And now for something completely different I want to focus on the open air market of Africa as the one place where the “winds of change” have had little effect over the last one hundred fifty years. Those who have traveled in sub Saharan Africa will, I feel certain, find themselves reminded of their market expeditions in reading the following descriptions of Congolese markets by two leading African explorers of the 19th century: Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. Although it is Congolese markets more than one hundred years ago they describe here, the same scene could be discovered today in most countries of the continent.
First is a passage from The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa from 1865 to His Death. Livingstone spent several weeks in Nyangwe on the River Lualaba, central eastern Congo, recuperating from his futile wanderings in search of the Nile. Every day he visited the busy marketplace of the large village.
“All are pleased to tell me the names of the fishes and other things. Lipidsirens (my note: a breed of chicken) are caught by the neck and lifted out of the pot to show their fatness. Camwood ground and made into flat cakes for sale…. Are offered and there is quite a roar of voices in the multitude, haggling. It was pleasant to be among them… vendors of fish run about with pots-herds full of snails or small fishes…each is intensely eager to barter food for relishes, and makes strong assertions as to the goodness or badness of everything; the sweat stands in beads of their faces – cocks crow briskly, even when slung over the shoulder with their heads down, and pigs squeal….They deal fairly, and when differences arise they are easily settled by the men interfering or pointing at me.”
Whatever the particular African culture’s customs regarding gender roles and relations, it is the women who stand out in every African marketplace. Livingstone writes of the Nyangwe market women:
“It seems to be a pleasure of life to haggle and joke, and laugh and cheat; many come
eagerly…..many are beautiful…. All carry very heavy loads of dried cassava and earthen pots which they dispose of very cheaply for palm-oil, fish, salt, pepper, and relishes for their food. The men appear in gaudy lambas, and carry little save their iron wares, fowls, grass cloth, and pigs.”
It should be mentioned that Arab slave traders attacked the Nyangwe marketplace while Livingstone resided there, killing over 400 people and leading to the Doctor’s flight to Ujijii where Stanley “found” him just months later in 1871.
There can be no doubt that Henry Morton Stanley was a hard, sometimes cruel, man who drove the Africans in his employ with little mercy. Another aspect of Stanley’s character – his high regard for the innate capacity of the African – is revealed in the following paragraph from his The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State in 1885. Stanley too clearly learned something important from visits to Congolese markets:
“In the management of a bargain I should back the Congolese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world. Unthinking men may perhaps say cleverness at barter, and shrewdness in trade, consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade….I have seen a child of eight do more tricks of trade in an hour than the cleverest European trader on the Congo could do in a month…….Therefore when I write of the Congo native, whether he is of the Bakongo, Byyanzi, or Bateke tribes, remember to associate him with an almost inconceivable amount of natural shrewdness, and power of indomitable and untiring chaffer.”
As an eerie conclusion, I quote from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 commentary in The
Heart of Darkness on the prevailing European view of the Congolese. Conrad marveled at “the extraordinary effort of imagination that was necessary to make us take these people for enemies”. No doubt Conrad too spent some time in Congolese marketplaces during his Congo travels in 1890.
NOTE: To enlarge the photos, click on them; the photo to the right here might surprise you.