What is in a market? A microscopic view of some aspects of Ghanaian cultures
I may not recollect with certainty, but I think while I was in class five at Kotobabi Presbyterian Primary School (KPPS), Accra my mates and I read about a story titled, ‘A Market Day at Asesewa.’ As a young boy, I really wanted to go to Asesewa to see the imageries that the author of the story had created.
At some point, I was wondering whether Mrs. Antwi, our class teacher, would be kind enough to take us to the scene of the story. But ever since I left primary school, I participated in market activities, selling iced water (sold in cups and later plain rubber) and now pure (sachet) water. I also sold bread, cartons of milk, outdated newspapers, and kerosene at Maamobi and Nima (Kasoa Lariba) markets on Wednesdays.
Today, I decided to test my culinary skills so I went to the Madina market to get a few foodstuffs. Since I had not been to the Madina market ever since I left Old Ashongman (Pure Water), I decided to see how much change had occurred at the market. Before today, I had visited the Maamobi and Nima markets. At the market today, I could tell that the market in Ghana and many African countries (including Uganda where I resided for three years – 2014-2016) and even the Caribbean like Suriname is a space for multiple activities, ranging from economic, social, religious, occults, and politics.
The market in Ghana is a nucleus for brisk economic activities. While there are no written rules against adult males trading at the market, the market is largely an enclave for females. Occasionally, you will have a few men from the Northern part of Ghana selling tubers of yam and onions. But generally, the market is a woman's terrain. Since the 1980s, many anthropologists have identified the fact that some males in Ghana have taken up occupations that were traditionally allotted to women.
A clear example is men selling okra, tomatoes, and other vegetables in the market. In the past, men would cultivate these items and allow their wives to sell them at the market. But it is also true that the change in our economy from state-centric driven since the time of Nkrumah and other regimes of military leader to a neoliberal regime, some women have also taken up the profession of men. It is now a common sight to see women as mates (commercial bus conductors/drivers’ assistants). It is also a common practice to see women trading in fresh coconut fruit in Accra. On rare occasions, you find women working as welders, automobile fitters, undertakers, and cobblers.
Aside from the changes in the economic architecture, the advocacy works of some female activists have contributed to creating a gender-neutral profession for many Ghanaians. Gradually, we are nearing gender-blindness in the area of occupation. Indeed, ever since colonialism contributed to the domestication of women in the Gold Coast, postcolonial Ghana has seen many Ghanaian women sharing the same space with men in the world of work.
The public sphere has been made gender-neutral. This is to the extent that in some cases, women are preferred to do works that were traditionally designated for men. Thus, unlike in the past where women worked as secretaries and typists in the world of work, now there are many women who are heading companies, factories, and other public and private offices in the country.
The markets at Nima, Maamobi, and Madina have become the point of confluence for men and women, children, and religious activists to engage in an ever-flowing interaction. The Ghanaian understanding of the human being as a social being is strongly emphasized at the market. While there is competition for buyers, this competition is not one of antagonism and belligerence. It is constructed within the framework of neighborliness.
Through bargaining and calling for buyers, the market provides a free social space for people to interact or have verbal intercourse. In some cases, some individuals have also found their suitors at the market. There are also market women who sing songs like “Eda Yesu Beba obe te bo bo le bo bo” and “Yebro da da yen twen bronya.” Aside from market women singing, amidst attracting the attention of buyers, there are professional musicians (sometimes a group of blind men and women) who also sing to market women for a token. The hooting, shouting, and singing at the market have a catharsis effect on sellers and buyers.
In the same way, singing at the market has a therapeutic effect on both sellers and buyers. In musicology, it is said that man is a singing being, and music tends to have a healing and sobering effect on performers and listeners. At the market, the African musical element of call and response is very much expressed. Consequently, both singers and listeners get interlocked in an interaction that is socially soothing. Since Germany blazed the trail, it is now a common practice for music to be used to resuscitate persons who have slipped into a coma. My professor at the University of Cape Coast, who was trained in Germany, N.N. Kwofie, used music to breathe life into a patient who had slipped into a coma at the Komfo Anokye in the 1990s.
