One of the more interesting and bewildering experiences you can have in Gambia is going to the market.
Around the Banjul area there are three large markets: one in Banjul; one in Bakau, a town on the ocean; and one in Serrekunda, a large town near Banjul where most people in the area live.
Almost all towns of any size have a market and in the rural areas there are weekly markets, which are called lumos in Gambia. These weekly markets are made up of individual traders and sellers that go constantly from one rural market place to another.
From my experience if you where to be dropped into any of these markets, or for that matter into any market in West Africa, you would not be able to tell them apart because at the heart of the market they are all the same.
The pricing at the market is not fixed so you need to negotiate on almost everything you buy. If you are in the right frame of mind, this can be an interesting and fun challenge and great entertainment. However, if you are not in the mood, it can be very annoying.
Normally food at the market is not negotiated over but the price is set by the quantity that you buy and how the quantities are measured is by the use of empty food containers, i.e., cans. You choose the amount that you want to buy by picking the size can in which you want the merchant to measure the food items. In the case of items that will not fit in a can, a corresponding can is used as a weight measure that they use on a balance scale.
Now in Gambia when you buy with the can, it is not a full measure unless the goods are heaped up far above the former lid of the can. Normally the merchant will keep adding and overflowing the can more than a few times so that you are satisfied that he is not trying to shortchange you.
Diversity of items
The best way to think of the market is to imagine a large sprawling mass of tiny interconnected booths with everything put out for sale under inadequately constructed roofs and walls, with no air conditioning. And you should hope that it does not rain when you are there.
Like our malls, and sometimes even better than our malls, you can find just about anything that you need or want. From used clothes, mostly from Europe or the states (once I came upon a Wisconsin Rose Bowl shirt from the 1994 game that was in mint condition), new clothes, shoes used and new, car parts, hardware, electronic goods, to food, the local version of a food court (but then again street food is not hard to come by anywhere), and just about anything else that you can think of.
Unlike at home there are no maps that tell where things are. If you are new to a particular market, you need to have a sense of adventure and a few bread crumbs to leave behind you so you can find your way out.
Of course as one gets better at the local language you can ask for help and most, if not all, of the time the person you ask will personally take you to the area that you are looking for.
A veritable labyrinth
Because all like items are in the same area, if you are looking for a particular type or style of item, you will need to look intently. All of the people selling will have the same items and anything that is different from the ordinary stock may be buried deep among the other goods.
There is no regular pattern, except that the stalls are very much packed together and the aisles between them are very narrow and uneven. This lack of common layout makes it so every market is, in its own very unique way, a new adventure.
Some almost, and I mean almost, have a grid layout whereas others seem to have no plan to them at all and appear to have been designed to be a giant labyrinth; this type of market, and it seems that the majority are this way, can make for an interesting experience the first few times you go to them. Although, one of these days, I am afraid that I may run into a Minotaur.
Tom Brodd of Madison is living in The Gambia, West Africa, as one of 16 participants in the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Volunteer Program, which provides U.S. Catholics with opportunities to share their skills through CRS and to live in solidarity with their brothers and sisters around the world.
Walking the walk:
Following the closing Mass of last summer's World Youth Day in Cologne, my pilgrimage group and I had a very long walk to locate our tour bus.
After walking some three hours we came to a crossroads. Our map instructed us to keep going straight, but to our left about a half mile away we could see a group of parked buses.
Fearful of making the wrong turn, we sat doing nothing while waves of pilgrims walked passed us. As it turned out, it didn't matter which path we took, they both led in equal distance to our bus. The only thing that would have really mattered was that we kept walking.
Likewise, while we sometimes become confused on our path towards God, what is most important is that we keep walking, and this walk requires a life of purity.
Without the struggle for purity one of two things will cause our spiritual walk towards Christ to stop. We will either slowly turn from an authentic search for the face of Christ and an encounter with his cross to an earthly desire to spiritually gratify our emotions and feel good about ourselves - a sort of spiritual hedonism.
Or, secondly, we will abandon the spiritual life completely in exchange for a respectable, or not so respectable, pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself.
For many married couples this struggle for purity will require some type of natural family planning. And with this the objections begin.
"But Father!" they tell me, "Practicing natural family planning is easier said than done! It's hard to periodically abstain." And my response to that is, "I know, isn't it great? Welcome to the spiritual life!"
We are all born with original sin. With this fallen condition comes the loss of integrity that would have made following the moral code easy. Now we all have to struggle. Even the saints found it difficult to be good.
Furthermore, for couples that had the misfortune of being unchaste prior to marriage, acquiring the necessary self-control to lovingly practice natural family planning after marriage will be even more difficult.
Still, using natural family planning, while perhaps at first difficult, becomes easier as the married couple gradually acquires the virtues that it requires. These virtues will in turn lead to a deeper bond of love between the spouses which in itself makes using natural family planning easier and more rewarding. The end result is the joy and peace that is gained by any noble human struggle undertaken with the help of God's grace.
If a young man came to you and said, "I want to become strong, but please, don't ask me to lift any weights, exercise, or do any hard labor," you would dismiss him as lacking the serious commitment necessary to achieve his goal.
The same can be said of a couple who wish to grow in love but do not desire to follow God's plan for them in their conjugal life. We would suspect that their desire for a deep marital love is not as serious as it could be, perhaps in some cases not even as strong as their desire for personal pleasure.
It would be a mistake to see natural family planning as simply a means to avoid pregnancy. It is also the means by which a couple can grow in the virtues necessary for true marital love as well as a simple practice to help one reach the joy of spiritual perfection to which Christ calls us.
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