Douala, Cameroon Because ACORN organizes tens of thousands of hawkers and street vendors in India, I’ve spent a lot of time in a wide variety of markets over the last decade from ones that have been operating for literally four hundred years to some that were thrown together overnight as they moved away from police harassment. Nonetheless the visit to the Marche de Sanaga or Sanaga Market, the largest fruit and vegetable market, we were told, in all of central Africa, was a fascinating experience, as we toured for several hours with the President of the workers’ association that ran the market.
Sanaga is the name of the river nearby and giant gantry cranes tower within a short distance, and in fact some of the goods are broken down from trucks here and put in containers for shipping to other African countries from here. The Sanaga Market is a bulk or wholesale market. Visiting in the rainy season, we can testify that it was a working market as we stepped lively between the puddles to avoid trucks, vans, and scooters hauling out produce. Amazingly these 30 to 35 kilo baskets were being head carried by laborers drenched in sweat and dirt continually from the trucks out to the moto drivers. In India these laborers are called Mathadi workers, and in the huge public markets in places like Mumbai, their union is storied and strong. In Douala, the work seemed more informal.
The moto drivers tied what seemed to be more than 500 pounds of these baskets on their small 125 cc motorcycles. We watched one so loaded that he needed to be pushed by the laborer off of his kickstand in order to move the bike forward – the load was so heavy.
The President explained that there were 4500 vendors in the market, not counting the thousands of drivers and laborers. The market was organized into twelve sectors and he had two stewards, for lack of a better word, who managed each sector. Each sector handled three main items whether okra, tomatoes, carrots, or whatever. The stewards collected the dues or rent from the vendors on a weekly basis. The dues was 500 francs or a little less than $1 USD per week. Surprisingly, the market had only been in operation for about twenty years, but it was a huge and bustling operation with little sign of government interference. We saw one policeman in the market who came to the President to make change. There were several traffic policemen up the stairs on the main boulevard surfing the chaos of loading moto drivers, carriers, and regular drivers. The President had been a former student leader. He was also a vendor and had a small office where other vendors could come and do their paperwork out of the weather for a bit.
He told us the vendors were in trouble this week. Prices had dropped for a basket of tomatoes for example from 6000 francs to 3500 francs in just a week. The crops had been too good in the agricultural districts. Some vendors wouldn’t make it.
When asked plans for the future, he said the vendors and the association wanted the government to build a permanent infrastructure for the market with fixed and covered shelters and vending areas. We asked how they would achieve this.
He explained that first they would send a letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer. Then they would send a second letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer. Then they would send a third letter to the minister, then they would wait some time for an answer.
If there was still no answer. They would take action.