Gracia Clark on market women


For more than thirty years, anthropologist Gracia Clark has been traveling to Ghana to live in Kumasi and spend time with the market women who make that city hum. My earliest memories of city life come from Kumasi, and so I was happy to see her new book from Indiana University Press, African Market Women: Seven Life Stories from Ghana. Practically neighbors in Bloomington, Indiana, Gracia and I talked one afternoon about her long relationship with market women in Kumasi and the negotiations that take place when an American writer becomes the medium for these storytellers from Ghana. – Carol Polsgrove, July 2011

As I was reading these market women’s life stories, I found myself wishing I could do interviews like that with all my friends – it was so fascinating to hear them make sense of their lives. Would you talk about why they seemed to talk so willingly and frankly?

Gracia Clark

Of course they were volunteers, and they were familiar with recording tapes from sending cassette tapes – at that time it was very popular to send cassette tapes to overseas relatives. The post office even had a cassette recorder where you could make them. So it wasn’t like they didn’t know what they were getting into. Some people were more expansive than others, and naturally for the book I picked the longer ones. But in general I tried to get out of the way, I tried to be nondirective, and just to make noises or ask questions that would keep them going. That was my criterion for a good intervention – if it kept them going it was good, if it stopped them I would not do it again. Some were people I knew, some were people who were introduced to me by friends.

Because you had been coming to Kumasi since the ‘70s.

Yes, I first went in ‘78, so some of the people had known me for a very long time. Some of those people actually didn’t make very good tapes. There was one woman who was very articulate and bouncy in the market, and then you could hardly get her to talk once she was at home. It might have been because at her request I tried doing the recording at her house, and maybe she was inhibited there. I don’t know. She had an unusual background – seemed to have had kind of a racy life, so maybe she was embarrassed talking about it.

Usually you did the interviews at your house in Kumasi, unlike the earlier research you had done when you were in the market.

And I realized that that and the tape recording actually liberated people – the people that did well anyway. It made them feel more free to talk at length because nobody was going to interrupt them, nobody was wondering what they were talking about for so long. It was quiet. It was cool. We always had a little chance to relax and chat before we started recording – and explain the project.

At first you didn’t want to tell them what to talk about – you just sat them down and hoped that they would say interesting things, and they were so at sea that you had to find a way to introduce the project.

At first I didn’t want to say, “I’m interested in economic life,” because I wanted to see how much they would feature economic life compared to their home life and things like that, but if I didn’t say what I was on about, they would feel very uncomfortable, like I was hiding it for some reason. And really it wasn’t that much of a secret to the people who knew me for a long time, because they knew what I was interested in – better than I did, probably – and so I developed a sort of rap that I gave people that told them why I had come to do the project – that I was interested in economic conditions but that I really wanted to hear what was important to them – that’s why I was asking so many different people, because everybody had lived through something a little different from everybody else, so they could add something to the picture. It seemed straightforward enough to them, I think, that some of them just ran with it.

I’m sure they edited what they told me, in the sense that they weren’t completely frank about everything that went on in their lives. But I was comfortable with that. You know people are probably going to do that anyway, because I really think they should have the privilege to keep private what they want to keep private, especially if I’m planning to publish it. I said that explicitly – “If there’s something you don’t want to talk about, you don’t have to.”

You have seven interviews in the book. How many did you do altogether?

I did 50 people.

You’re going to eventually put these on a website?

Actually, they’ve said they’ll put all of them up as part of the African Oral Narratives project out of Michigan State. They want material in African languages partly for students to understand, so they’re really happy to have them.

Are there going to be transcriptions into English available?

Yes. We’ve scanned all of  the translations and transcriptions. What we have are the original translations of the research assistants.

You had assistants on this project.

I did. I always had research assistants.

How did you train them?

I mainly picked ones who already knew the basic skills that they needed, so for instance with the life histories, I recruited older people who had learned to write Twi when they were children, in the Presbyterian schools, and what I had to teach them was not to correct people’s grammar, just to transcribe it literally.

