Resty’s granddaughter Miriam and grandson Marvin stop in the market to see her on their way home from school. Yesterday, they both drew maps of their perspective of the market. The older women were very excited to see what they would draw. After drawing her map, Miriam quietly helped polish and sort Theopista’s tomatoes, chucking the older, bruised tomatoes into a paint can. Theopista’s stand is right next to Resty’s. “Resty is my closest friend,” says Theopista.
Today, Miriam was in the market again but she wasn’t wearing her school uniform. Instead, she was wearing a smock. On Saturdays while Marvin goes to school to do his homework, Miriam goes to the market to assist Resty. Generations of women are raised within this Bugolobi Market context that is both collective and empowering (owning one’s own vegetable business and working closely with other women to save towards enhancing that business) – but also restrictive (the majority of the women are at the market from 7am – 9pm, Monday – Saturday; on Sunday, they work ‘half days’ by going to church in the morning and don’t arrive in the market until 2pm).
Like the other women who drew maps, Miriam included the names and items sold by the other women vendors with whom she relates in her map. She also made sure to include Senga, one of the oldest and most respected women in the market who owns the general store-style shop right next to the main gate. Miriam’s map clearly shows that she navigates the market in a very relational way.
On the other hand, Marvin’s map of the market was very structural. He focused on drawing and naming the buildings in detail. The main relational cue that he included was ‘where my grandmother works,’ as well as two male-dominated spaces: ‘the old man by the toilets’ and ‘butchery.’ Marvin also included connections to the world outside of the market, labeling the ‘taxi stage’, ’roundabout’, and roads as ‘the way to the supermarket.’ His perspective and place in the market is obviously very different from Miriam’s.
The Chairman of the Market Vendor’s Association also grew up in this Bugolobi Market context. Right when the market was built, his mother was one of the first sellers of matoke. When his mother was hit by a vehicle in 1986, the Chairman took over her business, selling matoke during the day and going to school at night for a diploma in business administration.
The Chairman is a kind and gentle man, much loved and respected by the women. In fact, they love him so much that they’ve elected him as their Chairman every two years since 1987. But despite his long-term presence in the market, the Chairman did not include any of the women’s names in his map. Similar to Marvin, he drew in great detail the physical, not the relational, structure of the market. And he also included road names, roundabouts, and delineated the directions ‘to Kampala’ and ‘to Luwra.’
Both Marvin and the Chairman have a place in the world outside of Bugolobi Market. They have a mobility that the women do not. The only exchange with the outside world that each of the women vendors included in their map was the ‘Main Gate,’ and each of them took great care to clearly mark it in their illustration. As the women sit at their stands for fourteen hours each day, they watch this gate, their gateway to the outside world, the entry point for the customer that sustains them.
As I spend more and more time with these women, I see three layers to their sociality within the Bugolobi Market space:
- The push and pull the women experience with the outside, specifically through the main gate
- The ranting, dealing, sharing, chatting, and working together that occurs between the women in their specific section of the market
- The connections and dependence between the market sections, e.g. the produce vendors supply and peel matoke for the restaurant vendors, and the restaurant vendors send runners to check in on the shop owners each day during meal times, delivering tea, juice, and prepared foods
The Bugolobi Market space is uniquely feminine in many ways. It is a space where women cultivate ownership and exercise authority. Yesterday I ate dinner in the restaurant section, sitting at a table with three men. One of the lady cooks joined us at the table, taking a break to enjoy her own food. The men kept pestering her with additional requests, interrupting her long-awaited meal. Through her language and manner, she was obviously pissed off. The men were speaking to each other in Luganda so I couldn’t catch the details, but suddenly the lady cook very directly interjected in English, “You do not beat a child!” The men were silenced.
