Entering Bugolobi Market
Bugolobi Market has consistently been a contributing element in my fieldwork. It is the closest market to Unicef Innovation Lab in Mbuya. And I’ve always had a proclivity towards purchasing the items of life directly from people rather than ‘aisle 2.’
But when Bugolobi Market emerged as the intersection of all my research interests — women’s rights, rural/urban connections, agriculture, information networks, mobile technology, access, gender issues — my orientation to the market context suddenly transitioned from casual to intentional. This is not to dismiss my initial engagements with women in Bugolobi Market as superficial, but rather to emphasize that a deeper understanding of these women’s lives required me to embody roles other than ‘customer.’
With a renewed sense of fervor, I went into town to buy a few smocks and some fabric. Wearing a smock to the market became a performance, an attempt to model the visual vernacular of the market women. But I felt like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s smock. I elicited sweet smiles from the women, but I was obviously trying to copy them and they didn’t understand why.
I asked Patricia, a seamstress in Bugolobi Market, to design a different style of smock, especially for me. The outcome of her creativity (and perception of me) was perfect. As a muzungu, my goal was never to blend in to the market context. Imitation brought confusion and wearing jeans to the market sharply delineated me as researcher. But wearing Patricia’s personalized apron physically manifested my desire to participate while still honestly acknowledging my difference.
Then on a Sunday afternoon, Margaret beckoned me into her world with beans and matoke, which she had prepared herself. Margaret’s offering provided a glimpse into the many layers of social connectedness that these women cultivate amongst themselves. Some of this intimacy is revealed through words, but much of it is embodied through actions.
My only choice was to respond with a similar action. Before I left the market, I made sure to purchase tomatoes, onions, and garlic from Juliet and Gertrude.
The next day, I entered Bugolobi Market dressed in my apron, carrying two pots and a serving spoon. When Gertrude saw me, she squealed with delight. Margaret laughed out loud and clapped her hands. “Yesterday, you cooked and shared your family’s staple food with me. So now I’ve cooked my family’s staple food, and I’ve come to share it with you,” I explained. This exchange set the tone for my next eleven days in Bugolobi Market.
To the women, I was no longer copying; I was experiencing, learning, and then practicing. Responding to the women in this way also clearly signaled “my willingness to let [them] take the lead, informing my research agenda by indicating what I should do or say, and consequently what I should learn” (Clark).
I resonate with Clark’s description of her initiation into Kumasi Central Market in Ghana:
“One of the indications of my developing relationships with traders was my increasing social age. Like [a toddler], I cheerfully kept on trying, and gradually proved myself teachable. During my first stay in Kumasi, from 1978 to 1980, I gradually progressed through adolescence. As I learned the basic rudiments of commercial practice and social etiquette, I began to be more useful and less dangerous, no longer requiring constant supervision. I began to be entrusted with tasks appropriate to a five-year-old — watching the stall against theft or playing with the baby. Then I was promoted to eight- or nine-year-old status, capable of making ordinary retail sales and purchases and carrying complex messages. I could attend meetings and join traders on trips, since I knew enough to keep quiet when appropriate and keep myself out of trouble…By the time I had left, I estimate that I had reached about age twenty (at age 27).”
While Clark became a social adolescent after two years, I transitioned from customer to five-year-old in two weeks. I learned how to sort and pack Irish Potatoes, using differently sized cavaras for differently sized potatoes. But the most fun task was building a tower of the biggest, most enticing potatoes. Forming a pyramid-like structure out of potatoes requires you to work with the bumps.
Every once in awhile, I jumped to the level of sixteen-year-old, mostly because of my developing friendship with Gertrude (19) and Juliet (24). Early one morning, I accompanied Gertrude on a re-stocking trip to Nakawa Market. My role was limited to providing company, keeping watch over our purchased items while Gertrude made another deal, and not getting lost.
After two hours of watching Gertrude demonstrate phenomenal expertise in evaluating the quality of fresh produce and bargaining, she abruptly turned to me, handed me 1,000 shillings, and told me to purchase two cabbages. Although I tried, Gertrude deemed my cabbages too small and went back to argue with the woman.
When we returned to Bugolobi Market with our bounty, Gertrude began the huge task of sorting and shining 50 pounds of tomatoes. The women take great care to clean each item; without fliers, TV commercials, or multimedia presentations, displaying bright ‘n shiney produce it is a key marketing strategy.
In the evening, before I left the market that day, I purchased avocados from Gertrude. Often it seemed like the women were each other’s main customers, and they loyally supported one another in this way. Contributing to a friend’s business means paying 1,000 shillings for an avocado, when you could have purchased it in the morning at Nakawa for 200 shillings.
Short hair is part of the uniform for girls who attend public school, so I also briefly progressed to adolescent status when I got my hair plaited with Juliet at Jolly’s Salon. After six hours, my new do was finally complete. The market ladies were ecstatic.
I was also sometimes promoted to the status of daughter or big sister. Many of the women had daughters who were in their early twenties, and they were eager for us to meet. While getting my hair plaited with Juliet, Juliet’s mother Sarah brought fried potatoes and beef for both us. Gertrude started calling me her ‘sister,’ and during one conversation, Maama Zaina actually pronounced, “You are now my daughter.” A few days laughter, Maama Zaina’s daughter Zakia wove a belt out of straws for me, her new big sister.
Entering Bugolobi Market in this way took time.
It’s hard to imagine that I was only really in the market on a daily basis for two weeks. My fieldwork in the Bugolobi Market context did not consist of orchestrating a moment for an hour. ‘Quick iterations’ in Bugolobi Market required a completely different approach. Squeezing my agenda into “the cycles of snacks and slack periods” worked sometimes, but more often I just had to patiently wait for opportunities and insights to surface naturally (Clark). I sat, listened, and practiced presence for six to eight hour spans of time.
Without this extended presence, I never would have caught Margaret hiding shillings under a pile of banana leaves. I wouldn’t know that Resty’s daughter passed away, making her no longer the grandmother, but the mother of Marvin and Mariam. And I would’ve missed seeing Maama Zaina win the foot race on Women’s Day.
Clark, Gracia. Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.