Encounters With Street Sellers in Accra
Yesterday, we walked through the Mokola Market with the purpose of buying kente fabric (brilliantly colorful traditional Ghanaian fabric)* and running shoes.
This got my brain jogging about the various sales encounters I’ve had so far. Money makes the world go round, no?…
Please note: The following can seem a bit blunt or cynical. My aim here is to relay what I’ve experienced, seen, and heard from others. This isn’t about judging or downplaying what has to be a tough situation for many people (people whose intent, I presume, is to do their best with what they have), my aim is simply to provide my account.
A standard street artist exchange:
“Oburoni, oburoni! What is your mission? Where are you from?”
“My name is [Sam, Peter, Paul, etc.]. What is your name?”
“What do you do? What is your mission?”
“Come, come. I’m an artist, see these? See this bracelet? Handmade. Come, come. Looking is free… It would look great if it said ‘Aaron’. See, I can put your name on it. Only 15 cedis.”
Often they’ll try and pull you away from the immediate street, where being 1-on-1 makes it harder to disengage.
“Friend, my friend. I want you to have one. I want you to remember this. Take this ‘Ghana’ one.”
“Friend. You can advertise for me. Take it back to America and show your friends. Tell them about [Sam, Peter, Paul, etc.]. Show others here. Let people know where you can buy one. Take my number.”
“Friend, friend. It’s a gift. Please take it. It’s rude here to reject gifts.”
Now here if you accept the “gift,” then naturally they ask you to pay for another piece. If you refuse to buy an additional one outright, they ask you to pay (indirectly for the first item)…
“Friend, an artist has to eat. Materials cost money. Give me 15 cedis…”
Classic “small ask” and reciprocity-based sales strategies, or what I refer to as the “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie” approach. It’s clear they aren’t producing these goods themselves, and they tend to be the most aggressive vendors I’ve met so far.
Mobile Street Vendors
These are the people you see lined up at traffic lights, and who walk through the stopped cars hocking their goods. They carry the equivalent of the convenience store discount rack on their heads, in bags, or on display cases (wares include: mobile data cards, toothpaste, soccer balls, cheap headphones, knock-off Indian dvds, printed copies of The Constitution of The Republic of Ghana, q-tips, kebabs and pastries, toilet paper, mouth fresheners, water satchels and energy drinks, etc., etc., etc.).
It’s kind of like drive-through fast-food pick up for things you don’t really need right then and there. This does come in handy when you’re riding on a Tro-tro for several hours though, and want a quick snack or water (Tro-tro’s don’t make pit stops). I do wonder why anyone carries anything other than beverages or food.
Marketplace or Street-Side Sellers
These people have their own store/ store front/ plot of street and their wares are well displayed and curated to some regard.
(This really should be broken into more distinguished groups. I’m simplifying it for the purpose of this post; There are many, many sweet and helpful store owners, high end designers, boutiques, etc. too).
Generally this is standard commerce in action, but with more cat-calling to draw you in to look at the goods. Some tactics include bringing items directly to you to buy, engaging in a conversation (or telling me I look like a striker on Chelsea), and my favorite: The guilt trip.
“Hello, Oburoni/ friend, how are you?”
“Like what you see? Come, come, what are you looking for?”
“You’re just looking? Why are you here? We are business people. This is for buying, not walking around.”
“Where are your friends? Bring them here. Buy something.”
Another group of street “sellers” consists of the crippled, visibly famished, and the “homeless” young (there isn’t much true homelessness here). Apparently, it’s widely known that the local mafia coerces/ mandates these people walk defined territories in order to raise a quota, by begging for money. I’m not sure what sort of protection they get for this.
This group adopts a similar strategy to the mobile street vendors in terms of placement; They are forlorn, ragged, and use desperate pleas to ask for money at red lights (I’m not trying to downplay this, I can imagine their life is incredibly hard, and it’s just plain sad). On the streets, young children will latch on to your arm, or hold your hand, while asking for money so that they can eat…
“I’m so hungry. Give me money. Give me 5 cedis. Oburoni, please. Give me money.”
It’s also widely accepted to simply ignore these people… The mobile street vendors have made it clear that it’s okay if I “don’t pay attention to them.” Yes, this is very, very disturbing.
This one is kind of interesting and insidious.
I don’t have experience with the hooker scene directly, but apparently I know people who have (so this is second hand information).
Of course, there are the standard street walkers (booooring). Then there are the bar and club goers (oh, tell me more!).
In this scenario, you’re out for a night on the town. You see a cute girl, and you start dancing. Maybe you buy her a few drinks, you’re both having fun. The night’s wrapping up and perhaps you ask her to come back to your place. She responds, “how about we go to a hotel?”
Gee Whiz, What Does This Do to Your Psyche?
Glad you asked.
I’ll admit, the vendor’s approach makes it kind of acceptable to ignore people outright (and it’s adopted broadly by locals and expats)… This may seem harsh, inconsiderate, calloused, however, it’s kind of a “survival” tactic; Any opening to engage is often jumped on (ie., if I gaze quizzically for a beat too long at another Kobe Bryant jersey at a street stall, it’s an invitation to start talking). If you stopped to chat with everyone that wanted your attention, it’d be like the Red Queen syndrome; No matter how fast you go, you don’t get anywhere.
I understand I may come across as jaded and cold, but I’m largely just relaying observations, and I do sympathize with people’s situations. This is a harsh set of circumstances, and you have to look at the overall system and government for the way things are; There’s a reason why Ghana is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet there’s barely a blip in improvement for quality of life overall.
I should also be clear that while some people are aggressive, they are not physically trying to intimidate you (though this does happen, and sometimes they will grab you to stop you). It’s simply commerce, and a mix of curiosity and salesmanship. Further, some people will joke around with you, some just want to have a conversation, and some people are frankly dicks.
Also, this doesn’t mean I’m rude in a classic sense. Standard conversational decorum applies, and if I need to disengage hard “no’s” suffice.
In any case, my aim isn’t to water things down, and I do plead some ignorance for not knowing the whole situation with people, the system, and government.
*I plan on making tank tops and shorts. Stay tuned.