By Dee Jordan
Editor’s note: Students from Michigan State University and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources are exploring frugal market innovations in Malawi. This is one of their reports.
On August 8, 2016 I was served the sweetest dose of reality while in the Area 47 Market in Lilongwe, Malawi colloquially known as “the warm heart of Africa”.
During the walkthrough of the market I made a number of observations and spoke with various vendors. After the pleasantries and greeting the vendors as I approached them, I would ask if I could take a picture of the items they were selling, choosing the most interesting aspects to photograph.
One vendor was particularly friendly when I approached her. I told her I was an American student in Malawi. She immediately lit up and said “oh I see, I’m sure you have never seen this before”.
The unexpected use of English surprised me and breathe a sigh of relief. She pointed to a pile of leaves on her table top. I asked “what are they?” She said sweet potato leaves. I said, “I beg your pardon?” She said sweet potato leaves.
I said wow, I never heard of them before. The kind vendor did not pounce on me because of my “unknowing”…instead she embraced the opportunity to share her knowledge of the product with me.
This was an experience I never expected to have, as a PhD student you are often expected to know, and to know how you know or be met with jeers or condescension. It was refreshing for my lack of knowledge to be met with empathy and compassion. The vendor explained to me that you can eat sweet potato leaves with tomatoes and onions…naively I said, “oh like a salad”…she said no..no..no, you can make it into a sauce, you can boil them like other vegetables.
In my mind I still couldn’t understand what they were and what I would do with them, although my heart told me to purchase some but my mind quickly reminded me that I have no cooking facilities available at my disposal so it would be best to wait until I return to the states to try them.
I did notice a delightfully red leaf among the sea of green and kindly asked the vendor if I could take a picture of it to which she agreed.
I left the experience feeling so relieved that my encounter had gone so well. Reflecting on the kindness she showed me in my ignorance was more than humbling and for the first time I feel it’s OK to not know.