But occasionally, you see a few women bickering and squabbling over other women who have taken away their customers or are suspected of using occult powers to trade. At the Madina market, you also hear of women who have imprecated their co-sellers or have gone to see a juju-man or juju-woman to sell better than their competitors. Others also wear some religious objects to ward off evil spirits or attract buyers or both. Inscriptions on sheds also bespeak the religious leaning of market women. These religious itineraries of market women make funerals of market women a huge social and capital investment.
The death of a market woman is a huge event in the market. During those occasions, the entire market goes red. There are songs of insinuations if there was any rumor that a competitor killed the deceased. Indeed, in Ghana where we almost have no natural cause for death, every case of death is attributed to the works of malevolent spirits through their human and nonhuman agents.
The blaring of music from the loudspeaker, which could have an earsplitting effect, is a common feature during the funerals of market women. There is also wild dancing, quaffing, and easy-going among some market women during the funeral of a co-market woman. In fact, morals are usually relaxed during funerals. You can, therefore, see a man and woman dancing in a sexually suggestive manner during funerals. Also, profane words are blurted out freely during funerals. Indeed, during funerals, all inhibitions are suspended.
Clothing is also an important feature during the funerals of market women. Usually, there is customized clothes that may have different inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions could have religious significance while others are meant to spite suspected killers. For example, the customized cloth of the late president of Ghana, Prof. John Evans Fiifi Atta Mills, had the inscription ‘Se asa’ to wit “it is now over” is a common inscription on the clothe of market women during funerals. Other embossments on funeral clothes articulate the enduring effect of death. There are inscriptions like, “Owuo sei fie” (death devastates home), “Owuo atwedie baako fo emfo” (the ladder of death is not climbed by one person), “Owuo aye ma adi” (death has dealt badly with me), and “Owuo tri mu ye den” (death is merciless).
The advertisement for death in the market is also very instructive. Sometimes, depending on the age of the deceased, different titles are chosen for the obituary. If the deceased is young, the obituaries are titled as follows: "Why" "Gone too soon", "O God, Why”, “What a shock”, “Why now”, and “Life is short.” A fairly elderly woman will have titles like, “Call to glory”, “Home call” “Life well lived”, “You will be remembered”, “Call to eternal bliss”, and so on.
But there is also the religious dimension to funerals in the market. The elaboration or otherwise of the funeral and the festivities that are built around it is informed by the religious persuasion of the deceased person. For example, in the case of the death of a Muslim woman, there is soberness, suppressed mourning (since Islam does not entirely support uncontrolled weeping in the event of death), no posters/obituaries, and open gluttony or wine-bibbing.
There is also the ethnicity bent to funerals at the market. Among the Ga, the ‘so-called’ autochthons of Accra there is what is popularly known as ‘Gbonyo Party’ usually embodied in gluttony and wild dancing after burial. The Akan, particularly the Asante have also deeply commercialized the funeral. It is rumored that foods and drinks are served according to the donation one offers.
Political affiliation also features well during funerals. Usually, both the New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress (the two dominant political parties in Ghana who have ruled alternately since the re-democratization of the country in 1992) turn funerals into a political campaign. Party paraphernalia are ubiquitous during the funeral of a party member. But regardless of the religious, political, and ethnic affiliation of a deceased person, donations are solicited to support the funeral and the families of the deceased.
Usually, a fixed amount is given to all market women to pay. Non-payment is a sign of hostility and belligerence. It also enlarges suspicion about the cause of the death of the deceased. In most cases, you have families of the deceased going to thank market women for supporting them when they (relatives of the deceased) were bereaved. In the past, relatives of the deceased would ask for persons the deceased financially owed in order for a settlement to be made. The belief undergirding this practice is to ensure that the deceased gets an unimpeded journey into the world of the spirits.
The religious architecture of the market is filtered through rumors and grapevines about women who have pythons under their shed, which they use to attract customers. There are also rumors of some market women who involve themselves in grotesque rituals to gain a comparative advantage over their co-sellers. The idea that the market is filled with all forms of spirits, including marine ones, has made other religious actors and ritual functionaries to extend their activities to the market.
