Posts Taged malawi

More than one story – Street vending in Malawi

Clouded in the smoke that rises up from the debris of dismantled vending barracks the evening traffic lines up into Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe. That evening the normally bustling sideway stretches are deserted. Onions, cassava leaves and maize lie scattered on the sandy ground. Once more a Malawian Police ‘clean-up’ operation aimed at removing illegal street vendors clamped down on violent resistance. Vendors report how police officials fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd before setting their market stalls on fire to prevent the vendors from returning. Two days later two police men seemingly unperturbed are busily bargaining with street vendors over two suit trousers at the other end of Malawi’s capital. Standing next to them the pavement-shopping bank clerk Benson explains that many would prefer the convenience and good prices in the streets over the markets.

While city by-laws in Malawi prohibit the unauthorized sale of goods such as staples or consumer goods outside of demarcated ‘flea markets’, oversimplified narratives about the causes for informal vending pervade and obscure the public discourse. As the two anecdotes suggest the debate about street vending is multi-facetted, it is dominated by vested interests and waged on various levels from complicit customers, profiting wholesalers, dutiful and corrupt police officials up to politicians. The result is a protracted situation in which a cycle of relocation orders, often excessively brutal evictions and the subsequent returns of the vendors becomes perpetuated that leaves the lives of thousands in turmoil.

Lilongwe Market before Expansion Credits: CC Geoff Gallice (Flickr: dejeuxx)

Lilongwe Market before Expansion
Credits: CC Geoff Gallice (Flickr: dejeuxx)

The issue of sufficient space in the designated market areas appears to be the lynchpin of the debate waged in the streets and in the newspapers. “The challenge that we have had ever since the issue of relocation surfaced has been space and essential amenities like toilets,” explains Blantyre Vendors Association chairperson Innocent Mussa. Vendors have put it on their banners to leave the streets if more space in the markets were created for them. Officials hear their complaints, but widespread action is not taken. Rather, they bemoan that street vendors shirk taxes and market fees, thereby draining the public coffers that among others are supposed to fund market expansions. Mandasi-vending Owen retorts that amenities such as robust market infrastructure, security and proper sanitation facilities, which are supposed to be funded with tax money, would be woefully lacking.

This logic creates the impression of a situation that has become deadlocked.

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Pay after the job is done

Sticking to my routine of reading the newspaper in the mornings, I was excited to see the other day that ‘The Nation’ also featured very interesting small ads some pages behind their obligatory Cashgate coverage – a discovery which made me wake up over breakfast from then on with a smile rather than disbelief that the sum of the embezzled money has been found once again to be higher than expected.

Just to quote a couple of highlights from listings under the section ‘Medicine’: a doctor promises with ‘100% guarantee same day results, Love matters, enlargement of male organ […] court cases, job promotions’, while another lady extends her services to ‘get lover of your choice (same day) […],man power in bed, bring back lost lover (same day) […], asthma, BP, […]cancer, sugar’.

Unfortunately, the listings don’t quote any prices. When I talked about my discoveries my local colleague shared my amusement about these particular advertisings, because both of us suspected that these people were just after one’s money. But the joyful mood quickly faded and turned into contemplative silence when I imprudently stepped over one invisible line. I hinted at the fact that some of the above listed problems probably won’t find a cure with any traditional healer. With this comment I exposed my glaring ignorance of the rumors that circulated around the powers of genuine traditional healers, which had over time become rooted in large parts of the Malawian society. He told me three short stories and I try my best to accurately reproduce them here.

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Friend – Boss

Every day on the way to my favorite snack bar here in Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) I pass by the market. On my first day I must have looked like the stereotypical tourist peering cluelessly into all directions and clasping manically every other minute the oh-so-well hidden belt poach that was strapped around my belly, camouflaged under the almost transparent linen shirt. He spotted me with the eyes of a tiger. “Brother, come here! Look I have something to show to you.” In the end I bought one piece of his wood-carvings (his?) paying three times as much as my friend would the next day. I felt I had bargained like a pro, he probably felt the same. “I am innocent”, he told me the next day when I saw him and he saw me. “No, my name is Innocent”. How fitting, the introduction reveals more about me than about him. From this day of my first awful negotiation stunt I was initiated into the community of market vendors. Every time I now would stroll past their place I hear some of them call after me. ‘Hey brother, busy busy today?!’ ‘Friend, hey friend!’ ‘How are you my friend?’ Amid this outpouring of salutations it’s the torrent of pretended amiability that drowns my spirits. By the words’ original meanings ‘friend’ or ‘brother’ imply for me that I at least cultivate some deeper personal connection with the other person (or am born into it) than just having being outsmarted once when haggling over the price.

Am I taking this too literally perhaps? It may be that it’s just a set phrase born out of necessity, which these guys use because they simply don’t know my name. Or are they calculating that by calling me friend they will gradually tear down my resistance until eventually I will be so exhausted and call them my friends as well? A friend surely can’t deny buying some things here and there, can he? Once having accepted to be called someone’s friend (if he is your friend, then you must be his friend, it’s reciprocal after all) there might be this subterranean urge in all of us to prevent falling out of this person’s favor. You don’t want to lose a friend after all.

But after a couple of weeks greeting formulas began to change and I noticed how I was being called ‘Boss’ all the time now when I saw any of the guys. I was baffled about how to interpret this change of our relationships. In theory a friend could at the same time be your boss, but I suspect it’s not the way things were moving here. Semantically I was to be put in control (again) all the while our interaction was shifted onto a professional terrain with us now filling out formal, not private roles any longer. How the to explain the vendor’s sudden self-degradation, this change in tone? I was blending in their eyes into this group of mostly foreigners, mostly white people, who didn’t bother to engage with the market vendors. I lost the privilege of being on good terms with them and hence lost my status of ‘being a friend’. AT one point in time then I learned that I was considered selfish because I hadn’t bought at their place for so long. Apparently, keeping my money to me was interpreted as a sign of selfishness.

The slip in tone that signaled I was deemed superior to them in fact strongly demarcated the differences between them and me: me being part of the internationals, part of the group of Whites. This association reactivated a colonial mindset with its respective linguistic repertoire. I was the boss now. And this was not in the sense of ‘the customer is the king’.

I find it deeply troubling how these remnants of colonial rule seemingly become perpetuated through the self-degradation of the local market vendors in this case. I might have never been considered as an equal human being when called their ‘friend’ in the first place, but hearing people fall back into categories of ‘boss’ and subordinates is even more painful to face. Why is it still so ingrained in the speech of many people to salute others and me that simply happen to have a white skin color?