Market Life in West Africa
The neighbouring countries Mali and Senegal are located in the northwest portion of West Africa. Senegal is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean with the port city of Dakar being Africa's most westerly point.
In the east Senegal is bounded by the extensive country of Mali, the capital of which is Bamako. These countries have in common the fact that they both were part of the French colonial empire. There has always been active mutual trade between the peoples of Mali and Senegal. This becomes evident as soon as one visits the markets in the two countries. Each country has its own specialties, but the overwhelming majority of products on offer are the same. The railway running between Dakar and Bamako ensures that this two-way trade continues. The port of Dakar makes the city important for the export and import of trade goods. Goods spread out from here to the shops and markets of the whole region. The railway transports goods to Bamako, while freight trucks, bush taxis, and boats along the River Niger carry them further out to the villages. The raw materials of the two countries move in the opposite direction, into the markets of the large cities, and even so far as Europe and the USA.
Put simply, a marketplace is where sellers and buyers meet. In Mali and Senegal there are markets of every size and shape. Most of the larger markets are located in the cities and can extend over large areas. The village markets are smaller. But there are also smaller markets in the cities, like the market at the railway station in Dakar where women come by train every week from Bamako to sell textiles, cosmetics and soap.
The market is a meeting place for different groups of people. In the large, daily city markets one encounters young and old, men and women, rich and poor, city dwellers and villagers, itinerant traders from neighbouring countries, and tourists. And they bring different ideas and thoughts into the markets. A whole series of social exchanges takes place in the course of buying and selling in the marketplace. New acquaintances are formed here, and friendships are renewed. Information circulates among some of the participants about prices and the availability of goods. Others dream of the windfall profits to be had from selling for a good price to eager tourists, who come strolling along, their eyes aglint with the lust to shop.
A village market draws together people from different villages and ethnic groups. Here too, as in the city, there is a meeting of young and old, men and women. People use market day to exchange information of many different kinds. The market is a great opportunity to drink beer together, for those who so desire. There are also possibilities for flirting with those one does not see on a daily basis. Furthermore, market day can be a welcome opportunity for women who live in their husbands' villages to meet family and friends from their own home area.
At first glance, the vast city markets can appear to be chaotic and labyrinthine places. When one looks a little more closely, however, one discovers that order reigns over this chaos. A market can be divided into zones on the basis of the type of goods for sale. In a certain zone one finds stall after stall with cotton cloth. The next zone contains used books for sale, and, after this, there are stalls where religious articles like prayer beads, prayer hats and religious texts are sold. Some markets can be divided according to where the sellers come from, or to which ethnic minority they belong. Another alternative is that sellers from a particular part of the country, and also possibly from one ethnic group, might dominate a market. A market can be distinguished by being composed completely of women sellers, or by men only. In both Senegal and Mali it is usual for women to sell textiles, clothes, fish and food, while men sell electronic goods, religious effects, household furnishings, and tourist art.
A marketplace can be located indoors, outdoors, or both, like Sandaga Market in Dakar. In this market, food and spices are sold indoors, protected from the sunlight, while clothes and other goods are for sale outside in stalls along the streets. The largest market in Bamako is located in the city's most crowded and traffic-ridden street, and there are only a few centimetres for shoppers between the stalls and the traffic. The market overflows into large parts of the centre of Bamako, and people even have stalls on the city's railway line. At first glance it is difficult to see that one is standing right between two railway tracks, until suddenly the train toots, and chaos breaks out as people are forced to take their goods down from the rail line to other areas that are already full of sellers. Fortunately the trains pass at a snail's pace.
The majority of villages have a market day at least once a week. Some markets follow a three- or five-day cycle, others, a weekly cycle. The marketplace can be an open square in the centre or on the outskirts of the village, or it can be a built structure of wooden poles with a thatched roof. Even if there is not a market every day, it is usual that some people use the place to sell things on non-market days. But only on market days is the place packed with people and goods. There are daily markets in the cities, but on Fridays there are many who close their stalls in order to take part in the Friday prayers. Then the streets fill with Muslim worshippers for a couple of hours, until trade and commerce are able to resume.
