I know their face, but I don’t know their names.
“Do you know everyone in the market?” I ask Juliet.
“Nooo. I know their face, but I don’t know their names,” she replies.
As I walk through the market with Juliet, it is obvious that even if she doesn’t know their names, she has a depth of familiarity with this space and these people. We walk through the area where men cut and gut fresh fish. “Nile perch,” she points out. Next, we get to the other produce section in the market and Juliet’s friend Julie greets us. “She’s fat this one!” says Juliet.
Juliet shows me her salon, location 50C. We walk around the outside of the market, and then back in again. The photo studio where she gets portraits done with her son; the Internet cafe where her friend works; and the Bugolobi SACCO shop where the women hold meetings.
Juliet makes it a priority to introduce me to Auntie Miriam. “She’s a good family friend and very, very old,” says Juliet. Auntie Miriam has a shop with a prime location right at the entrance of the market. She sells general food and household items: bread, Blueband, jam, Royco, pots, plates, sponges.
“I’ve been in this market since very young,” explains Juliet. “Like seven [years old]. We grew up. Mommy used to sell milk. Then, we reached in secondary, that’s the time she switched.”
The price of milk was going up and it became too expensive for Sarah, Juliet’s mother, to purchase it. In addition, many people were getting into the business making it hard for small shop owners such as herself to compete. Then, Sarah’s sister who worked in the produce section of the market passed away in a car accident. That’s when Sarah took over her sister’s portion of the market and started selling vegetables.
“With lots of women selling the same items, do you compete with one another?” I ask.
“Of course we do. We’re friends, but we also compete. You know in a business, you have to compete, but it cannot make you create an enemy,” explains Juliet.
“So if you are all selling at the same prices, what makes a customer come to your stand over another woman’s stand?”
“But I cannot tell you. Because even you, you came to us and I don’t know why you came,” laughs Juliet. “That’s the way it is. And there are others who can buy from me, and there are others who buy from them. You know, there is what we say that everything which happens on earth, God knows it. And God knows the customers.”
Sarah suddenly stands up and signals to one of the women selling matoke in the second row of produce stands. Why?
“The customer,” says Juliet. “It is that other woman’s customer that has arrived.”
“When one’s customer comes, they call each other,” says Ronnie, Juliet’s cousin who has just joined us.
“It is his mother who has passed,” says Juliet in reference to Ronnie.
Ronald goes on to explain that the women also sometimes work together on small projects. “Me, I don’t know what sort of projects. But they save together money, and at the end of the month, one member gets it. Like savings groups. You know alone, most of them have just small capital.”
Sarah pulls some photos out of a black cavera. The photos are mostly of her first daughter’s introduction and wedding that occurred in March 2012. But then, Sarah identifies Oliver in one of the photos, posing with Sarah’s youngest son Farhad and holding a present wrapped in blue, shiny paper.
“It was a party, like the other groups I told you. The groups the women make. She was the one receiving gifts at the end of the month,” explains Juliet. “We make you like a bride. We bring together our little money, we buy sodas, we cook beans, and we make a party. We use the [KCCA] office. As you know how we make parties, that is how we make it. And when it’s time for you to receive your gift, we escort you like it is a wedding party.”
The women count the days and each of them has a number that delineates when it will be their turn to receive the group’s savings. In one of Sarah’s groups, she is number nine. “For my Mom, they count five days,” says Juliet.
“What did Oliver do with the savings she received?” I ask.
“I don’t know! She’s the one who knows! Some invest it back into their business. Others buy things like furnitures, like that.”
As we chat, we notice that one of the women is getting very upset, raising her hands and yelling to no one in particular, but to everyone at once.
“The other one, she likes quarreling too much,” says Juliet in reference to the woman yelling. “That’s the way she is. We are used to her. She always quarrels. She can even quarrel with customers.”
The woman is quarreling over banana peels. “After we eat, there are some people who come to collect them. They take it for the animals – cows and goats,” explains Juliet. “So a sac is 3,000 or 2,000. A whole sac. But someone has complained that she gave them a bad bag of peels. As you come here, and you find Ronnie, and Ronnie gives you bad tomatoes – don’t you see – and you come back and tell me, ‘I will not buy from there, last time I bought and they gave me bad tomatoes.’ So it makes the customer to go. So we are saying to her, ‘You want to chase our customer to go?’”
Sarah also gets upset, but over a different issue. She raises her voice, motions with her hands, and paces back and forth in front of her stand. Once again, she seems to be sharing her strife with no one in particular, but with everyone.
“She’s upset because people give out fake money. They gave me twenty, behind, last week,” explains Juliet. In publicly and loudly sharing her woes, it’s as if Sarah is also warning the rest of the ladies to be on their guard. “There were two times that they gave us fake money. One it was a fifty, the other one it was a twenty. Different people.”
“She doesn’t know. This one, she doesn’t know,” chants Sarah. She is very upset that her daughter was tricked and taken advantage of by these false customers. With the little daylight that remains, Ronnie tries to teach Juliet how to identify fake money by checking for a texture on the printed numbers.
“Ah, we cannot ever see them again,” says Juliet. “At times, this one comes, the other one comes. Sometimes they bring that fake money when you have many customers so you don’t have time to check.”
“And they bring big money,” adds Sarah. “They buy small things with big money.”
The daylight ends and the single light in their section of the market goes on. Margaret, who sells matoke in the second row, arranges some flattened boxes amidst her branches and lays down her head. She is able to rest in the security that the women vendors in the front will notify her of a customer’s arrival.