There were two who were working on the translations and the transcriptions, and then there was one lady who helped me with the interviews. She did a little translation but more social organizing. She had a lot of contacts through the Presbyterian women’s group, but she also tended to tell people what to do, because they were always coming to her for advice because she was a leader in this women’s group, so I had to sit on her a couple of times pretty hard because she would start to tell people how to handle this problem they were describing.

Once the interviews were transcribed, your assistants translated them. You speak Twi but you didn’t think it was good enough? Or it was just too much work?

It was a lot of work but I also was not a hundred per cent confident of my Twi, and it’s sometimes very difficult to make out what they’re saying on the tape, so if your Twi isn’t very good, it’s going to be challenging. Also it was nice because some of the people who were very eloquent could really let loose and say things very stylistically in a way that I couldn’t quite follow in detail, but they knew that somebody else would be doing the translation.

So once the assistants did  basic translations, you went through them – how much massaging did you do?

It took a fair amount because the translations were fairly literal, so you want to do a little smoothing because if you take oral work and write it out just the way people say it, it makes them sound awkward because there are a lot of incomplete sentences, or they’ll start one way and then go in a different direction. I aimed to make them sound as eloquent and idiomatic in English as they had in Twi

Helpless Victims?

In your first book (Onions Are My Husband) you said that your research shows the agency that the women have had in their economic lives – they are not helpless victims. But by the end of this new book I felt that they really were victims – that they had responded with their circumstances with as much imagination and determination as they could, but that the cards were very stacked against them. They talk about living ten to a room and having to get the money every day to feed their families for that day, and they seem to feel overall that things are worse now than they were thirty years ago.

Most people in Ghana feel things are worse than they were thirty years ago. Although structural adjustment is supposed to have this wonderful success, it hasn’t reached the ordinary working person very much.  I guess when I say they’re not helpless victims, what I want to deconstruct is this tie between being a victim and being helpless, because there’s often the assumption that if they are active and chose to do this rather than do something else, then that’s their choice, and so it’s not oppressive, because it’s their choice, because they had a choice, whereas I see them as yes, being definitely with the cards stacked against them, but being very active in a way that doesn’t negate their problems. They don’t necessarily succeed in everything they’re attempting to do, but you have to take those efforts seriously, and aid those efforts, rather than bringing down some solution from outside.

But as you think about it ­– and you really have deep knowledge of this – if you were public policy god, would you suggest that other sectors of the economy needed to be built up and 80 percent of the women shouldn’t be out running around with tomatoes? Or do you think that whole market system is a good system that simply needs to get more support?

I think on the whole it needs more support. One of the problems with it is that more of the public support, whether it’s from the local government or from international donors, has gone towards a relatively few formal sector industries that are very capital intensive, like gold and timber.

Export industries.

Yes – cocoa in the farming sector. Although it’s not a plantation sector like in some countries, something like 20% of the farmers have 90% of the cocoa. It’s a relatively concentrated side of farming, and still almost all of the support goes into that and other high capital exports, like shrimp farming.

Whereas the market is small-scale. It reminds of me of our local food movement in the U.S.

The difference is that most of the food still goes through that network.

I wonder if you’d give a quick analysis of why that is. It is different from ours in that mostly the women are not selling things they grow – they’re buying from wholesalers or they are wholesalers buying from farmers who bring their produce in, and sometimes they go out to the farms. It’s a complex system and actually not at all like ours. Why does it still exist? Why don’t they just have big supermarkets?

The funny thing is that they have had supermarkets at least since the ’50s, probably since the ’30s they’ve had small supermarkets, and they just haven’t been able to function under African conditions.


Because supermarkets are too reliant on formal contracts, and so if their contractor turns out to be unreliable, it takes them a long time to switch gears. They import through formal channels, so they end up with a lot of stuff they don’t want because it’s all they could get foreign exchange for.

