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Sierra Leone News: Street Vendors

The megaphone chorus starts at dawn; their crescendo in sync with the birds, roosters, dogs, and honking horns. Hundreds of disembodied voices implore the masses to come closer, to buy a SIM card or and ice cold Coca Cola or a pack of smokes. As I walk by, I wonder how the young man on the corner of Fort Street manages to cope with 10-hours a day of listening to his own voice on the megaphone.
The size and scope of Freetown’s street markets will never cease to amaze me. In one city block, I could buy a phone, peanuts, glasses, sunglasses, a new pair of boots, a business suit, lunch, dinner, apples, mangos, bananas, fried plantains, a movie, some new albums, the Bible and the Quran. The craziest part to me is that to buy these 16 items I would most likely have to go to 16 different people.
I find myself fascinated by the items and foods each person chooses to sell. A young man on Pademba Road was holding about 30 rubber welcome mats, going car to car searching the eyes of each driver for any flicker of interest. He didn’t see any. I was transfixed by him, wondering if anyone has ever been sitting in their car and said, “I’ve been meaning to buy a welcome mat, I’m so glad you’re here.” Surely there must be a few everyday, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more like a few every week. After about a minute or so, he caught me staring and searched my eyes for any signs of interest. I smiled quickly and looked at the ground.
It seems as though every street vendor has their niche and sales style, molded by years of experience. I’ve noticed vendors fall into two broad categories: stationary and mobile. Stationary vendors usually have far too much stuff to carry around with them or they have some equipment that’s too cumbersome to go mobile. A group of women roasting corn near my hostel probably have no desire to lug their coal-fired grill around the city. The vendors at Kroo Town Road Market seem content letting the customer seek out their massive baskets of brightly colored peppers, fresh pigs feet, and local spices.
But what mobile vendors lack in the diversity of their goods, they make up for in their visibility and customer interactions. A young man selling sandals out of a bucket or a backpack might not have the sizes or selection of a stationary stall, but he’s going to see a lot more potential customers than the stall will. Food vendors can also get a lot more customers when they move around, constantly surrounded by a new batch of potential buyers. I saw a woman with a bucket of pineapple on her head the other day and my mouth instantly began to water. I bought three slices on the spot. That must happen all over the city.
The goods street vendors sell also fall into one of two categories: popular and novelty. Popular items are reliable; vendors know that people love these foods and goods so they’re likely to get a lot of business. If you’re in the mood for an apple or some boiled peanuts or you need to buy some phone credit, just do a quick spin and you’re almost guaranteed to find what you need. The downside of selling popular items is that you’re probably going to have a lot of competition.
Novelty items, on the other hand, rely on a vendor being the only person around selling that good. There is a man just down the street from Awoko who sells children’s toys and shoes. The plastic dolls, boards games, stuffed animals, and pink sparkly sneakers are all immaculately displayed in neat rows and columns. I’ve only been here for about three weeks, but I’ve yet to see another competitor for the youth toy and shoe market. If people want inexpensive goods for their kids, then they know exactly where to go.
I’ve only first started to fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of Freetown’s street market; a parallel economy that epitomizes the resilience, tenacity, and diversity of people I’ve met here.
Timothy’s Take
Friday July 14, 2017.

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