The Bean Lady

By Kari K. Ridge

Her beans captured my attention in the bustling African market. Thousands of beans in dozens of colors, shades, speckles and sizes, overflowing from enormous burlap sacks. I was in Malawi to help women create writing circles in their villages, not to shop, but the beans were such a beautiful and surprising sight that I wanted to have a bit of this rainbow.

The dried beans were in the outstretched hands of a blind woman sitting on the dusty ground. The daily football-field-size market involves countless tables and blankets covered with wares of every kind and a riot of colors and smells: People and orangey dogs mingle with baby chicks and goats near rickety tables lined with aromatic drying fish covered with flies. Brilliantly colored cloths in a thousand colors wave in the wind like sails in a regatta, and a little plywood shack covered in the Canadian flag sells kitchen utensils, while bicycle parts are for sale against the chubby trunk of a baobab tree. Tables display bottles of aspirin next to bags of something powdery and white, jars of goat innards, tangerines and soap.

The bean lady was in the center of the activity. She was the only blind person I saw in Malawi, in an environment that constantly challenges life in able-bodied people. This woman, with a business and the experiences of many decades carved into her face, was a survivor.

She told me the price – the US equivalent of 30 cents – and I placed the kwacha in the palm of her hand. Smiling, she strummed her fingers over her beans, then plopped them, one by one, into a thin, blue plastic bag that she tied with a quick knot. As I reached for the bag containing my treasure, she clasped my hands in hers and we exchanged warm “zikomos” – thank you in Chichewa.

I kept the sealed bag of dried beans buried in my suitcase throughout my journey, thinking to put them in a clear glass vase when I got home so I could admire the colors and patterns and think of the resilience of the bean lady, of the many other Malawian women I met, and of Africa.

But the night before I flew home, I discovered the rainbow beans had sprouted – with no air, no water, no sunlight. I was saddened to abandon them, but knew I shouldn’t risk bringing the sprouts onto foreign soil. Dried, innocent beans were one thing; these mystery seeds were another. I left the blue bag on the motel room’s bedside table, hopeful the employees would plant them and have edible harvests.

The memory of the bean lady and the legumes that survived – despite the odds – remained with me and helped guide me through my own challenges back home in the United States. When the phone call came a year later inviting me to return to Africa, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about this wondrous place where time began and life took its first breath.

\"\"Kari Ridge is a journalist, editor, photographer, and writer of fiction and memoir who serves as assistant editor of WriteAngles Journal. She teaches Amherst Writers & Artists-based workshops in Western Massachusetts and is working on a memoir about her experiences helping women and girls organize writing circles in Malawi, Africa.




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