Market day came every three days to Zogore, a village in northern Burkina Faso. Vendors would set up to sell bulk grains, fabrics, flip flops, and other miscellaneous items, while villagers came from near and far to shop and barter. But the best part of market day wasn't found in the market itself. Out of respect for the large Muslim population, beer and pork weren't for sale in the village center. But just down the path in the Catholic sector, nearly every courtyard had a cabaret.
The cabarets featured women selling dolo, or beer brewed from sorghum, a cereal crop that grows well in the dry, nutrient-poor soil of Sahelian West Africa. Every Catholic woman learned the time-honored process. First, they soak the grains in water, then spread them out and let them germinate for a few days. Next, they mash the grains and brew them for hours in large pots over a fire. Finally, they add a traditional leaven to kick off the fermentation process. The resulting drink is red and cloudy; depending on the day, it could be sweet, sour, or smokey. One day, it inexplicably tasted like rotten tomatoes.
Starting first thing in the morning, men arrived at the cabaret for a taste. They congregated on benches and brandished calabashes, or bowl-shaped gourds. For the equivalent of 30 cents, the dolo vendor would fill an old beer bottle and pour a little into the calabash of everyone in the group. Everyone took turns buying the next round.
The alcohol content varied, but in general was quite low, rarely surpassing four percent, according to scientific analysis. Sometimes we would drink away the whole morning but rarely did drunkenness ensue, although I often had to retreat for an afternoon nap. There were a few men with reputations as drunkards, but they tended to supplement their dolo with cheap liquor to attain their desired level of inebriation.
To accompany the beer on market day, at least one person in the neighborhood would kill a pig and roast it in an oven constructed from mud and an old oil barrel. The porc-au-four sold for five cents per piece. If you got there early, you could reserve the tastiest morsels, picking out juicy meat chunks with a thick layer of fat, and maybe some liver or heart. When the pork was done cooking, a child would bring it over, wrapped in paper, with a sprinkling of homemade chili powder on the side for dipping. And there was ever more dolo to wash it down.
Friends spent the day together, drinking, eating and telling the same jokes over and over. My favorite was claiming that Bob, one of the regulars, had drank too much dolo and would surely fall down. Every three days market day came around, mostly indistinguishable from the last, but every now and again an event would occur that shook the peaceful rhythms of the village.
We were sitting in Maurice's courtyard one day, drinking and enjoying some pork, when he showed me a hole bashed into the side of his mud house. It was the work of government surveyors who had been partitioning out the village. He told me that although many families had lived in their courtyards for generations, technically the land in the village was all communally owned. However, the government decided that there should be a switch to private ownership, in order to encourage investment and development on the land. The surveyors were marking out official parcels all over village for subsequent distribution, and whenever a wall or building was in the way of their line of sight, they put a hole in it. If there was a tree in the way, they cut it down. They hired some of the village youth to help with the labor.
Maurice took the property damage in good humor. "Why did they have to break my house?" he joked. "Don't you think they should have broken the pig sty instead?"
Fortunately, it was no big deal to make a few mud bricks and repair a wall. Trees were a bigger issue, though, especially considering that Maurice was a tree farmer on a mission to plant as many as he could to combat desertification in the village. The surveyors had promised they would plant five trees for every one they killed, but no one seriously believed they would follow through.
A few market days later we were back at Maurice's courtyard, probably making the exact same joke about his house and the pig sty, when we heard a commotion nearby. We ran over and saw Alfredo, one of the pork vendors, screaming and yelling and fighting off three other men. Fredo was in his early twenties, compact and powerful, and dragged his assailants some distance with him toward an open well, announcing his intention to hurl himself down it. With the help of a few more bystanders, they managed to bring him down and hogtie him while he ranted about how he was a meat worker, and to let him free to do his work. Someone got an old sheet of tin to cover the well just in case, and we waited until the village nurse showed up and stuck a tranquilizer in Fredo to temporarily calm him down.
"It's because he's so young," Maurice said sadly. "He should have known better." He explained that Fredo had been working with the surveying crew on the outskirts of the village near a sacred grove a few days previously. One of the trees was in their way, so they ordered him to chop it down and he complied. "Any of us, we would have refused," Maurice said. "But he didn't take it seriously. And now he's gone crazy."
Supernatural problems have supernatural solutions. Fredo's family took him to another village to seek the services of a traditional healer, and sacrificed a chicken toward the effort. The intervention worked, to an extent. He never tried to kill himself again, but he was never the same, either. He stopped selling pork and just wandered around the village, muttering to himself. He would approach a group of us sitting at the cabaret and just stare. An inscrutable appearance by poor Fredo became a regular part of market day, just as predictable as the pork and the beer and the jokes about Bob.