How do you survive? The market

I walk amongst the ubiquitous, neatly arranged piles of vegetables spread out on old sacks and blankets in the market. The scene could be anywhere in Mozambique; hundreds of women sitting in front of their little stocks of produce with the odd buyer wandering through the scene. The little groupings are all meticulously organized by price, quality and size. Tomatoes, onion, cabbage and garlic are present at every market spot, with every other woman also stocking collards, eggplants, peppers, carrots, cucumbers and the odd beet root. With such homogeny in the market selection, so many sellers and so few buyers, I constantly ask myself the question, “How do people survive here?” How do they make ends meet in order to support their families with money for food, clothing and other necessities? I was with a friend in a market like this, and as we looked out upon row after row of identical produce stands, I asked the casual question of how anyone actually made money here. My friend turned to me and said “Evan, they DON’T make any money!” However, this obviously cannot be the case, as people are not dropping over dead in the streets for lack of sustenance. People are surviving through this lifestyle and I wanted to know how. Not only are people surviving, it appears that certain women are actually thriving! Their market stalls are always full of buyers and well stocked with the most variety of veggies, whereas the women on either side sit in envy with their measly tomatoes. I wanted to know the economics behind being a market lady. I wanted to know what type of wheeling and dealing these women were doing, and how savvy they were in their transactions. Why were some more successful than others? I wanted to know what a typical day at work was like for one of these women. I spend 20-30 minutes per day at the market, and always from the perspective of just passing through to make my purchases. It would be a totally different situation to sit on the other side of those old sacks and try to make a living. So one day I decided that I would BE a market lady for a day, or actually a market Man. I would wake up, and go to work just like all of my competitors, trying to eke out a living selling nutritious vegetables to fickle buyers in the Manjacaze market.

My plan was to “rent” a market stall for a day and see how much produce I could sell. I have many friends in the market and after telling one of them my desire to intimately experience her lifestyle, I managed to convince her to let me try to sell her veggies for the day, or at least for an entire morning.  The produce would be hers, and the profit would be hers as well, I would only be manning the table. (Aside: if the market ladies are 99% women, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that I would be “womaning” the table?) Aside from being completely incredulous that a perceived high-society westerner such as myself would voluntarily want to come sell vegetables in the market, she was extremely concerned that I wouldn’t know what to do and would ruin her business. You literally just sit there and when people pass by you tell them the prices and put the produce in a plastic bag. I laughed and said to her “listen, at university I worked in a laboratory doing tests and experiments that are infinitely more complicated than the job you are giving me, can you please repeat after me and say Enzyme Linked Immunosorbant Assay?, No? Or how about Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction” Her response was a completely blank stare, mouth slightly agape. I told her I think I can handle this!

Before having this experience however I needed to understand the economics of my business. Through my own casual polling of market women, I discovered that the average level of schooling was around 8th grade, with the older women having little to no schooling and the younger women with slightly higher levels of education. The majority are illiterate. Obviously I couldn’t just rock up on the scene and start talking about profit margins, return on investments, net worth and percentage growth rates. I had to bring down the level of terminology and make my questions very clear. “How many tomatoes do you sell in a day? How many onions? And how many days a week? How much do you buy this for? How much do you sell this for? Where do you get this from?” More or less the questions were like this. It was very interesting to discover that in many instances the women did not know how much they were selling, how often they were buying, what their bestselling item was, or related questions. Most of the women do not keep accounting books and do not have records of their sales or purchases. When they run out of onions they get more, when they run out of cabbage they get a few more. Not unexpectedly, they exist in this obscure, murky financial world of “what you see is what you get”, where the majority of their bank accounts are in the risky location of their pockets.

