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The market men of Northern Ghana

by Albert K. AMEDZRO

Markets are very important social institutions in Northern Ghana which comprises Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions. They are in every town and village and are frequented by people of all ages and by both sexes. But unlike in Southern Ghana where markets are dominated by women, in the North, the opposite is the case, for here, markets have special significance for men. Indeed a visitor to this part of the country would be surprised at the large number of the male population in the throng of people converging on the market-place on market days- colourful scenes of a multitude on foot, on bicycles, on lorries, on tractors and even on horseback, many of whom travel long distances to be in the market on time. They do not specialise in any particular commodity. Like the women, the men sell everything from yams, beans, maize, chicken and kolanuts to second-hand clothes and shoes.

Because of the very high rate of illiteracy in the three regions, these people have little access to news either through newspapers or radio broadcasts in English. So markets provide them with the opportunity to bring themselves up to date with local and national news by word of mouth. But the social significance of these institutions goes beyond that. It is important to explain that the settlement patterns in Northern Ghana render social interraction, especially in the rural areas, very difficult. In these communities, houses are built in clusters and these are isolated one from another by vast fields of cereals Linked by footpaths which become impassable during the rainy season visits to neighbours are rare. Markets provide the people with unique opportunities to meet.

For any man in search of a wife, the market place is the right place to go. It is therefore not surprising that men predominate in these institutions. During the lean season, i.e. the eight months from September to April (known as the fallow period) when people no longer go to farm and feel bored in the villages, the markets become ever more important as a place to kill the boredom.

Markets normally open at around 6.30 a.m. They gradually build up until midday when they are in full swing and the noise of buyers and sellers reaches a crescendo.

Kidnapping of women

But behind all this activity lies what perhaps for many is the most ‘exciting’ (and for others the most deplorable) aspect of the markets; the kidnapping of women. Men come either as actors or as spectators to these scenes.

The kidnappings take place for different reasons: (a) A man pays a dowry to the parents of a woman to marry her. She refuses and runs away. Since dowries are expensive, involving sometimes cattle, the man refuses to accept the situation; (b) A woman agrees to marry a man but insists on living apart from him, or keeps him in suspense far too long for his liking; (c) The parents of a woman accept dowries from several men but are unable to advise their daughter on whom to marry. Markets provide the aggrieved man with the opportunity to redress the balance.

Careful planning goes into these kidnappings and almost always involve the family of the man. Spies are first sent out to the market to spot the runaway wife or the stubborn woman. Then she is lured into a false sense of security by various means until she is suddenly bundled into a waiting vehicle and driven away. One known method is for agents of the man to get the woman intoxicated. At home the man waits with his family, until his agents arrive with the woman. Then there is joy -drumbeating, dancing and drinking. The family of the girl is then notified immediately of the successful kidnap. The tradition is that once a woman has been successfully kidnapped she must remain at her husband’s home or must marry her suitor. A good number of the marriages conducted in this fashion do succeed, lasting sometimes a lifetime. Others fail when the woman runs away again. If such a woman marries someone else, it is the duty of the new husband to keep watch over her in the markets to prevent her from being kidnapped again.

A.K.A.