of course takes me ten times longer than usual to open). Because in all honesty I do feel guilty. After all, things have not been easy since the coup almost a year ago. Ex-pats left in droves and tourists have stopped coming. The pool of buyers is a shallow one.
A lot of times I just cave and buy something I don’t want, (never gourmet candy canes though—I do have my pride). I bought apples from the tiny guy carrying that massive box in
the grocery store lot, even though they were more expensive than the apples at the fruit stand literally right outside our home’s front gate. And at home I discovered they were sort of mealy and without that crunch I like.
Another guy sometimes comes door-to-door selling Malian crafts—woodcarvings, masks, jewelry and the like. He walks a long way and is always sweaty and smelly, but as kind as ever, never pushy and always smiling. But on one visit where I was determined not to buy anything since I didn’t NEED anything, he mentioned he was trying to sell enough to get the tuition for his kids to go to school. So I quickly picked out several carvings that we really didn’t need but that would enable me to sleep that night. I knew his story was real, but was he sharing it in a marketing sort of way (like Sally Struthers on late night TV showing us impoverished African children so we would donate to a charity)?
We spent the winter break in a rented beach house in Senegal. It was a dream—a fancy house with an oceanfront pool, gazebo, and our own beach area—elevated and separated from the rest of the beach. But it was reasonably priced–our share of the cost was barely $300 for the whole week.
But to the locals all around us and on the beach, we were the wealthy Westerners with money to burn–an odd spot to be in when you are a teacher used to being at the bottom of the salary scale in the U.S. As we sunbathed on our private stretch of beach, reading from our iPads and Kindle Fires and sipping G&Ts, the vendors would peek their heads through the ornate balustrade that separated us from them.
They would nicely ask us in French if we wanted to buy whatever they had in their basket
(scarves, carvings, paintings, tote bags, snacks) and then give us that gentle but pleading stare. Again we would try the polite “No, merci” comeback and continue reading. But if I glanced at them for even two seconds it was like my heart was ripped from my chest. Visions of their crumbling hut and their hungry kids and their hours of peddling stuff in the sun washed over me. Then visions of me as a teen traipsing through a snow-covered neighborhood, trying in vain to sell the last of my World’s Finest Chocolate. Selling just sucks, whether or not I’m the seller or the sellee!
Actually, when I think about it, the vendors here are not really hard sell at all. They don’t follow you around, begging you to buy–like I’ve experienced in other countries including my own. For example, my last experience in a U.S. furniture store went something like this:
Clerk: Welcome! What are you looking for today?
Me: Nothing in particular, just browsing.
Clerk: Well people don’t come in furniture stores to just browse. Surely you are looking for something in particular.
Me: Nope. Just looking.
Clerk: (following us through store, then noticing my hand brush across the arm of a leather sofa) That’s a GREAT couch, right? Lots of interest in this model. Very modern. Are you thinking about a new couch? This one pulls out to a queen bed. Did you need a sleeper sofa? Traditional or contemporary?
Me: Leave me alone or I’ll use a Sharpie to draw your caricature on this GREAT leather sofa.
Clerk: Actually this sofa is completely resistant to stains. Do you have children? This one is
perfect for families, stain-proof really. It has a matching loveseat and sofa too. Cash or credit?
I haven’t had a single Malian act like that yet. And besides, they literally sell sofas on the side of the road here so you can shop from your car without vendor involvement. But honestly they aren’t hucksters here, just industrious and quite productive—I mean c’mon, they sell the weeds they cut in ditches!
The people here work hard, really hard. Even though they aren’t making a whole lot of money, it’s about a thousand degrees outside, and their job doesn’t come with health insurance or vacations, they don’t complain. Not even the guys welding metal in the full sun, in an open sided hut about 8 inches from the edge of a dusty, busy road. Or the guys cutting metal rods with a hacksaw, again in the full sun next to the road. Or the ladies carrying large tubs of bright orange carrots or mounds of sticks on their heads with their babies tied to their backs.
But here’s the crazy thing. When you don’t buy from these folks, they still smile and wish you well. No dirty looks. No condescending remarks. These guilty feelings I have around them are really my problem, and I probably need to realize that my decision to buy/not buy is not that important to them in the grand scheme of things. And when it makes sense and the mood is right, I’ll buy stuff from them. Just not gourmet candy canes. Ever.