The agreement was that Ali would be paid in sambusas to take home to her family. The gig lasted for three months, until the relationship between the two women deteriorated over a catering job that included an order for 2000 sambusas. For a week, Ali worked to fill the order. She claims that, although the other woman was paid $700 for the catering job, she never gave Ali a dime.
“I showed her how to make sambusas,” Ali says. “I showed her how to keep them fresh. If you make sambusa and put it in the refrigerator, and then take it back to the market, it will have bacteria. I taught her.”
She turns away, ending the conversation with a flick of her hand. But a half-second later, she turns back and adds, “She didn’t pay me a penny. Even for the grocery. She can get away from me, but she can’t get away from God.”
After the 2000-sambusa incident, Ali decided to venture out on her own.
For the next three years, she sold her own food out of booths at the Mission Valley (on Fridays) and Point Loma (on Sundays) markets. She eventually came off public assistance, save for the food stamps. In November 2011, however, she took a month off to travel to Kenya to visit her ailing mother, and when she returned to San Diego, her space at both markets had been filled. It took four months to get back into the market system. When she did, the booths were at unfamiliar markets.
“It’s hard to come back,” she says. “I have a good reputation, but people don’t know me [at the new markets] yet.”
Three people stand reading the canvas menu from a distance of a couple of feet. When Hamsa greets them, they smile and move on.
Ali assesses the iced tea. The lemonade, held in a jug half the size of that which holds the hibiscus tea, is almost gone. The tea jug is still half full.
“Next time,” she tells Hamsa, “we’ll put the lemonade in the big one.”
Hamsa laughs. “Yeah, I think so.”
Ali uses a large, flat spoon to remove a batch of lentil sambusas from the oil. Then she reaches into the bag of frozen sambusas with her tongs, grabs a few more, and drops them into the oil.
One of the three noncommittal browsers returns. He wears a Steel Pulse T-shirt and has patchy facial hair.
“What’s the most popular sambusa?” he asks Hamsa. Then to Ali, “How about you? What are your favorites?”
Hamsa says spinach. Ali leans in and says her favorite is the lentil.
“But what about the beef, and the curry potato?” Steel Pulse asks.
“They’re all good,” Hamsa says.
“Okay, give me that,” Steel Pulse says. “One each. Beef, and curry potato.”
At the back of Ali’s booth, the small girl (the daughter of a friend) demands that Amina teach her how to draw stars with the pink marker, not the blue one.
The man running the next booth over offers baby carrots to passersby. He encourages them to try his organic hummus and creamy-garlic spreads. Some smile, shake their heads, and keep walking. Others step in closer and accept the hummus-laden carrots.
The Spanish guitar music piped into the cavernous warehouse space echoes off concrete walls and cement floors.
Before Ali continues her story, she pushes Hamsa out of the booth with both hands.
“Two women are talking, and you want to stand between them,” she says. “Go on.”
He smiles mischievously at me, as if he knows he has pushed just the right buttons.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he says. “I’m going.”
He wanders off into the market.
Ali continues her story. In late 2011, one of her daughters bought an old food truck from a Chinese man. Ali planned to use it to sell her food, but it sat for a year before she took out a $1500 loan from the International Rescue Committee to outfit the truck with a sink and a water heater. It also needed beautification.
Last week, Ali took the truck to El Cajon to be painted. She was disappointed, however, to discover that $500 only afforded her the name of her business (East African Cuisine) and the menu painted on the side of the truck. She was hoping to get the whole truck done, and with a little more pizzazz. For that, however, she’ll have to pay another $2000, which means taking out another loan. Ali already owes Minnehaha and one other local Somali market a total of $3000 for groceries, and so, for now, she’ll leave the truck as is.
In March, she purchased a $440 permit to sell out of the truck. Later in the month, she did a trial run at Mission Bay. Within the first hour, she received a warning from a police officer for selling without the permits necessary for operating a mobile food unit in Mission Bay, specifically. She is currently in the process of obtaining the proper paperwork.
“It’s not easy,” Ali says, dabbing at her forehead with a paper napkin.
For a moment, she stands still. She rubs at her lower back, saying nothing. Then she takes a look around the booth, grabs a plate, and scoops the last of the rice and lentils onto a plate.
Amina comes around from the back of the booth and stands at the front.
“Can I have some sambusas?” she asks her mom, holding out a container. “I want to go get cupcakes.”
It’s nearly 2:00 p.m., and vendors are packing up their goods and their gear. There’s nothing more to browse for or buy. The market visitors have all left. Hamsa has still not returned. Ali puts her plate down and gives Amina four sambusas. The 12-year-old skips off, leaving her little friend with all the markers to herself.
Ali picks up the plate again.
“That’s another thing about that woman. The one who didn’t pay me for making 2000 sambusas?” She points her fork in my direction. “She never drinks her own waters or never eats her food. That’s why I don’t like her.”