Queens of the market
What is playing in your ears today? I hear a voice from Africa that tells a story of need. Poverty in Africa has a woman’s face! Women labor with the burden of being the backbone of the country’s economy, making small farms and selling fruits and vegetables to provide the basic necessities for their families. They have a hard time, often travelling long distances to the markets on dirt roads that are mostly impassable, especially during long rainy seasons.
For many, formal schooling was interrupted for so long because of war (mostly internal conflict). Opportunities for young African women in Liberia and across Africa are scarce, so most women run their small business market. To run a successful business, women need to be able to read and do basic math calculations. The most fundamental way out of poverty is Education—knowledge and skills. Women must learn valuable business and social skills that will allow them to participate fully in planning and organizing their communities.
Education is a key to ending poverty, giving women a voice to reject the corruption that has also contributed to Africa’s poverty, and to embrace a culture of human rights aimed at protection for them and their daughters. Education will give them a fighting chance against discrimination and exploitation. It will give women the possibility to become economically self-sufficient. Education will give women the opportunity to decide on matters concerning their own lives, giving women a voice with which to defend their own interests in those societies that undervalue girls.
But challenges remain all over the continent. Women leaders are still in very small numbers, however, that will change. Hope lies in the kind of example set by organizations like Shades of Liberia, Women of F.I.R.E., and Ward Academy for Girls, which develop projects enabling women to become economically independent. We need to support their efforts to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Women entrepreneurs, like the market women, are playing a major role in the fight against poverty. I call them, Queens of the market.
You see… gracefully, she makes her way toward the market balancing a pan of eatables—or anything for that matter —on her head. At times carrying her baby under her arm or tied to her back.
She takes her familiar place in the stall and amidst the noise of the market, you will see a tough, assertive woman evolved in her own power structure to settle with a customer for the final price. Every minute is accounted for by repetitive tasks, and there is no time for relaxation in the marketplace.
The Queen is not in business for herself; it is for her family. Every cent that is earned will help her husband for family maintenance and her children. What is overlooked is the market woman plays a much important role in moving her country to economic prosperity. She is rarely praised or acknowledged for her hard work. Most do not realize that it is her strength and resourcefulness that is responsible for the food found on the dinner tables in just about every home.
I pray that they be encouraged, as I end with the words of Franklyn Douglas, “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” It is for every market woman that I write this poem:
The Market Woman
Vivid colors of tropical fruits,
limes, oranges, mangos and pawpaws,
pineapples, plantains, bananas, guavas,
plums, eddoes, yams and cassavas,
sugar canes, palm nuts and red hot peppers.
Gleaming white heaps of new country rice,
tan baskets and brown mats,
blue-purple eggplants, red-violet kola nuts,
indigo head ties, lappas and Vai shirts.
Distinct arts of carvings and paintings,
jewelries of flashing gold, brass and copper.
The stage is set;
the buyers and the sellers have met
with plenty of haggling on the price
until an agreement is reached.
In Africa’s colorful marketplace,
women reign supreme.
Swift and graceful,
she takes her familiar place in the stall.
Then on a table or a bamboo mat,
she spreads her wares of
fuzzy green okras; ten to a pile.
Her hard 16-hour workday continues;
settling her price for little profit,
dashing to satisfy her buyers and
hoping they remember and come back.
Cleverly, she fills a crying baby’s mouth,
smiles at a waiting buyer whose order she’s tending,
exchanges three okra piles for some money,
then embraces her baby who stays hung sucking.
No leisure time, no relaxation;
attentive, diligent and tireless action.
Amidst the hurly-burly marketplace,
she, too, haggles with customers
over price and quantity.
Money earned feeds the family,
dresses the children, pays for schooling;
Grateful for her hard work on their behalf,
she is the heart of her family survival.
The market woman returns home,
kindles the fire and prepares the evening meal.
She serves food to her husband and children—she eats last,
washes herself, puts her house in order
then goes to bed at last.