It is not unusual to hear that in cities like Dakar and Bamako people are afraid of the marketplaces after nightfall. Many of the city's "crazies", together with down-and-outers, street children and prostitutes, use the markets as a place to live. But it is also said that evil spirits dwell there. Could it be these spirits protect the stalls of the sellers? In any case, it is a fact that many sellers secure themselves against thievery not only with the assistance of large padlocks, but also by placing protective amulets in their stalls and storage cases.
The Sandaga Market in Dakar
Sandaga is Dakar's largest market and is located right in the heart of the city which today contains nearly two million people. Sandaga was originally a food and textile market and continues to be known to have the country's - and maybe also the region's - best choice of textile materials. Here it is possible to choose between damask of five different qualities, and cottons in every imaginable colour and pattern hang row upon row.
Sandaga Market has had an enormous growth and prosperity during the past ten years. There is nothing that one cannot buy in this market, at least if one is willing to buy used goods or copies. The Sahel-style main building where the food market is located almost disappears in the mass of sellers' stalls, people and boisterous traffic in the surrounding narrow streets. Nevertheless, whoever takes a tour inside through the half-light to buy food will be assailed by pungent odours. Here the vapours of dried fish, newly butchered meat, and rotting vegetable matter blend with the fragrance of soap and wood smoke.
The majority of the sellers in Sandaga come from a region in Senegal called Baol. The people are thus called Baol-Baol, but are perhaps best known for belonging to the Mouridian Muslim brotherhood. The Mourides of Senegal are thrifty, hardworking traders who have managed to build up a worldwide trading network with its centre in the Sandaga Market, even though the majority have little or no formal education. Today Mourides from Senegal live all over the world. Formerly Italy and France were popular migration goals, while today Harlem and the Bronx in New York have at least 15,000 Mourides.
The success of the Mourides in recent years, with the help of their global trade network (and this more or less lawful), is due to their ability to import goods they can sell in Sandaga at prices lower than in Dakar's shops. This applies in particular to textiles, electronic equipment, and cosmetics, but is also applicable to other imported goods. On the streets of New York the Mourides sell copies of Rolex watches and Ray-Ban sunglasses. What they derive by way of profit is invested in cheap electronics that are then shipped to Dakar. Sandaga operates as a distribution centre for imported goods. The goods arrive in Sandaga where they are bought up by traders who carry them to other parts of the country.
The spiritual centre of the Mourides is the small city of Touba in the heart of Baol. Large parts of their economic profits are fed back into Touba and ensure that city growth is greater here than anywhere else in Senegal. There are those who consider that Touba, and not Dakar, is the real power centre of Senegal due to the fact that the Mourides' network ensures that economic profits go to the Muslim chieftains of Touba, rather than to the state. Others praise the Mourides as innovative entrepreneurs who have managed to put to use their worldwide contacts in the service of local goals. It is whispered in Senegal that the economic activity of the Mourides is left in peace so long as they lend their support to the sitting government.
The Mourides have a strong solidarity, and it is said that, internally, they engage in money lending without the necessity of written contracts. But the competition is tough, and many of the traders in Sandaga have agreements with young boys who work as decoys to get the tourists who are wandering through the market to visit their stalls in particular. In return, these "guides" receive a small portion of the sale. But local people in Dakar also use these young boys when they are looking for a certain commodity and are uncertain as to where it is for sale in the market.
The Lebanese in West Africa
The first Lebanese arrived in West Africa more than a century ago. Following lines of kinship from the first wave of Lebanese settlement, many others migrated into the region. There was a particularly great influx between the two World Wars, when Lebanon was under the mandate of France, and the Lebanese could now count on protection in those areas of West Africa that were part of the French colonial empire. Senegal in particular accepted many during this period. Later, the civil war in Lebanon created a new increase in migration to West Africa. Today Ivory Coast houses the largest community of Lebanese in the region, with a Lebanese population of about 100,000.
