Sunday, May 3, 2009

Market Economy

The streets are filled with people, food, cars, and chaos; the air is a mixture of dust, exhaust fumes and garbage. Akwaaba, this is Macola Market. As a white person, the market is often a trying experience. You attract more attention than the average patron and you are also charged much more if you are not careful. Walking through the market area is a constant barrage of “Oburoni!” and “Akosua!,” or whatever other Ghanaian name they decide to give you at that moment and every second is a potential sensory overload to the unaccustomed visitor.
Upon arrival at Macola Market via a 45 GP trotro ride to Tema Station, you are at once within a world pool of minibuses and fast moving people, Ghanaians never move as fast as they do in the markets. One must be constantly aware as this place is like a minefield of potential collision, both human and automobile, and pedestrians and drivers alike are expected to look out for themselves. It is this initial area that can be viewed as a market summary: most things that can be found throughout the market can be found in this collection of meandering rows, each about 200 meters long. If you know your way out, you reach the street and on the ‘market days’ of Wednesday and Saturday, every viable space is filled with some entrepreneurial attempt, and voices from all sides are professing the worth of their products, some with loud speakers. Some sellers have tables, others use handmade display shelves, and still others merely lay their goods out on the ground. It is often difficult to make ones way quickly through the market as walk ways are not arranged to accommodate the effortless passing of slow movers or those heading in the opposite direction. Besides this, one is under pressure from sellers; they grab your arm, shout for your attention and hold out their goods for your close, if unwilling, scrutiny. Walking through the streets of the market it is easy to get lost and easier to find everything you could possibly want than any shopping center in America.
Vendors in African markets are overwhelming female but there are gender stereotypes in terms of who sells which items. For example, DVDs and shoes are overwhelmingly sold by men, while it is a rarity to find a male, whether young or old, selling pure water from the top of his head. In a society where women are often seen as subordinate, with little economic strength, the market is their kingdom. There has been created a community within this sprawling market and each vendor understands their place in it: the new comers, the veterans, the aggressive, those there daily or those there helping a relative. A community is built every few blocks of the market as many of these vendors see each other every day. While there can be tension when similar goods are too closely set, most vendors will direct you to a specific neighbor if they don’t have a particular product and a relationship of mutual consideration is fostered.
One fundamental part of the traditional market culture, as opposed to modern, western market economy, is bargaining. While it may always be composed of the same song and dance between buy and seller, it is paramount in their relationship. “Ghanaians love a good bargainer, it keeps them on their toes.” A sale between two Africans might go something like this:
“How much for the drum, brother?”
“Oh, I’ll give it to you for 50,000 kwacha”
“What? No, no no no. Look at it, it is just a small drum. I could not possibly give more than 20,000.”
“Brother, this is a good drum, I made it myself. It will last you until your grandchildren have grandchildren. The lowest I can do is 42,000.”
“That is too much. Give it to me for 27,000.” He wipes his hands together signifying a closed deal and waits for the next sequence.
“No, I cannot.”
“Okay, I will buy it somewhere else.” The man walks away only to be called back and they settle on 35,000 kwacha for the drum, a fair price and both are satisfied.
The market is also semi-organized in terms of what items or type of items are found in the same vicinity or block. There are sections of cloth vendors, a shaded side street of school supplies next to wood working and furniture, as well as stretches of bags of rice and alleys full of kitchen supplies. While it might seem that these vendors would be in competition with each other, they have their own loyal customers. Especially in the smaller villages, most buyers have some manner of connection to their vendor of choice, usually familial. For example, they will always buy their tomatoes from their sister’s husband’s niece and their rice from the woman that attends their church. In the cities, it is often linked to convenience, but can sometimes be drawn along tribe lines. The Ewe woman would be more likely to buy from another Ewe if it was as readily available.
Markets can also be found to be organized along religious lines. For example, there is a market in the Airport Residential Area of Accra, Ghana that is centered around goods specific to the Muslim community. Whereas in the main market you would find piles of western clothes of t-shirts and denim, at this particular market the clothes in piles are all long sleeve tunics and caftans. There are also many stalls with slippers commonly worn by Muslim men as well as scarves and hijab for women. There is a mosque in the middle of this particular market and outside one finds many very old Muslim men on sitting on a row of mats under umbrellas with tins set out for begging. Begging often occurs in markets in various forms. Around the Accra mall there is a whole outfit of young caramel skinned, bronze haired children from Niger. They speak little English but they do know that touching their finger tips to their mouths displayed their desire for food. One can find these young people all over populated areas, much to the aggressive distain of Ghanaians. While seeking directions from a man at Circle, a small girl came up and tugged my arm, at which point The Man Selling Shoes smacked her forcefully on the head. Everyone wants to eat and, no matter the country, its people don’t appreciate outsiders taking their jobs or their resources. Being a white person often encourages people to approach for money or food: if their intent is to beg, a westerner is a prime target for pity. While shopping for batik clothe with my roommate, we were approached by a particularly uncouth young Ghanaian man. After being refused money he got down on his knees, and when we turned to ignore him he retaliated with a barrage of English curse words. Only after the owner suggested he try someone else did he leave while stringing his barely coherent insults behind him.
Pale skinned while wandering a market is to experience more attention than anywhere else. Vendors are already prone to making cat calls to passersby, but when to stands out relative to everyone else in your midst means you will be singled out with whatever word they give to foreigners. In Ghana the default word is ‘oburoni,’ Twi for ‘one who come from overseas,’ and it is often followed by the command, ‘bra!,’ meaning ‘come!’ Other words and phrases are thrown out but as it is assumed not to be understood, it might as well be for the sake of any Ghanaians in ear shot. Another tactic of vendors, mostly commonly from older women, is to assign said oburoni a Ghanaian name for the sake of calling it out to get their attention. Generally, the name used is Akosua, and when Oburoni corrects the name usage something like this happens:
“Akosua, bra! Akosua, you need onion!”
“Kukua. Sistah, my name is Kukua”
(pause for general laughter in the area) “Kukua! Kukua, ete sen?”
And all of this occurs in the 10 seconds between entering the vendor’s line of sight and walking to far away to shout. Knowing a few phrases in Twi never fails to get a string of laughter from those who hear it. On some level it is frustrating to be laughed at while trying to be polite and ‘do as the Romans do,’ but it comes down to the sheer novelty of hearing a white person speak like an African that reduces Ghanaians to giggles.
The modern idea of the market economy was spawned in places just like Accra’s Makola Market. While the contemporary ‘market’ is increasingly electronic and detached, it was once a very intimate choreography of community, loyalty, and bargaining. African markets are centered on mutual necessity: one needs the money while the other needs the goods; while the market financial system of the western world is often about exploitation by corporations and the slow decline of the small business man. This, of course, can all be understood by looking at the individualistic cultures of the western world, and the significance given to the family and community in Africa.
Unfortunately, I must apologize if any part of this is less than factual. It was taken purely from personal observation and conversations with friends and strangers. Between the information garnered from the porters at Volta Hall, The Lady Who Sold Me Garlic, The Man on the Tro-Tro, and a few others, it is easy to still be confused by the culture of African markets. They are unlike anything western, except maybe a ‘flea market’ and would arguably never work in those societies where the smell of pigs feet in the sun is found to be unappetizing and 3 feet of personal space is almost a requirement. While an afternoon at the market never fails to be a tiring experience, it can also be one very much about learning; learning to haggle, learning to be patient, learning how to weave through a crowd with an armload of bags, or learning when to entertain attention and when to ignore it.