When I first went in 1978, they had these big government supermarkets and private ones as well, and there would be whole lines of shelves that would be empty or full of something peculiar like scrubbing bushes that were clearly there because nobody wanted to buy them, but anything that people really wanted was never there, so people didn’t even bother to go. I really think the market system has a flexibility and a strength, and it offers a level of  very small-scale service that is necessary for African communities and that the formal sector just is not willing to provide.

I was thinking, too, that markets are dispersed – you have central markets but you also have smaller ones, and then you have a lot of street sellers. In a country where most people actually don’t have cars, this kind of system works very well.

Exactly. If you have the time that week you can go down and get cheaper prices downtown. If you don’t have the time, you can send your daughter out to buy at the corner. It gives you that flexibility. And you have to remember, too, that people’s incomes are very small and not very lumpy. They often don’t get paid at the end of the week or every two weeks. They get paid whenever they sell something themselves, and so they need to buy in small amounts very frequently, and you can’t buy that small an amount at a grocery store.

And they don’t have refrigerators, most of them, so it’s a very workable system. It’s just that the women who are in it are having real struggles.

Because the profit margins are very small, and because there’s so much competition because of lack of other opportunities. So if I were god, I would create other employment opportunities as well, but increasing the infrastructure available to the marketplace would probably ease out some of the very low-level traders that are there just because of the inefficiencies. The inefficiencies are due to lack of infrastructure, not to lack of competition. Because there’s no storage for traders, they have to buy in small quantities every day, and if they don’t sell everything they have to discount it or throw it away. And when the roads are bad, a lot of stuff gets spoiled because the truck breaks down on the road.

From the very beginning of your academic life, you’ve been interested in putting the market women’s experience into the public policy realm – giving them a platform from which to speak about their economic lives and their understanding of what they needed and what they wanted and how they worked. I wonder if that has indeed been the case.

I haven’t been as successful overtly as I might have been, but I think their point of view has gotten more respected through my own efforts and other people’s efforts. Certainly they’re not being harassed in the way that they were before, and some of them are being taken seriously in micro-entreneurrship programs and things like that. My policy comments have mostly come through my other publications in development-type books or journals. One was titled “Consulting Older Women Traders about Progress and Modernization” (in Ghana Studies, vol. 12/13). I made some attempt to get into consulting again directly with a World Bank project, but it was rather disastrous so I’m backing off from that.

You had done early work with a United Nations agency.

I had, and I felt we had had some impact there, in the long run, if not in the specific program – the accumulation of many people making the same comment about different projects does add up in the end. One of the things that’s tempting me at the moment – there’ve been several attempts to rebuild the market, funded by the World Bank, and none of them have ever gotten off the ground. I might make an effort to find out more about that, and if there was some way if I could participate in making that work a little better.

Because you’re about to go back for a year –

I’m about to go back for a year.

Your life and theirs?

You’re aware of how difficult these women’s lives are and what a scramble it can be. Do you have to deal with guilt about being a first-world person with a lot more affluence than they have?

I have to be aware of that all the time, and when it’s appropriate, I feel like I owe them something. For one thing, it’s their cooperation that’s enabled me to hold down a good job over here, so I feel they have some claims on my income. It’s sort of like if I was a relative that had traveled overseas and made good, I wouldn’t have to give them my whole income, but I would have to bring them something when I came back. There are people I’ve known a long time that I bring something when I come back, but some of them are wealthier than me – very few, of course. I own a house and I own a car, but I don’t own three apartment buildings. I don’t have a driver. That pegs me at a certain level and I try to act appropriately – I’m sure I don’t always. They have demands from all their relatives, too, that are worse off, and they can’t satisfy them all either, so they sort of understand what’s going on.

Are they curious about your life?

They ask questions. They’re not too curious, but they ask questions and I answer them.

I notice they’re often quite religious – Christian. Is that something that you’re comfortable with? Your world view is different.