The first Lebanese immigrants made their livings to a large degree as small retailers. In the period between the World Wars many Lebanese worked themselves into positions as middlemen between local farmers and European import-export firms. They bought up small quantities of agricultural products for wider resale and imported textiles to sell in their own shops. Others went into the transport sector. Following World War II, they moved into more varied forms of trade. This might be trade in gold and diamonds or producing plastics, cosmetics or building materials. Many Lebanese went into the service sector and invested in hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, insurance or service stations. For the most part however, their enterprises remained family firms. Accordingly, right from the start, Lebanese in West Africa have largely made their living by means of retail sales and trading activity, and today their major occupation is shopkeeping.
The majority of the Lebanese who came to the region in the 1920s were Christians, while those who came from southern Lebanon following the outbreak of war in 1975 for the most part were Shia Muslims. Lebanese frequently maintain contact with their homeland, and many return to spend their old age there. Others retire to Europe or the USA.
The relationship between Lebanese and Africans is marked by dichotomy. On one hand, the Lebanese tend to be respected for contributing to the development of the infrastructure, for their desire to respect local customs and to master a local language. On the other hand, their wellbeing and political influence are not very popular among Africans. Among other things, the tense and unequal situation is expressed by the fact that one finds only a very limited number of marriages between Lebanese and Africans. Frictions between the groups can also find expression in the marketplace, as is seen, for example in the fact that shoppers make clear choices between visiting a Senegalese/Malian or Lebanese trader.
- Van der Laan, H. Laurens. 1997. Lebanese Communities, in: J. Middleton (ed.), Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. Vol.2:559-560. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.
The Madougou Market
Madougou is a village with a population of about 3,500 in the region of Mali known as Dogon country, located about 35 km. southeast of the rock cliffs at Bandiagara. Tourists love to visit the region of these rock precipices with its picturesque villages where the Dogons, known for their colourful masked dances, sometimes give performances in honour of the tourists. Dogon country is a difficult region to reach, far from public highways and major lines of communication. It is, however, possible to take a Dogon taxi from Bamako to Dogon country on Friday morning after the market. The Dogons dominate the onion trade and use this taxi route to freight their onions into the capital city, and goods from the capital back out to the villages in Dogon country, a distance of about 800 km. There are toll barriers with an entrance and an exit installed at each town along the way, and the traders must pay a toll based upon the quantity of goods they are carrying with them. All the passengers' identity cards are checked, and, since it is costly to be a trader, many of the small retailers have the designation "farmer" on their identity cards. Whenever their subterfuge is detected, it can be very costly to buy themselves out of this scrape.
Monday is market day in Madougou. In addition to this weekly market there are small shops that are open every day, and small stalls at "the crossroads" of the village. One can buy all the necessities of daily life in these shops and stalls, such items as groundnut oil, matches, candles, cigarettes, spaghetti, tea, sugar, batteries, razorblades, candies and dates.
The marketplace is comparatively large and is located right in the middle of the village. Here wooden pole structures are set up with thatched or plastic-sheeted roofing. One cannot walk upright under this roof, but must bend over all the time to avoid banging one's head and being poked in the eyes by protruding straw. One has to move slowly and control and contort one's body into all possible and impossible positions and postures, for space is tight and low under the roof. Fabric products are sold here in this covered portion of the market, and the vast majority who have their stalls here, are itinerant traders who have purchased their goods in the capital and have themselves brought them out to the village with the help of the bush taxis. Only the few businessmen and functionaries in the area can afford to own cars or motorcycles. When the rest of the local people go to market, they transport themselves on foot, by bicycle, moped, or on the back of a donkey.
One can install oneself around the marketplace and sell whatever one so desires by spreading a plastic sheet on the ground, or selling food from metal pots and pans. Some also use donkey carts as stalls from which to sell fruit. The marketplace gradually fills with local and itinerant men and women who sell agricultural products, dried fish, clothing, textiles and tobacco. There is also a large tree in the market under which nomadic women sell fresh and soured milk from callabashes. On market days they have to share the space with women who sell groundnut oil and the ingredients for sauces.
There is a clear structure to the market in Madougou. The division of labour between different people is clearly defined. Who sells and produces what and where is not left to chance. The handicraft castes are a case in point. There are special occupational groups in West Africa with their own family names; these groups practice different crafts and are referred to as castes. In Madougou one finds a blacksmith caste, a leather workers' caste, a caste that works with jewellry, a wood-working caste. In addition to the Dogon, who are mainly farmers, semi-nomadic Fulbe people also live in the village. These ethnic groups and castes have a division of labour that makes them dependent upon one another. Moreover, most of the work is gender-divided; that is, men and women in a household have different work tasks. The division of labour is revealed on market day, when the various groups offer up their services and their products.
