African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

9
Women and Trade

Trade that is not integrated into the Western market economy is called "informal." This "informal sector" is many city women's universe today. Once this varied by region. For example, city women in western Africa had a long trading history in sharp social and ideological contrast to the rest of women on the continent. In eastern and southern Africa, most cash-and-carry and retail trade were quickly monopolized under colonialism by immigrants, for example, Indians in English-speaking African countries, Greeks in Madagascar, and Portuguese in central Africa. In Johannesburg and Nairobi there were no African market women until World War II, and in Lusaka ( Zambia) they hardly existed before independence. 1 But in western Africa, the increasingly important Lebanese and Syrian communities were almost nowhere able to gain entry into the regional trading networks supplying the cities that the old networks, often female, had taken over. These were often very large networks operating even internationally, dealing both wholesale and cash- and-carry in salt, fish, palm and kola nuts, shea butter, cloth, and gold.


West African Market Women

Moral rejection of women's independence in the name of Western puritanism and traditional prejudice only makes many western African women's real, ancient economic autonomy the more remarkable. Muslim and Christian, in areas colonized by Catholic and by Protestants, on the savanna and in the forest, except in some Sahelian societies such as the Songhai of Mali, we find market women almost everywhere.

Because religion was not a determining factor, we must look for other, more profound reasons for this cultural feature unique to western Africa. In some areas, for example, among the coastal Ga and Akan, women's trading has a long history. Sometimes the antiquity of cities helped to integrate women's economic activity into urban life, for example, in Hausa country. In

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