Through this process of questioning about personal finances I came upon an interesting phenomenon that I had no idea was going on. Nobody has bank accounts at the local branch of the Mozambican bank, yet every single women I questioned was involved in a monthly saving scheme they called a “shtick”. Basically a man walks around the market with a notebook once a day and takes money from just about every single woman, recording each transaction. The amount of money is dictated by the individual woman. Then at the end of the month, the man walks around and pays out the total savings that each woman deposited, minus his own fee. So for example, I decide that for this month, every day I will deposit 50 meticais with this man. For days 1-30 of the month I give him my 50 mets. He keeps the deposit for day 31 of the month for himself and on the 1st of the following month delivers me my 1500 mets total. One man walking around with huge sums of money would seem to be an obvious target for thievery, himself robbing the women, or someone robbing him, yet the women assured me that this has never happened. I asked the women why they didn’t just keep their 50 mets at home in a safe place and they all said that the temptation to use the money would be too great. “You mean like use the money to buy school supplies for your kids, or food, or medicine?” I inquired. “No, like if someone walked by selling a telephone and I had the money in my pocket I would buy it”, was the response. Yes, even if they didn’t need it. Consumerism and flashy techno gadgetry leave no survivors.

Some of you by now may be thinking to yourselves why these women would so easily reveal all their finances and intimate business details to some pesky, inquiring white boy. The women themselves of course asked me my motives for my questioning. And the truth is they revealed every bit of information because they are controlled by the same vices and temptations that you are; fame, fortune and visions of self-grandeur. I simply told them the truth behind my questioning. I was going to write an article that would go to this magical place called “the internet” and people from all over the world would be able to read about them and see their pictures. Lying and manipulation were not necessary! Also these women are my friends, and they trust me. Whether or not they should trust me is a separate issue.

So based on my market research (meaning I literally went there), the average market woman’s finances and accounting are more or less as follows: (this changes due to seasonal variability)(1 USD = approximately 28 meticais)

1 crate of Tomatoes = 250 meticais, sells for 500-600 meticais once divided up and sorted

1 sack of onions = 150 meticais, sells for 250 mets once divided up

40 kg of cabbage = 200 meticais at 5 mets per kilo, sold for 15 meticais per kg

Cucumbers = 7 meticais each, sells for 10-15 mets

Carrots = same as cucumber

Peppers = 3 meticais each, sells for 5 mets

 

Here in Manjacaze, being a rural town, most of the produce comes from the provincial capital of Xai-Xai. The women must pay over 200 mets in transport costs to get their produce from XX, with each woman usually making the trip once a week. Some of the produce is delivered to the market directly in Manjacaze. For example one day I saw the tomato truck arrive at the market, with 100 screaming, pushing and shoving women crowding around to get the first selection. The poor driver of the truck was swamped and was literally beating back the women to try to maintain order. That was a funny scene.

In the western world, most business owners look for some sort of specialty that makes their business different from all the rest. It could be a unique product or service that would allow them to have a market monopoly and dictate higher prices due to the scarcity. Here in Manjacaze this is totally the opposite. I asked the women why they didn’t try to broaden their selection to include as many options as possible or try to distinguish themselves from the other sellers. “What and scare people away with too many choices? Or try to sell something weird that people don’t know? HA! That would never work!” You idiot foreigner with your weird ideas, they love to insinuate. It seems that market conformity is actually sought after and to distinguish yourself is to take a huge risk.

Taking into account the other little knickknacks, bottles of vinegar, MSG laden soup mixes and packets of spices being sold, at any given time a woman could have between 2000 and 4000 meticais worth of produce on her stand. I asked some of the more successful looking women how much earnings they averaged and each said that when the movement in the market was good they may sell between 400-600 mets per day worth of product. Unfortunately in my market research it would be impossible to say how much of this was profit as the numbers were just too obscure and no records of any transactions exist. Other women clearly sold less, averaging 100 mets per day and when there was “no movement” at the market, like a Sunday for example, most women don’t even bother setting up their stalls. The end of the month (pay day for most people) and holiday times are more lucrative as the high sellers will average over 1000 mets per day, especially the week leading up to Christmas.