The blacksmiths and sheet iron workers make tools from scrap iron for agricultural use, while the women make ceramic cooking pots. The leather workers make drums, amulets, and leather scabbards, while women make containers from gourds and inner bark fibre (bast). The jewellry makers travel around to buy up pearls. The women dye cotton material with indigo. The woodcarvers make bowls and stools from wood, while the women decorate both these and calabashes by burning in designs with firing irons. Children can also have their own tasks on market day. Boys help out as porters. Girls make and sell food. There is a further division of labour between agriculturalists and pastoralist nomads who exchange grain and milk. Today a large part of this exchange takes place in the market.
The reason that the villagers shop so much in the market is that the selection of goods is varied and one can bargain. One cannot do so in the shops. On the other hand, shopkeepers operate with credit because they know the local inhabitants. If one does not have particularly good relations to the seller in the market, it can be difficult to obtain credit there. Thus the markets and the shops satisfy an everyday economic need.
Verlore at the Village Market
Verlore is twelve years old. She lives in a straw hut with her mother and her little nephew. Her father died the year she was born. He fell from a tree when he was cutting fodder for his livestock. Her mother never remarried, and her older brothers have moved out. Verlore is the only help her mother has to fetch water and wood, prepare food and look after her nephew.
Market day dawns like any other day for Verlore. She has to get up early to crush grain for the morning meal. After this she has to fetch water from the well. She has to go back and forth several times with the bucket on her head in order to fill all the water jars since nobody will have time to fetch water later in the day. When her mother has made herself ready to leave for the market, Verlore looks after her nephew and feeds him. Not until the afternoon can Verlore herself get ready to go to the market together with her girlfriends.All the girls get dressed up to go to the market. They put on their best clothes and apply whatever cosmetics they have. Verlore must also take along her nephew since her mother has not come home. He is heavy, but she carries him on her back in a shawl that she ties around her waist and over her chest. Then, she is ready to leave. She does not have much money, only one crown that she got from her mother and has managed to save. She is very excited today because she wants to buy herself a hip ornament that, apart from her, all the other girls have. It is said that to have such an ornament around their waists makes girls prettier. Formerly such ornaments were made from glass beads, but now they are made out of plastic. This does not bother Verlore at all. Quite the reverse! She thinks that such plastic beads with their explosive colours are fabulous!
Verlore makes several rounds of the market to look over all the different hip ornaments. They hang down in long strings from the market stalls. She and her girlfriends examine and assess them, but they are a bit afraid to ask about the price. Not until the market is closing, and the traders are beginning to pack up, does she screw up her courage and ask how much a hip ornament costs. He wants two crowns for it. Two crowns! And she has only half that much…
She rushes off to find her mother and ask for more money. But her mother does not have more money. She has just purchased a sack of grain. Nonetheless, she accompanies Verlore back to the stall, and, after a long discussion, Verlore gets the hip ornament for one crown. Her mother knows the seller and has promised to pay the rest later. Verlore, radiating with happiness, ties the beaded hip ornament around her waist. Now she is just as fine as the other girls, and proudly she turns homeward.
Issa - an Itinerant Trader
Issa comes from Ghana, but he works as an itinerant trader in Mali. His base is in a small town, Koro, not far from the border with Burkina Faso. Every day in the week he travels from Koro to various markets in the region. On Mondays he attends the market in Madougou.
Issa sells costume jewellry and factory-made synthetic-fibre clothing like football shorts and singlets. His stall consists of a small table and a parasol that he carries around with him to the markets. Since he has neither an automobile nor a motorcycle he is dependent upon bush taxis to get around between Koro and the villages. He knows all the drivers and all the cars, and he has his permanent drivers - chosen by a combination of price and reliability - with whom he travels to the various villages. But none of the drivers is so loyal that he fails to load up his car with others if Issa does not arrive on time. This means that he has to get up very early every morning and negotiate the price of his trip to the market. The price is dependent upon the quantity of goods he happens to have with him. In principle the price is determined on the basis of weight in kilos, but nobody weighs the large plastic sacks or the cartons of goods, and thus a good deal of discussion can break out around the determination of the price.
