I am heading to a market. I want to meet an African market woman. I want to sit under her tutelage and learn lessons not found in textbooks or documentaries..
I want you to come with me and show me what an African market woman looks like because I have only heard of her, but I have never seen her in person. I have paged through business magazines but nothing is written of her. Her existence is not affirmed in popular media, but an encounter that I have heard convinces me that she is alive and she is a force to be reckoned with.
I recently boarded a train with a renowned community activist. As the train pulled out of the platform, an incident occurred between her and another straphanger and within seconds, my companion gleefully claimed her seat. I gave her a questioning and surprised look. She smiled and said to me: “I am very nice but if you provoke me, I know how to be like an African market woman”.
My thoughts automatically conjured up images of the no-nonsense mamas made famous in Nollywood films. I silently prayed for no more incidents as I began to imagine what kind of ‘wahala’ (trouble) might play out next. I could see my brown skin turning red in public embarrassment.
In the midst of replaying Nigerian films in my head, I was reminded of another incident earlier in the year. We were in an office meeting and as discussions got robust, I overheard one of the women saying: “people came here dressed in expensive suits and got ready to negotiate like market women”.
I grew up in villages and cities where African women selling all kinds of goods in the marketplace are the portraits of everyday life. However something about these two encounters tells me there might be a different story or version of the everyday louder than life woman you see in home videos or the ordinary women selling wares.
There is an unspoken strength, resilience and courage in the market woman that is not easily found in other women. I think this is what makes her controversial.
She defies the stereotypes of the demure and victimized African woman that adorns our TV screens and evokes our pity. The market woman is unconventional and brazen. She might be that eccentric aunt, mother or neighbor that is too loud, stands her ground and is willing to take anyone male or female that dares take advantage of her.
In other parts of the world, she may easily pass for the mad and angry black woman stereotype. I have not paid much attention to this trite, but on surface level I perceive it as strategy to marginalize and silence the story, the mission and realities of certain groups of people, but that is a thought for another day.
As unconventional and intimidating as she sounds, I like the market woman. She has something that many of us rely on education, bosses, government, parents or spouse to provide.
She has agency over her own life. She has a voice and uses it. She has a life and lives it. She is part of a community and builds it. She is not defined nor confined by the plethora of rules, labels and boxes that limit the potential of women like you and me.
I admire the African market woman. She waits for nobody’s handouts, foreign aid or social security. She has no time for our pity. She knows that making excuses perpetuate hunger and kills the soul.
She is aware that a sense of entitlement cripples her creativity. She holds the knife on its sharp end, willing to be cut by the labour of her own hands. She has authority over whatever venture she pursues to sustain life for herself and for those whose future depends on it.
The African market woman will not appear on your TV screens because she will not be seen bowed down, victimized and lamenting the sea of injustices meted out at her. She does not care to conform to popular notions of femininity and beauty that can be bought at boutique stores or the plastic surgeon’s office.
She does not need the signature CEO’s swivel chair, a corporate suit or a long list of credentials on her wall to affirm that she is a businesswoman, educator, doctor, lawyer or an architect.
She takes life by its bull’s horns and ploughs a way in places where there are no media crews to capture her glory or add her name to the Forbes list.
This is my image and impression of the African market woman. I don’t know if it’s an accurate description. That is why I ask that you come with me and help me identify her in her many dimensions. I heard she could be found in every community in fields and offices, villages and cities, suburbs and slums. Perhaps she lives in your house or she is your neighbour, co-worker or friend. Maybe she is YOU.
I am heading to the African market. I will post her picture or with her permission; take a “selfie” of both of us. I look forward to sharing her lessons with you.
God bless Afrika!
Pearl P Mashabane