I transitioned to this market context because I found the Internet Cafe space boring. I was searching for female empowerment, sociality, and collectivity in Internet Cafes, but instead I found that four walls, rows of private computers, and eyes hooked to the screen actually flattened the dynamic ways that females relate to one another. There were no rants openly verbalized so that everyone in the cafe could hear and potentially add their input. The inflections of voice, hands on the hips, or waving of arms in a moment of sass were suddenly lost. There was no care for the woman using the computer beside them. Communication within the Internet Cafe space was constrained, individualistic, functional, and prescribed.
But I found what I was searching for – uniquely feminine communication, collectivity, and care – in Bugolobi Market. I believe that technology doesn’t have to flatten the beauty of how women communicate and relate. How can technology glorify and enhance the beautifully relational aspects of this market, a place where women commune, live out their daily existence side by side, raise their children, and work together on various levels.
Creating a website to market the women’s businesses is flat. Coding a market price app as a tool for the women is flat. Training the women and bringing Internet to them in their space is perhaps noble, but to what ends? So they can put pieces of themselves into pre-formatted social media applications that were definitely not created with their world in mind? Even an open sms mailing list system feels flat as it leaves out the unique physicality of their relationships.
I’m realizing the affordances and barriers of technology in this context. I desire to make a technology that doesn’t flatten what I’ve learned, that doesn’t ignore the multi-dimensional relationships in Bugolobi Market.
Based on my current understanding of the market, the women’s relationships are physicalized through two ways: record-keeping and presence.
Physical records. At the end of the day, Resty walks to each woman, collects 1,000 shillings towards Christmas savings, and writes a record of the exchange in her A4-sized notebook. A customer arrives to buy matoke from Margaret, but also wants to buy other items. Margaret refers the customer to Gertrude and the two women participate in the transaction together as Margaret writes down each item, quantity, and price for the customer’s large order. Even supposed ‘illiterate’ women keep records in a small exercise book, writing in Luganda or in words and marks they themselves understand.
Physical presence. Oliva and Margaret sit on a bench together each morning, the rhythm of their hands in sync as they pick and peel matoke for the restaurant section of the market. As Resty makes a sale, Theopista watches and listens carefully to the details of the transaction. They chat about it afterwards, compare prices, and then return to watching the main gate and waiting for more customers. When Sarah gets a delivery of potatoes, Margaret assists in sorting and bagging them according to size. And in the salon, Eve and Jolly patiently listen to Juliet download her thoughts, rumors, emotions, and experiences to them in a constant stream with bandwidth that MTN could only dream of. And when I don’t arrive in the market until late in the afternoon, the women greet me with “Oh, you were lost this morning!” Sending an SMS to tell them I will be late doesn’t make up for the fact that I was not there in the morning. These women highly value and depend upon the physicality of each others’ presence.
In thinking about the open SMS mailing list, what if when a woman sent a message, the market responded in a physical way? What if her section of the market lit up in lights when she sent a message, and another section of the market lit up when the message was received?
How can I use technology to expand or highlight the main gate – the women’s doorway to the outside? Maybe messages from the women’s sms mailing list are projected to the outside, drawing people into the market. Or maybe the main gate lights up each time a woman contributes 1,000 shillings to the collective savings group, signifying a moving forward.
How could technology help collapse the physical space between markets? What if there was a live streaming video of Nakasero Market projected onto the shop walls next to the main gate in Bugolobi Market?
How can technology help counter male dominance in non-feminine spaces, or spaces where the women may not have the upper hand? What if when one of the women went to Nakawa Market to negotiate the purchasing price with incoming produce delivery middle men, she brought a tablet along with her that provided a live stream of her cohort back at Bugolobi Market? Perhaps there is strength in numbers and better ability to negotiate a wholesale deal with her market sisters present through the tablet live streaming. What are the situations these women encounter where there is imbalance, and how could technology help facilitate a mass representation that could rectify that inequity?
To add to the importance of this upcoming week, the day I depart for Los Angeles (Friday, March 8th) is also Women’s Day in Uganda. As a day where women assert their importance in Ugandan society, it’s the perfect opportunity to go out with a bang.