The bush taxis are old Peugeots with two tiny rows of passenger seats, really only wooden planks covered with plastic, along the length of the car. The bush taxi is loaded to the bursting point, and the traders and passengers literally sit on top of the load of goods and hold on as best they can, while the driver follows a slalom course between the trees. In sandy areas the vehicle needs a good deal of speed to avoid getting bogged down and stuck. If the driver is lucky his motor keeps going, he avoids puncturing his tires, and they arrive at the market in time. Now trading can begin.
Issa pays local boys with small carts to carry his goods from the taxi park to the market place. He sets up his stall and between ten and eleven o'clock people begin to come. Sales lag and he complains that people have little money. But there are always some women who want new jewellry or clothing for their children, so he thus manages to sell a little. Once again, at the close of the day, he has to negotiate his return to Koro, discuss the price, and stow his goods in the vehicle. Sometimes he has even more freight on the return journey, if he has taken the opportunity to buy vegetables or grains that are cheaper here than in the larger towns. This time it is one of the other traders who is late, so the journey does not begin before sundown. Issa accepts the situation with equanimity; on another occasion perhaps he is the one who is late, and it is good to know that they will wait for him. After driving for ten minutes, the taxi stops, and all those who have pressed themselves aboard and found something to hold on to now climb out. It is time for the evening prayers. They unroll their prayer mats in the sand and bow down toward Mecca.
Trade and Survival
The possibilities for wage labour in the villages of Senegal and Mali are almost zero. Frequently, young people without land and animals have no choice other than to migrate to the cities in order to survive. Apart from this, agriculture and animal husbandry yield such small incomes that farmers too go to the cities at certain seasons in order to earn a little extra. Young women can look for work as housemaids, but the majority, both women and men, end up as retail sellers. The situation is no easier for the young who have grown up in the cities. Not all have the opportunity to go to school, and unemployment is great even for those with an education.
It is not necessary to go to school in order to engage in trade in West Africa, and it is even said that an apparent illiterate can actually be a millionaire. Neither is schooling necessary in order to have a permanent stall at a market, nor to be employed by a shop. What is most important is to have a small sum of money - perhaps borrowed from a friend or a near relative - that can be invested in goods that can be resold. The actual selling takes place on the streets. If there is any profit, it can be invested in a new and slightly larger consignment. In this way it can gradually become possible to save money. For those with dreams of becoming big businessmen or businesswomen the goal is, of course, to save enough money to be able to rent one's own stall, and perhaps finally to invest in a shop. Most of the men and women who sell in the markets of Dakar and Bamako have saved their money in this manner. Very few have borrowed money from the bank. But to obtain a permanent place in a market is not easy. It helps to have the right contacts through one’s family, or to belong to a Muslim brotherhood where the elders and the established "brothers" can give one a way in.
Today there are so many young boys testing their ability as sellers in the streets of Dakar and Bamako that it is impossible to move through the city streets without constantly having to say "no" to offers of cheap toothpicks, lighters and chiming alarm clocks. Women and young girls offer foodstuffs like juices in small plastic bags, bananas, oranges and roasted peanuts. The competition among all those selling in the streets and the markets is fierce, and many end up as small retailers with an income that is constantly insecure. Young people on the streets are often harassed by the police. Conducting trade and commerce along the streets is fraught with high risk. The goods are unprotected in the rainy seasons when violent downpours can occur on very short notice, and no one is insured against fire, theft or other forms of destruction.
Haggling, a Chaotic Necessity
One of the characteristics of the marketplaces in Mali and Senegal is that the prices of goods are not fixed. With everything that one desires to buy, one must negotiate vocally in order to arrive at a price - something that often takes a long time. Why do these markets not have fixed prices for their goods?
