Rural Markets in the Congo, 1871

A rural market today, in southern Africa

In many parts of Africa, rural markets are the most important method for buying and selling agricultural goods. The following description of a large rural market near the Lualaba River in N.E. Congo by David Livingstone could be a description of many rural markets today. With a few exceptions, the items being sold are the same.

1st April, 1871._–The banks are well peopled, but one must see the gathering at the market, of about 3000, chiefly women, to judge of their numbers. They hold market one day, and then omit attendance here for three days, going to other markets at other points in the intervals. It is a great institution in Manyuema: numbers seem to inspire confidence, and they enforce justice for each other. As a rule, all prefer to buy and sell in the market, to doing business anywhere else; if one says, “Come, sell me that fowl or cloth,” the reply is, “Come to the ‘Chitoka,’ or marketplace.”

_2nd April, 1871._–To-day the market contained over a thousand people, carrying earthen pots and cassava, grass cloth, fishes, and fowls; they were alarmed at my coming among them and were ready to flee, many stood afar off in suspicion; some came from the other side of the river with their goods. To-morrow’s market is held up river.

_10th April, 1871._–Chitoka, or market, to-day. I counted upwards of 700 passing my door. With market women it seems to be a pleasure of life to haggle and joke, and laugh and cheat: many come eagerly, and retire with careworn faces; many are beautiful, and many old; 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.

Bought the fish with the long snouts: very good eating.

_16th May, 1871._–At least 3000 people at market to-day, and my going among them has taken away the fear engendered by the slanders of slaves and traders, for all are pleased to tell me the names of the fishes and other things. Lepidosirens are caught by the neck and lifted out of the pot to show their fatness. Camwood ground and made into flat cakes for sale and earthen balls, such as are eaten in the disease safura or earth-eating, are offered and there is quite a roar of voices in the multitude, haggling. [On safura, or earth eating, see blog entry here.]

_24th May, 1871._–The market is a busy scene–everyone is in dead earnest–little time is lost in friendly greetings; vendors of fish run about with potsherds full of snails or small fishes or young _Clarias capensis_ smoke-dried and spitted on twigs, or other relishes to exchange for cassava roots dried after being steeped about three days in water–

… [sweet] potatoes, vegetables, or grain, bananas, flour, palm-oil, fowls, salt, pepper; 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 on their faces–cocks crow briskly, even when slung over the shoulder with their heads hanging down, and pigs squeal. Iron knobs, drawn out at each end to show the goodness of the metal, are exchanged for cloth of the Muabé palm.

They have a large funnel of basket-work below the vessel holding the wares, and slip the goods down if they are not to be seen. They deal fairly, and when differences arise they are easily settled by the men interfering or pointing to me: they appeal to each other, and have a strong sense of natural justice.

With so much food changing hands amongst the three thousand attendants much benefit is derived; some come from twenty to twenty-five miles. The men flaunt about in gaudy-coloured lambas of many folded kilts–the women work hardest–the potters slap and ring their earthenware all round, to show that there is not a single flaw in them.

I bought two finely shaped earthen bottles of porous earthenware, to hold a gallon each, for one string of beads, the women carry huge loads of them in their funnels above the baskets, strapped to the shoulders and forehead, and their hands are full besides; the roundness of the vessels is wonderful, seeing no machine is used: no slaves could be induced to carry half as much as they do willingly. It is a scene of the finest natural acting imaginable.

The eagerness with which all sorts of assertions are made–the eager earnestness with which apparently all creation, above, around, and beneath, is called on to attest the truth of what they allege–and then the intense surprise and withering scorn cast on those who despise their goods: but they show no concern when the buyers turn up their noses at them.

Little girls run about selling cups of water for a few small fishes to the half-exhausted wordy combatants. To me it was an amusing scene. I could not understand the words that flowed off their glib tongues, but the gestures were too expressive to need interpretation… [Today, water is sold in plastic bags in the markets.]

Livingstone's camp near the market that he describes. Source: Last Journals

Source: David Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume 2 of 2). 1866-1868

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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