Beyond the Smile

Standing at her stall at the ‘Haagse Markt,’ Esther greets her customers with a joyful energy that is contagious. But behind this surface of strength and positivity is a woman who had to make some tough decisions to get to where she is today.

“Hello, darling! How are you?”

“You know I love you.”

“I have missed you sister!” 


With a wink and a smile, Esther interacts with her customers, in the midst of people rushing from stall to stall at the Haagse Markt. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and Esther’s hands move quickly, weighing the things her customers give her, taking money and handing over change, all the while keeping up conversations with every person standing at the other side of her stall. When she can, she interacts with them in their native language. “Shukran, my friend”, “Tasje, schat?” The energy and warmth she spreads is almost tangible. 

Four days a week, Esther (38) gets up at 3:30am, does her morning prayers, and then drives to the market by 4:30am. She has been doing so for the past eleven years, together with her Dutch husband, who has his own stall selling potatoes.

A Helping Hand

Being a market vendor is a tough life but she says that seeing her customers leave with a smile on their face is what makes her happy. “I am thinking ‘please God, let it be Wednesday, let me go to the market again!”, she says on Tuesday, a non-market day. Some of her customers come here to be less lonely, and she can make them feel understood. “They don’t even want to buy anything, they just come to say hello,” she laughs. That is what gives her the energy to work at the market: “It takes away my sadness.”

Esther works hard to help people around her. With the money she earns at the market, she has made it possible for three of her nine siblings to study in the Netherlands. Even her oldest brother, who she has a bad relationship to, could count on her help. When he was stranded in Libya, Esther was the one who sent €500 so that he could cross the Mediterranean.

“I like to give people chances. That’s my ambition,” she says.

She rejects the notion that she should get something in return for her help. “When I help you, you have to grab that chance and you have to try to help other people.“ That way, the help comes around, and everyone can be happier. Her dark brown eyes light up when she talks about her customers and the joy she hopes to give them.

A Troubled Past

While her time at the market is filled with laughter and the gratitude she gets from making her customers happy, this is not all there is to Esther’s life. Listen to this podcast to hear her tell about a source of sorrow in her life that she has dealt with since her childhood in Nigeria:

Forced to leave her family at the age of thirteen, Esther lived on the streets of a Nigerian township for four years. At seventeen, she managed to escape her misery by getting on a plane to the Netherlands, using somebody else’s passport. In return for making it possible for Esther to come to Europe, a Nigerian smuggler demanded that she work as a prostitute for him here. Upon her arrival at Schiphol, she was however detained by the Dutch Immigration Police and moved to a jail where she stayed for about six months in a constant fight against deportation back to Nigeria. “I preferred to die here, and they knew it.” In the end, Esther was granted asylum. 

Also in the life she has built up since then, Esther has had to learn that others are not always willing to be there for her as she would be for them. For years, she struggled with wanting to have children, but not being able to, with the last of many miscarriages nearly killing her. Needing help from people around her, she experienced that many people “ran away.” She says she lost up to 10 kilos in only a few weeks and considered committing suicide. “I loved people before I loved myself.” She feels that she has spent too much time worshiping other people, which, she sees as her biggest mistake.

Taking charge

Now, she says that her strength comes from God. It was in late-night prayers to Him that she got the message to “wake up,” to stop caring about what other people think, and focus instead on the love that God holds for her. “I am so happy in my spirit,” she says. Her relationship to God is the most important one in her life, she says. Connecting with Him brings her peace of mind and gives her guidance.

When Esther feels that people are only taking from her, she is quick to turn away from them. “If you don’t stop hurting me, what do I do? I put you in the dustbin,” she says while laughing, pointing at the trash can in her kitchen. She can give people patience for years, but she counts. “When it’s ten times, I am done with you.” In the way she talks about the people who have disappointed her, a hardness shines through. Once she has decided to stop giving a person energy, there is no turning back. 

These clear boundaries Esther sets for herself make her into an autonomous woman who does not let others dictate her life. In this podcast, Esther talks about the tensions she experiences when pushed to work with others, and dives into one relationship in her life where she is able to depend on the other person:

Esther also finds strength in her ability to do things without other people. She doesn’t want to be told how to do things. In the mornings, she cherishes the time she spends packaging her beans by herself before her husband has even woken up. She says that she enjoys doing so, looking at the wall, only being in her own presence. Her hands are dry and cracked in some places, with a grey film from handling garlic for hours every day.

“I am not a woman who sits, waiting for her husband. I like to work for my money.”

Cristina Hoedemaker & Lisa Conzemius

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