Shakespeare described the world as a stage. The Yorubas describe the world as a market. The Yoruba phrase “oja ni aye” is loaded with metaphorical and spiritual connotations.
However, it’s allusion to the world as a place where people transact, negotiate, congregate and express the full range of human emotions everyday is a deliberate and useful description of the essence of a market place – the centre of commerce in Nigerian society.
Markets are as old as civilisation itself. In Nigeria, public markets are central to the economic , social and political life of the nation.
As a small child growing up in Ile ife, I was familiar with all the big markets; Oja Oba, Oja Ife and Oja Ogunsua. My favourite certainly was Oja oba. Every single day, the crowds thronged.
Despite the muddy roads and haphazardly arranged wooden tables, this market had it all; stalls brimming with the freshest of farm produce, colourful racks of imported fabrics and household items of all shapes and sizes. My friend and I were particularly drawn to the secondhand clothes shop which drew all the university students in large numbers.
Today, I never tire of being in a market. Whether I am buying, haggling, shouting, watching others shout, or simply just feeding my peculiar obsession for all things strange and quirky, my fascination is formidable. I have often watched in awe the butchers work with precision and speed carving up fresh meat to feed millions across restaurants and homes all over the country.
To be inside a market, is to be part of a continuous hum of human activity throughout the day.
And just as in the world you have specifics of time, context and history, so it is for markets. If you are looking to sell or buy particular items in Nigeria, famous markets to visit include: Deidei market in Abuja for cattle, and building materials, Gbagi fabric market in Ibadan, Alaba International market Lagos for electronics, Idumota motor spare part market in Lagos Island, Ida mushroom Market in Yala cross river state. In truth, there is a market to procure anything you need for whatever purpose – you just need to have the funds.
It’s everything. The colour. The smell. The audacity of the market women and the brazen confrontation of the buyers. It’s the large stores with the bulging shelves of imported cookware and the ramshackle stalls with the strangest roots and herbs. It`s the unforgiving nature of the hustle, the sweat, the smiles, the drama, the congregation of strangers tightly pulled together in a small space and the spectacle that inevitably ensues.
But more than all, it’s the deep respect for the labour of very ordinary people making a living in what is increasingly a hard existence. And of course the rest of us, a stream of humanity moved by similar needs.
Every market you visit locally in any part of the country will provide you with a visual feast. You will find all the best produce money can buy from yams to vegetable, to grains and oils; rows on rows of foodstuff both locally produced and imported. This fact though is laced with a disturbing and sad reality. Many people are starving. They simply cannot afford these gallery of food items which seem so readily available at first sight.
Only recently, the Speaker of the House of Representatives admitted what every Nigerian in the country already knows: many people are unable to feed themselves in the most basic way. And many do not have a way out of this state of abject poverty. The tragedy of this for a nation is apparent. And the government seems equally overwhelmed. Herein lies the bitter irony.
How is it that in a country abundant in every kind of fresh produce and baskets of food, there are millions waking up and falling asleep without food in their bellies? These include many who are hawking and selling in streets and markets accross the country.
It’s a sad fact. Nowadays,I am less naïve about the real struggle it takes for people to make a living. The struggle to come out every day rain or shine, set up your stall and hope that you sell or indeed buy enough to support yourself and your family.
With a population of 180million, selling is the quickest way to make money. The proliferation of local markets all across Nigeria probably attests to the populist view that everybody sells something in Nigeria.
In my opinion, these local markets sustain the nation. They are the hubs where everybody can participate in one of the oldest social activities known to man- buying and selling. These markets dotted across every village, town and city stock all the food and essential commodities which 180million people need to survive and live.
These markets are a phenomenon to be celebrated. Its men, women and children are the heroes among us.
And for any government who cares about its citizens, more needs to be done. Basic infrastructure- fire protection, hygienic facilities, decent amenities must be in place in all these markets to protect the hardworking men, women and children who pour out to fill its stalls every day.