I asked why some of the women sold well while others didn’t, and most people told me it was just luck. The idea that one person could have a better sales presentation or customer relations didn’t seem to occur to anyone. It was just luck. And I also learned that if you want to improve your luck in business you can go to the local medicine man aka “curandeiro” to have a positive blessing put on your business. For a large fee of course, and after the blessing wears off, if you don’t return to the curandeiro to have the spell recast, you will be left with absolutely nothing. Curandeiros need repeat customers as well; he needs to be good at his black magic, but not too good.

I asked my women friends if they were able to provide for their families through their businesses. I discovered that the vast majority of women selling in the market are actually single mothers and have substantial financial obligations; it was not simply a side job while the husband was off at work. My friends responded that in general, once all expenses are paid, everyone fed, clothed, school paid for, etc, they do not have any money left over. They live on the edge of survival. One illness or accident and the whole family is in a dire situation. I asked them if they had any reserve money and how much. Most women didn’t have any, only whatever amount was tucked into their bra, but one said yes, in fact she had 500 meticais on backup, safely stashed away in her brother’s bank account. Approximately 18 dollars in case of emergency. I don’t ever want to hear my parents talk about financial difficulties ever again.

The day of my market experienced arrived and I trudged up to the market at 8 am to help my friend open up shop. We uncovered everything on the table and she instructed me how to set up the little piles, as if this needed instruction. At night the women simply cover their ware, no locks or security. I asked about thievery and the woman looked at me like I was crazy, nobody here would ever do that, we are all friends here she told me. I indulged her, and let her show and tell me everything about running the market stall. And then she left, promising me to return to check up on me in a little while.

I am not going to lie; I had very high expectations of being able to sell a lot of produce. First off because I was a novelty, people would be attracted to the stall being run by the weirdo white guy they always see hanging around. Secondly, I was extremely confident in my powers of persuasion, and finally I had absolutely no shame. I called out to people passing by, made ridiculous comments and just generally played around with the situation. It was amazingly fun, yet surprisingly ineffective. In fact in the 4 hours that I sat at the market stall I sold 30 meticais worth of produce; a few piles of tomatoes and onions. People were certainly attracted to my stall, that was exciting, and I fielded a million questions about what I was doing, but when it came down to people actually buying things from me they refused! They thought it was a big joke and that I couldn’t possibly be selling good produce and that perhaps I had done something strange to the food and they would get sick. Mozambicans have some very strange conceptions about food. For example, many people believe that if children eat eggs they will become criminals or that if women eat meat they will lose the will to have children. Another favorite of mine is that if a child is slow to grow, you can grate the fruit of the baobab tree and give the child a bath using the grated fruit mixed with water. However you must be very careful to not wash the child’s head or the head will grow ridiculously large compared to the rest of the body. Back to the market though, the community response was abysmal. It seems that people favor rapport and friendship with their market sellers much more than my market friends were letting on. I simply didn’t have the rapport or reputation to be a successful salesman, despite the attention that I got.

Being in the market for 5 hours, I heard a lot of the ambient conversation that went on around me. These market women are gossip queens! I would imagine that if my job was to sit there all day, I too would start gossiping and talking shit about all the other women, but I was really surprised by the women’s ruthlessness. I learned a lot from the experience and I feel that I now appreciate the work that these women do. I always tell them that they have one of the most important jobs here in Manjacaze, to sell nutritious food that will make the population healthy. They are not simply selling food, they are selling medicine that people take multiple times per day. They seem to appreciate this.

Ideally I would like to explore a few of the other common jobs people have that allow them to survive in these tough economic conditions. We will see what opportunities arise.

Photos: Mama Maria tries her first jackfruit ever!

The survivors!

Market women hair braiding train.

The most used pair of shoes ever. I bought these new balance shoes from a Salvation Army store in NYC a week before I came to Africa. I wore them for a year until holes formed in the soles and on top, letting in rocks and sand that made walking very uncomfortable. My friend and co-worker asked me for the shoes, which I was going to throw out. He showed up the next day with the shoes totally re-sown and re-soled. He has now been wearing them for about a year and these are the current state. Still walking!

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