Mana Thelma always sits just to the right of the entrance to loja grande on her capulana, surrounded by green bacias and large plastic sacks overflowing with tomatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, green beans, whatever’s in season. Usually she’s alone, but sometimes she has a friend or some children with her. She sits there, from before the store opens at 8 hours until shortly after it closes at 18 hours. Sometimes she’ll sleep a few feet away in the shade of the awning of the Hotel Limpopo during the siesta hours, when the store is closed. But usually she sits in the sun, wrapping a capulana around her head when it burns too hot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her move from that spot.
“Mana Valer!” and her big white toothy smile always greet me when I approach the store. I wish her a “lixile” or “inlhikani” depending on the time of day, and she asks about my health, comments on the weather (usually “sò calor!,” occasionally “sò frio!” when it drops below 90˚). Portuguese is a second language for both of us, so the conversation stays basic. She once asked about my husband and children, and when I said I had neither, of course preparing to defend myself, she just smiled wider and exclaimed “Es menina!” (You’re a child!), but not in the condescending way the professors at school do, more like she’s supporting the fact that I’m too young to worry about such things yet. I caught myself before I launched into my protest, nodded, and agreed. Sim, sou menina.
Sometimes I’m just passing through to pick up milk or rice at the store, but I always try to find something to buy from her, usually attempting my basic market Xangana and asking for the hundredth time the word for tomatoes (ximati, it turns out). She laughs at my attempts, asks about the word in English, then laughs at us both as we try to contort our mouths to make the foreign sounds. She really got a kick out of “onion.” I stopped pronouncing for a moment, thought about it, and had to nod and agree, sim, it’s a funny word.
Every time I buy, she’ll tosses in a barcela – a little something extra. Maybe a spare green pepper to go along with my bag of onions, or maybe a few really ripe tomatoes when I buy cucumbers. One time she gave me a full bag of green beans when I bought carrots, one of the priciest veggies.
Obrigada! she says as she slips the greens into the black plastic bag.
Obrigada a voce! I reply, surprised at the generous barcela.
Não, obrigada a voce, she insists, and as she holds up the bag to me from her spot on the ground, still with her big toothy grin, she leans forward to look me in the eye.
Oh, I realize. No, this isn’t a Wal-Mart greeter. There’s no salary for Mana Thelma. She lives off of what she sells. She knows I could easily get the same vegetables anywhere else, sometimes even cheaper, and she really and truly is grateful for the fact that I’m buying from her.
Oh. Sim. I nod and agree. Mana Thelma and I have a pretty good understanding.