The market is not only a place to buy and sell, where commercial transactions are carried out. In the rural areas of Africa it is a place characterised by deep social relations and becomes a meeting point for the scattered members of one’s family, native village, and other areas.
The large tree that often grows in the centre of the squares is truly a “Parley Tree” where the elders gather to engage in long discussions. Market day is not a rest day but a day to celebrate. While buying and selling, friends get together, and engaged couples meet. The social aspect is also reinforced by the absolutely neutral character of the market and the ancient ban on carrying weapons remains in force. In almost every city, the section where beer, made from millet and sorghum, and other alcoholic drinks are sold, is always at the margins of the market. This avoids the risk of a drunkard starting a fight and disturbing business activities.
Not a random choice
The choice of the market’s location, according to very clear criteria, goes back to ancestors’ times. “It was the sages who chose the spot,” one often hears the village people say. Each market location has a story behind it – it isn’t chosen at random. The first people to live there chose it for that clear purpose. Even today, it is possible to find altars facing the market squares where the ancestors carried out sacrifices so the place would be full of life and favour interpersonal contacts. Often, and especially where the population lives scattered over a vast area, the market becomes a reference point where people can meet and exchange information. On market day, therefore, the presence and movement of the people changes significantly. The opposing forces of dispersion and contraction mark the territory. Following people’s movements, “social” spaces are revealed. Territorially, the markets end up defining the borders between racial groups. This doesn’t mean that access is forbidden to other ethnic groups. It is though important to know that anyone entering a given market enters the sphere of influence of the host community. Even though one can speak of a fluid border, the market sends a political signal. This signal divides, in space and in time, one group from another.
The power of women
A typical characteristic of African markets is that they represent exclusively feminine spaces. Women transport the products of the countryside to sell them and buy others. Casting a glance at the stands suffices to confirm who runs them. The men usually sit on one side and chat and discuss, without taking direct part in the commercial activity. That belongs to women alone. It is the woman who, with her savings, pays for the covered stand which she uses alone or together with other women, guaranteeing herself a place in the market.Other women, the majority, come only occasionally and must make do with the remaining places.
The small profit gained from the sale doesn’t improve the family economy greatly, but it helps to round up the balance and especially to bring in some cash. In many cases, most of the house’s agricultural produce goes for subsistence, producing no money. It is thanks to women’s initiatives to sell the agricultural products transformed into food (maize flour, manioc or sorghum beer), that the family manages to have an income or to exchange food for clothes, cooking pots, batteries, or other useful items. (S.R.)