I distinctly remember having my hand pulled through the wet aisles of Maputo’s Central Market. The conglomeration of scents from sea foods, spices and sweat; the young boys employed by their customer’s lack of care (for you had to pay someone to keep your goods from getting stolen), and finally racing through the corridors with no time to truly contemplate the existences that brought life to a sleepless market.
Last week, I visited the Market for the first time in 4 years.
Becoming a spectator of my hometown’s glory has been a strange experience. I once formed part of its landscape, and that made me feel as though I had a say in its growth and development. See, I used to sneak out to ride my bike on the actual road, completely disregarding my parents’ advice not to do so. Cars and pedestrians are a blur anyway, and what better way for me to experience Maputo’s craziness, if not by playing along?
This was my childhood: gallivanting through Maputo’s Down Town secret, narrow and infamous streets. Peeking my nose through angry vendors’ stalls, picking up their goods just so I could hear their sales talk.
But this changed.
I left the city, and now, being back, my childhood feels distant…
The Baixa (Down Town), is entering its awkward phase of adolescence.
There are projections in the sky, buildings — all glassed-up –, that serve as reflections of the dreams someone dared to dream for Maputo’s once neglected corners.
The 25 de Setembro , then a quiet avenue where Maputo’s rebels found rest, has finally woken up. Busy, busy road it has become. Places like the Public Library, the Mail and the National Press are vanishing in the postcards, giving space to sudden and passionate erections of banks, high-end shops and modern offices.
Only one thing survived.
In order to keep up with the new face of Down Town, perhaps an attempt to rejuvenate the space and its otherwise uninviting connotations, the Mercado Central de Maputo (Maputo Central Market), experienced a quick and painless puberty. Almost overnight, the Market commemorated its re-inauguration and celebration of almost 100 years of existence, with new facilities and a more customer-friendly structure.
Those who have spent a life buying tomatoes from this Market can recall the shock of cruising through the well-paved aisles of labelled goods, as if customers had lost their ability to smell and tell from miles away.
This is, of course, good. And new. The novelty of this antique city market didn’t stop attracting its regular customers, but it certainly brought an entirely new dynamic into the space.
The customer-trader relationship, then lubricated by bargaining and rapport, is now regulated by the country’s economic aspirations. Street stalls are now micro-enterprises, and traders know their rights, and value the quality of their product. Customers can no longer rely on years of built relationships, for the price is now fully fixed.
The formalization of the Market came in an interesting time in Maputo’s development. For a long time, the central market was synonymous with dirt, disease and danger.
I remember going to school one day, in grade 4, when I called on a friend and told her I had seen her in the market the previous day.
Her embarrassment was palpable.
It became clear that, while every household relied on the Mercado’s goods, no one wanted to say that out loud.
Now, however, with these connotations erased from the picture, the Mercado became a hub for ‘fresh produce’ that every Mozambican household can always count on.
The Mercado is also more flexible, and accommodates the demand of the growing urban population of Maputo — and tourists. With the increasing demand for capulana (Mozambican cloth)-made souvenirs, Mozambican traditional art and crafts, the Mercado has annexed a ‘cultural centre’ of sorts, where craft traders have found a home.
Not only can you get fresh fish, but you can also get a pair of earrings that remind you of Mozambique.
I’ve always found this weird, though. How a market, originally designed to house informal traders, is now, almost inevitable, creating an elite of micro-enterprises. One begins to wonder if measures on ‘formalizing the informal economy’ are always as good as projected.
Undeniably, traders now have more respect for their work, but this also means that the need for bargaining as almost become obsolete.
Think about it, you don’t walk into a store and bargain for an item that has a fixed price. Perhaps an essential aspect of Markets has been lost in my city, different from Addis Merkato, Africa’s Largest Market where I wrote about here.
If I have to be honest, and I mean, completely, frankly, absolutely and unapologetically honest: Urbanization isn’t always what we think it should be.
In other words, we are all in a rush to erase the dubious spots in our landscapes and blur the lines that divide us, which is a great aspiration. Formalizing everything, introducing regulations and pinning down proposals to up-scale and innovate everything often comes at the cost of unwritten rules of socialization.
I am a citizen of Maputo thanks to experiences like visiting the Mercado and enjoying its delicacies without being outspoken about it. Now, a generation of tourism-seeking heritage is emerging in my city, and with it, the dynamics of places such as the Market are being altered.
No longer will I thread in the wet aisles as I once did, devouring all the colourful fruits with my sight and meeting the smiling eyes of the trader. Now, all that is left is a strange nostalgic feeling that is tangible across the vendors.
Walking in this new installation, on top of a historical site, is a strange experience altogether.
Original photos by Celma Costa
- Finding the Maputo Central Market (Mercardo Central de Maputo) : seeing the informal economy in formal architecture, Snow, Byron
- Formalizing the Informal Economy: Perspectives of Informal Workers, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
- Formalizing the Informal Economy: Somali Refugee and Migrant Trade Networks in Nairobi, Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM)