Rural Markets in Africa: A Meeting Point

In many rural areas of Africa, the market is not only a place for buying and selling, or carrying out commercial transactions. It is also a place characterised by strong social relations, becoming a meeting point for the scattered members of one’s family or native village.

The large tree that often grows in the centre of the market squares is called a “Parley Tree”, where the elders gather to engage in long discussions. Market day is not a rest day but a day for celebration. Friends get together and engaged couples meet, all while buying and selling. The social aspect is reinforced by the absolutely neutral character of the market: for example, the ancient ban on carrying weapons still remains in place. The section of the market where beer and other alcoholic drinks are made from millet and sorghum is almost always found at the margins of the commercial area, so that those who have partaken of the spirits don’t disturb the market visitors.

Very clear criteria that go back hundreds of years determine the location of the market. One often hears the people of the village say, “It was the sages who chose the spot”. The location of each market has a story behind it – the market cannot be chosen at random. The first people who came to live there chose it for a clear reason. It is still possible to find altars facing the market squares, where the current inhabitants’ ancestors carried out sacrifices. Especially in regions where the local population is scattered over a vast area, the market becomes a reference point where people can meet and exchange information.

On market day, therefore, the movement of the population changes significantly. Following the movements of the people, “social” spaces are revealed, often defining the border between one ethnic group and another. This is not to say that access is forbidden to other ethnic groups; but it is important to know that anyone entering a given market enters the sphere of influence of the host community. Even though borders may be fluid, politics, dividing one group from another in space and in time, are at play.

A typical characteristic of many African markets is that they are exclusively feminine spaces. It is the women who transport the products of the countryside to sell them and buy others, and it is enough to cast a glance at the stands to see that it is also the women who run them. The men usually sit to one side, chatting and discussing; but they take no direct part in the commercial activity. That belongs to women alone. And it is the woman who, with her small savings, pays for the covered stall for herself or together with other women, to guarantee a place in the market. The majority of women come spontaneously and have to make do with the places that are left. The profit gained from the sale of the products is small, but it helps to round up the balance and especially to bring in some cash. In many cases, most of the agricultural produce of the household goes towards subsistence and does not produce any money. It is entirely due to the initiative of the women who sell the agricultural products transformed into food – including maize flour, manioc, and sorghum beer – that the family manages to raise an income or to exchange food for clothes, cooking pots, batteries, or other useful items.

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