One reason can be that in West Africa people feel that, when they shop, they should create a relationship with the person with whom they are trading. To some degree, buyers and sellers ought to be somewhat acquainted. And they become acquainted during the discussion necessary in order to come to an agreement on price. This is not the least of the reasons why tourists feel it is enjoyable to visit the markets. When one haggles in the market, one comes into discussion with local people in a completely different manner than when one buys something in a shop. But economics and survival are perhaps the most important reasons for the system of haggling. The advantage of bargaining is that it gives great flexibility in the setting of prices. Those who sell have the possibility of shifting their prices up a long way, and down a long way. What is decisive is how much information the shoppers have about what it is usual to pay for an item locally and the degree of economic pressure the seller is experiencing. Indeed, the greater the chaos and uncertainty that the sellers are able to create over prices in the market, the greater is the chance of earning good money. It is therefore almost impossible to ask a seller in one of the markets what the approximate price is for an item, and this applies even to the most common household products. The answer you get is, "How much do you want to pay?"
Both in Senegal and Mali to be a skilled negotiator of prices is a highly esteemed quality, a quality that can have great significance when one is poor, and every penny saved plays a role. A smart seller naturally gives a first price that is much too high and perhaps provides a story about what he himself had to pay for the item, or about how rare it is. Or else, that this is the first item that he is selling that day and that bad price means that it will be a bad day. For her or his part, the buyer can threaten to break off the transaction if the seller does not go down in price. If the seller is under enough pressure, he or she may have no choice but to accept a price that earns them only a few pennies.
The prices of some of the most sought-after goods in Mali and Senegal, such as damask or printed cotton materials are also affected by the approach of the season of religious festivals. All women in Bamako and Dakar want to have new dresses for Muslim festivals, and the per-metre price of materials goes up. The pressure on all the sellers to contribute something extra to the family economy during such festivals also causes the prices of market goods to increase in general. When the festival season is over, prices sink once again. Everyone knows that the majority of sellers have now spent all their money, and that it is therefore possible to push prices down to the absolutely lowest level.
- Steiner, Christopher B. 1994. African Art in Transit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Markets and the Informal Economy
In Mali and Senegal, those who have work in what we call the formal sector of the economy are almost wholly limited to the urban elite. This is the part of the economy that is under public or state control. Those who deal with commerce are ensured certain rights here, but they also have obligations in the form of taxes and fees. However, the fact that most people survive shows that a great portion of the economic activity in the two countries is completely or partially beyond the control of the state. This does not mean that chaos reigns here, but that there are other rules that prevail. Naturally enough, the informal economy includes the poorest, those without education, money and the right contacts to obtain permanent work.
The informal economy includes much of the trade that takes place in the markets and that offers possibilities for those who are inventive and possess sufficient "go-ahead" spirit. That the markets are informal means that at least parts of trade and commerce conducted there are not recorded. This involves everything from trade in illegal goods like medicines and narcotics, to a seller who avoids paying rent to the authorities on his stall, avoids paying customs duties on imported goods and taxes on what he or she has managed to sell. In the eyes of the state, the informal economy is considered to be a threat. It undermines state control and revenues, and is often described as a type of activity that hinders the modernization of the economy.
Despite efforts by the state to take over control, informal commerce in the markets is experiencing sharp growth in very many cities across West Africa today. One reason is that important institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have, in recent years, demanded a liberalizing of the economy in countries like Mali and Senegal by, among other things, privatization and lower import tariffs.
Trass i forsøk fra statlig hold på å få kontroll, er den uformelle handelen på markedene i sterk vekst i svært mange byer i Vest-Afrika i dag. En grunn er at viktige institusjoner som Verdensbanken og Det internasjonale pengefondet (IMF) i seinere år har stilt krav om en liberalisering av økonomien i land som Mali og Senegal, blant annet gjennom privatisering og lavere importavgifter.
From the perspective of the local shopper, the markets are popular for many reasons. As a rule, the traders in the markets are the first to offer a newly-sought commodity that has been imported with the help of relatives in New York, or has been produced locally. As well, the markets offer the same goods as the shops, but at lower prices. The setting of prices is more flexible and at times approaches a point where profit-taking is almost nil.
- Pederesen, P. O. and D. McCormick. 1999. African business systems in a globalising world. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 37(1):109-135.
- Laguerre, Michel S. 1994. The Informal City. Berkeley: University of California Press.