It is common to see a roving ritual functionalist praying for market women for a token or a gift. I have spotted some mallams plying their activities in the market. They recite and chant some aspects of the Qur'an to fortify market women against malevolent spirits. There are also Christian freelance preachers, who blare through loudspeakers to counter the activities of evil spirits and also win converts for God. Usually, preachers do not monopolize space in the market. They share a space with other preachers. So, in most cases, they alternate.
During the celebration of Homowo, the agro-religious festival of the Ga, Ga ritual experts perform rituals at the market. The market on such occasions becomes the hive of religious activities. The ancestors are called upon to bless market women and to also ward off evil spirits. Gospel music also features strongly at the market. The market queen, who controls the affairs of the market, is also expected to provide religious and social support for market women.
In the event of mysterious death or dryness in business, the market queen is expected to intervene spiritually. Depending on the faith of the market queen, she may consult some supernatural powers or superhuman beings to address such challenges. Since conflict never escapes any human gathering, the market queen brokers peace in the event of a conflict among some market women. Usually, the market queen is either an indigene or a senior colleague in the market. Her worth of experience and in-depth knowledge of the culture of the market is always leveraged on to settle disputes in the market. These experiences are also used to ensure cosmic and economic order in the market space.
There is also a political dimension. During elections, politicians go the market to engage market women. In some cases, you find some politicians helping market women to sell. They make all manner of promises to these market women. Some of these promises include a reduction in transportation cost, reduction in market taxes, and building of new market structures for them. Head porters are also promised good fortunes. But for market women, the promises are not as important as the parties they traditionally belong to. Usually, market women have political parties they always support and may not be swayed by promises by other politicians. During district assembly elections, contestants also go to the market to canvass for a vote.
The market is also a converging point for other nationalities. During the market day of Nima, which is Wednesday, traders crisscross national boundaries to trade in the community. Nima market is usually the meeting point for international traders from Ghana's neighboring countries. These include Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali. These traders bring items like beans, yam, cattle, kola, and other spices.
They usually bring their wares on Tuesdays and sleepover after the Wednesday market and return the rest of the days. Wednesdays are, therefore, busy days at Nima. The international characterization of the Nima market has won a name for the market as ECOWAS Market. This name, which was given by the former Member of Parliament of the constituency, Dr. Mustapha Ahmed, reflects the internationality of the market. In short, Nima market is a space for the formation of transnational citizenship!
The markets in Ghana are not only for selling foodstuffs. They are also spaces for embodying other aspects of life. To befriend a market woman is always a good thing. She always has a way of serving you well. But men who accompany their wives or conjugal girlfriends to the market are stereotyped as misers who want to duly follow how their ‘chop monies’ (housekeeping monies) are spent. Such men become the talk of the day at the market.
Women who also do not bargain before they buy anything are considered wasteful, who fleece their husbands and conjugal boyfriends. This is because in the market, bargaining is part of the ethos of business activities. To bargain well, one must always split the cost of the price she is given for an item into two equal half. For example, if a buyer is told a tuber of yam costs twenty Cedis, she is to split it into two to offer ten Ghana Cedis. In the end, she is likely to get a deal of fifteen Ghana Cedis.
There is also free counseling at the market space. Market women who have issues with their husbands or conjugal boyfriends share their misgivings with their trusted friends. They are given ‘godly' and ‘womanly' counseling. Sometimes, they are told to wear jeans trousers at night, in order not to let open their legs for any ‘bedmatics'.
This is to teach their lovers a lesson. If it is about someone seeking to share their husbands or boyfriends, they are told to sooth their foods with some black magic. In extreme cases, some alliances would be forged in the market to fight the potential rival. If the rival sells at the market, she becomes the object of gossip and ridicule.
To conclude, the market becomes an important space for interacting and providing unsolicited counseling to both buyers and sellers. It is important that as new malls are emerging, which are tipped to, in the long run, overtake ‘traditional’ markets, there is the need for functional differential to ensure that these new malls, which create a sense of individualism and unfettered capitalism are controlled.