Right, and there was a period when there were people who tried to convert me, get me born again, and felt very pressured to do this for honest reasons. If you really believe people are going to hell, you don’t want your friends to go to hell. So I was kind of uncomfortable with that, but I guess the ones that have stayed friends with me are reconciled to the fact that they have tried, and this is it, but at a certain age they have tried to counsel me, “You know, you should get right with God,” and I say, “Yes, I am.” I just try to downplay it.

You have no husband, you have a woman partner, and you have no children – how do they deal with that?

The first two are the problem. I don’t know if they really understand that I have a woman partner or not. I was married when I first went, and that helped, and my husband came to visit so some of the older ones met him when he came, and we’ve since divorced. So they occasionally in the earlier years tried to match me up with various people, and I would just say, “Oh, I’ve been married and I’m tired of that.” And they would giggle and then the pressure really came when I was 40 to 45, because I hadn’t had children. This is a matrilineal area, so having children is really very essential. So the ones who knew me best would come and say, “We know you don’t want to get married again, but at least you should have a child or two. Our Ghanaian men aren’t that bad – you could certainly find someone you could deal with long enough to get pregnant.” So that was another stage, and some of those interactions made me realize that they had all assumed I divorced my husband because I didn’t get pregnant – either my fault or his fault. This is what people do in Ghana. If you don’t get pregnant, of course you try another partner, that’s the normal thing to do, and many people get pregnant with a different partner. So they thought that – well, yes, but they never mentioned it because that was too sad. If I couldn’t have children, that was too sad to mention and no one ever talked about it. They probably believe that I couldn’t have children, because the idea that someone would deliberately not have children was just unthinkable.

They never reacted that way to my partner coming with me and living with me. I think for them it’s much more aberrant to live by yourself. And it seemed understandable that since I didn’t have a sister, I would inveigle almost anybody to come and live with me rather than be alone. Now they may have known more than they talked about. They certainly ask after her all the time if she isn’t there. They know we travel together, but they never bring it up as an issue.

You have spent some time there alone – you’ve spent months or years at a time there about six times. Has it been lonely? How has your emotional life been going back and forth across the ocean between two different places? Is Kumasi now a second home?

It’s really a second home in the sense that I’ve been going there longer even than I’ve been working in Bloomington, for example. I’ve been going there since ‘78 and I only came to Bloomington in ’94, ’95, so it’s a longtime home to me – it’s a kind of hometown that I keep returning to like I return to Seattle, and I spend longer visits there than I’ve been spending in Seattle where I grew up. So it is a kind of second home. Not that I’m ever a native there, but I’m at home there in certain ways that I’m not at home here.

For instance?

You miss the street food for example. Here you have to go to the grocery store – you can’t just buy something on the way home when you’re tired

When I came home from a visit to Ghana in the 80s, I missed the street life – the camaraderie of people –

Oh yes, you have to shift gears. It was hard for me to remember that I had greet everybody all the time or they would be offended. Another thing I miss is the constant help and support you get all the time. There’s always a little kid to wash the dishes, and they’re happy to do it because that means you’ll buy them something once in a while. You never throw anything out because there’s a man who comes to collect the boxes or someone else who comes to collect the glass jars. There’s a goat that comes to eat the compost. It’s hard to adjust to this more individualized life that we have.

Are you going to keep on doing research on Ghana or do you have any desire to move to something else?

I don’t have a desire to work on something else. I might do something around where I’m living – I have from time to time. But I like going back to Ghana, so whenever I get the chance, and I’ve sort of been able to keep getting chances, I’ll keep going back.

Gracia Clark’s recorded interviews with the seven women featured in her book and 43 others appear online, in Twi, as part of the African Oral Narratives project at Michigan State University. You can read newer interviews (in English) with Kumasi Muslims  on the website for Diversity and Tolerance in the Islam of West Africa.

Send a comment to Gracia Clark or Carol Polsgrove.