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‘Tanzania’s Informal Economy’ offers a rare glimpse at the dynamics of Africa’s street markets

This book challenges much of what scholars assume about kinship, social networks, trust and solidarity.

“Tanzania’s Informal Economy: the Micropolitics of Street Vending,” by Alexis Malefakis (Zed Books Ltd., 2019).

Every January, I leave behind the snow and cold of Maine winters to take a group of 10 students to Uganda for a short-time study abroad program. This course, a collaborative effort with a community in Masindi district, aims to challenge the ways that students think about development. Little did I know that students on the 2019 trip would learn more from a scene that played out on the street in the capital city, Kampala, than they did from most of our carefully planned activities and meetings.

We were waiting on our bus for some students to purchase Uganda Cranes soccer jerseys in Kampala’s busy downtown shopping area, next to an area where dozens of street vendors spread out their wares for sale on plastic tarps. Our driver, Patrick, who normally took advantage of such times to rest, yelled, “Look! They’re coming.” Suddenly, all of the street vendors, seemingly knowing what to do with no one telling them, began gathering up their goods. Over the next 10 minutes, all the clothing, linens, shoes, belts, cookware and so much more that had been carefully laid out for sale were wrapped into those tarps and hidden under the bridges that cross a large drainage dip. Vendors worked together to move the goods quickly; they had clearly done this before.

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What was happening? Patrick explained that their colleagues further up the road had given the alert that enforcement agency officials were coming. These officials, charged with ensuring that vendors were all operating with licenses, would arrest anyone caught selling without one. All of the vendors we saw gathering their goods did not have licenses and were therefore doing their jobs on the margins of the law.

To be arrested for illegal selling was a nightmare — the only way out was to bribe the officials or the police, an insurmountable barrier for a vendor who could not afford the price of a license in the first place. So a system evolved by which informal vendors protected one another through WhatsApp messages, shouts and hand signals. Sure enough, minutes later when the authorities arrived on foot and by truck, we saw the two unfortunate souls they had taken into custody, but none of the sellers by us — now empty-handed and leaning casually against the bridge railing — were picked up.

I couldn’t help but think of that incident when reading Alexis Malefakis’s brilliant new book on street vendors in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. His book, “Tanzania’s Informal Economy: the Micropolitics of Street Vending,” is a fascinating and thoughtful ethnography of shoe vendors. All of these vendors are members of the Yao ethnic group (known as the Wayao) who migrated to the city in search of a better life. They arrived to learn that life in Tanzania’s capital would be as precarious as the rural lives they left behind.

Malefakis set out to understand how Wayao vendors understood their identities and places in the city, their community and themselves. Because they are all related through the kinship networks of their ethnic group, he expected to find that Wayao vendors would have a strong sense of obligation to one another, but that those relationships would be challenged by the competition within the group for scarce customers and sales.

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Instead, he found that the vendors’ sense of competition was tempered by the fact that while their relationships had a high degree of continuity (that is, they lasted a long time and remained essentially the same over that time), that continuity actually made their relationships less stable. Vendors felt very alone in their efforts to make money and survive, even as they have to work together to figure out everything from the latest trends and styles their customers want, to price shifts, to appropriate slang used in the city’s markets, to understanding specific locations to sell. Wayao vendors are both dependent on and limited by their kinship ties. As Malefakis writes, “They felt stuck in a kind of gridlock, incapable of making it on their own, yet rejecting the idea of depending on one another.”

Malefakis explores these dynamics through several lenses, including witchcraft. He sees this as a marker of distrust: When one vendor did significantly better than his peers, he might be accused of engaging in sorcery. Jealousy and suspicion drove these behaviors, but a person cannot leave the kinship group. Vendors can be dependent upon people they do not trust, but cannot break off relationships with them. Their very survival depends on the knowledge and skills they share with one another every day.

Malefakis also offers a detailed accounting of the spaces Wayao vendors inhabit in Dar es Salaam. Chapter four, which traces their route through the massive Karume Market, where they buy the goods they will then sell on the streets, is a highlight. The knowledge vendors must have to ensure that they will pick items their customers will buy, to know what is and is not a fair price, and to understand the quality and construction of specific shoes is constantly changing.

“Tanzania’s Informal Economy,” in fact, challenges much of what scholars assume about kinship, social networks, trust and solidarity. It shows how street vendors, far from being failures who can’t get a “real job,” are sophisticated entrepreneurs with broad knowledge bases and complicated relationships with their colleagues. It’s an outstanding read, one well worth your time.

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