The clouded sky signals that bad weather is imminent. Though many do not have a roof over their head or their wares, the throngs of female vendors at Makola Market, which spans city blocks and swallows up sidewalks in the capital of Ghana, Accra, are not fazed.
Women of all ages whiz by carrying peanuts, pineapples, hair combs, cold drinks, and stacks of newspapers atop their heads. There is barely space to move in the maze of never-ending aisles between the brick storage units in which the women have organized their products. Customers must always be aware of their surroundings so as not to knock a banana off the stack a vendor is gracefully transporting, or bump into a pile of fabrics three feet high.
While the women running hectic marketplaces like this do not hold official political power, their collective force is what drives the consumer economy of Ghana, the population of which was about 25 million in 2012. Because of this, the government eagerly stays on good terms with the market women. The markets are a major contributor to the country's services sector, which makes up about half of Ghana's GDP, according to the Ghana Statistical Service.
It hasn't always been this way. During the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, market traders—particularly women—were targeted by the government, accused of driving up prices, instigating an economic crisis, and causing, in the words of one politician at the time, "moral decadence and economic degradation." If women continued to operate their stores, they risked going out of business, seizure of their goods, beatings, and even death. In 1979, soldiers planted explosives in the middle of Makola, blowing the whole thing up and killing the market queen.
Today, Ghanaian women are more likely to start businesses than men. Unlike markets in Northern Africa, where Islamic culture dictates marketplace structures, women dominate Ghanaian markets. Commodities at Ghanaian markets have market heads that specialize in one product: There is one for tomatoes, one for yams, etc. Above them are market queens, who oversee entire marketplaces. Together, the market queens of Accra form the leadership of the Greater Accra Markets Association (GAMA).
Mercy Naa Afrowa Needjan is the current president of GAMA. She explains that traders from Accra travel to other West African countries to trade each day, and, conversely, traders from other countries, such as Nigeria and Niger, travel to Accra to do the same. "We're always on the move," she says. Needjan says GAMA meets monthly and discusses "things in concern with women, the law, and their rights."
Historian and former mayor of Accra Nat Nunoo Amarteifio echoes this sentiment, saying that the women in the organizing council pressure the government to act in their favor. He also emphasizes that the government prefers working with them directly because of their organizational structure. "When the government has any health plans, the markets are usually involved, especially situations that involve women and children," he says.
The marketplaces are categorized as part of Ghana's informal economy, meaning they aren't registered with Ghana's Registrar General's Department. So while market women pay taxes to the local government, which strives to provide official marketplaces with sanitization and water, they're still considered part of the informal economy, which Amarteifio says comprises 80 percent of Ghana's total economy. While the true proportion is difficult to estimate, experts acknowledge that the market women have significant influence.
In addition to food, marketplaces also offer clothing; sellers often travel to Europe and Asia to buy secondhand clothing, which is then sold to Ghanaians. "The market is really central to the informal economy, in that 90 percent of the people you see on the street are dressed in secondhand clothing," Amarteifio says. "So if you ask me what percentage [of the consumer economy] is controlled by the women, I'll say, easily 70 to 80 percent, because very few Ghanaians would go to the mall to buy a shirt or a pair of trousers."
The marketplaces also provide women with specific craft skills a space to sell their products. According to several women I spoke to, because of cultural practices in some communities in Ghana's Upper East region, some women there are forced to care for their aging parents and aren't permitted to marry. However, they are encouraged to have children, as the value of a northern Ghanaian woman is often viewed in terms of how many children she has. "Until the womb is exhausted, the woman has no freedom," explains James Suran-Era, a tour guide in the Upper East region. The women are, therefore, forced to raise children alone.
One such group of single mothers in the city of Bolgatanga earns a living by bringing goods to sell at the Bolgatanga market. The bulk of their financial income comes from making and selling baskets. The prices of the baskets depend on the size, but some larger sizes sell for 30 Ghanaian cedis ($7.60), according to Modester Aasisb, a 19-year-old who has no children herself but has been making baskets with the women in order to support herself for ten years now. Without the opportunity to sell their creations in the market, the women would not have any means to support themselves. "The basket, that is the cheapest trade we can do. It is better than selling rice," says Celia Atambire, secretary of the organized group of basket-weaving single mothers.
Despite the country's immense dependence on the marketplaces, however, the common perceptions of market women in the country do not reflect their power. "Ghanaians, especially middle-class Ghanaians, tend to believe that only women who are uneducated or illiterate end up as traders. It's deeply beaten into their brains. There's always a certain condescension and patronization, which is so irritating because these women can buy and sell these kids and their parents ten times over."