Allegory Of The Marketplace

By Oka Obono

Two Tuesdays ago, I was in Ugep, Cross River State – that grand marketplace. It was the weekly market day – a commercial converge instituted during the wise reign of the sage-king, HRM Obol Ubi Ujong Inah, Obol Lopon of Ugep and Paramount Ruler of the Yakurr. It brought together on a weekly basis all Yakurr towns in promotion of peace and shared prosperity. Farming was originally not permitted on these days. You traded on Tuesdays.

Each Tuesday, Ugep is like an African Manhattan, the hub of local regional business. Motorcycles swerve about like swarms of metallic dragonflies, weaving through traffic the way bees do when they are on a mission to make money. The loud speakers at the motor park are then too loud. The cacophony disrupts my peace. It creeps over my wall and shatters every kind of serenity it finds, like broken china, in my compound. I do not like the noise. It would keep all day, this horrible noise pollution, and I just don’t like it at all.

Yet, I like it for other reasons. It is the sound of business booming. Tuesdays contribute to the growth of small scale enterprise. I like the smiles on the faces of traders. The boisterousness of their business speaks volumes of their imperishable hope for the future. I see the energy of my people and wonder why government does not realize how this nation is blessed with abundant optimism, a hardworking citizenry, and why there is no real support for these citizens through microcredit and supportive infrastructure and power. On these market days, I am always balanced ambivalently between the pollutant noise and thrilling visions.

Two Tuesdays ago, however, the narrative changed. I examined the market more closely and I saw things differently. I saw different things. Like the young boy on the seashore in Paulo Coelho’s Manual of the Warrior of Light, who finally heard the temple bells ringing from beneath the noisy sea, I discerned the meanings that had been held all along by that cacophonous Tuesday market. I learnt something.

I can now see that the market is a metaphor for life. Life is like a marketplace. It is a total place. It is transient. Everything one needs is in the African market. Yet, no one stays there forever. Once a person is done with buying what he came to buy, he goes home. There is no malingering in the marketplace. Only madmen malinger in the market till night fall, picking and eating offal. But even they must leave at some point for, beyond sunset, spirits take over that arena and the market and cemetery become fused into a single trade zone. You don’t want to be there when that happens.

Once your transactions are done, you go home. This is one sense in which life is like a marketplace. Transactions are time bound and the wares are not free.

Life is like a marketplace because it presents us with choices that are often complex. I want a blue shirt but what shade of blue should I buy? On what occasion shall I (first) wear it? Am I obliged to buy something similar for my friend? I want batteries for my flashlight but cannot say what kind of batteries I should buy. I am perplexed. Then the seller, like a mercurial Indian merchant, observes my perplexity and begins to foist the profundity of his false expertise on me.

The market is not a simple place. It can be dirty. There is always a butcher nearby – an abattoir run by kinsmen of herdsmen. Only he has the prerogative to kill his cow. When it rains in the market, therefore, the aisles can be muddy, clayey, reddish, and slippery.

Life is like a marketplace because it is a microcosm of society. It brings everyone together. For a brief moment in time, they share the same space, breathe in one another’s mutually exhaled carbon dioxide and take this for oxygen. It is perennial exchange. One gives, the other takes. Some are cantankerous. Others are calm. Some use deception to make a profit, others only want to render genuine service. It is a jungle of predators and prey. There are no spectators, only a shameless haggling over a few things in a sublimated theatre of war. In the interactions between buyers and sellers, the participants to this disguised conflict must find some middle ground where they can all be satisfied with their accomplishments. Otherwise, the market is the field of a zero-sum game. Everyone seeks to pull the wool over somebody else’s eyes. It is a Hobbesian war of all against all. The transactions are solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

Life is like a marketplace because of the sad inanity that accompanies the end of all transactions. As you know, the buyer goes home to enjoy the benefits and rewards of whatever it is he or she had bought. In other words, as the day grows old and darkness falls on this arena of struggle and all purchases are over, the buyer goes home. This is fundamental. The market is momentary.

Nonetheless, you see the strangest thing happening after the buyer departs. People start weeping and wailing and mourning and gnashing their teeth. His family members print posters and banners. They display these all over the marketplace, claiming that the buyer had gone too soon. They act as though they never realized that, once the buying and selling were done, the buyer would go home.

They erect canopies, hire tables and chairs, and appoint a Chairman for the ceremony. They dress up in a uniform style. They gather in the marketplace from which the buyer departed. They eat and drink in an annual memorial of the buyer’s erstwhile meritorious marketing, apparently oblivious of the clear fact that the buyer was watching them from behind his bemused spectacles in his new home.

“He was such a good buyer”, they would say. “We have lost a gem!” they cry. If only we had five buyers like him, this market would have been a better place….

This is one aspect of the marketplace that I had always found incredulous. First is this posthumous celebration without the celebrant when, while the celebrant yet remained buying in the market, there had been no celebration for him. Are you a celebrant without a celebration? Find that celebration now!

I should say here that all life is not exactly a stage as Shakespeare once supposed. That is a Eurocentric analogy. In the typical African community, life is dramatized on the streets. Members of society are spontaneous parts of the dramatis personae. The actors emerge from the milieu. They all dance. The invocations of the priests during collective ritual are earth-moving poetry and Nsibidi is a literary form. The three genres of literature – drama, poetry and prose – are, as it were, played out in this ultimate script of life. This occurs fluidly and without elaborate props. There are no rehearsals. It is spontaneous and vivacious every time. So, life is not quite like a stage in my Africa – there is no stage. Life is like a marketplace.

In saying this at this juncture, I must share with you what I actually saw in the marketplace in front of my house two Tuesdays ago. I saw that swarming before me were not just swerving dragonflies with bags of garri riding pinion as their bloated bellies. The entire enactment was in fact the parable of an enormous existential tragedy.

This is what I heard when I listened that day. I heard a quiet voice say to me: “No parent ever sends his child to the market without providing that child with two things. First is some money – the resources that that child would need in the market to which the parent had sent him. The other is a clear idea, a list if you like, of what the child should buy when he got there.”

Now, some children would be given more money than others, but the general principle is the same. This is where the significance of vision, purpose, and resourcefulness comes in. The resources are always measured to suit the purpose for which each child is sent to the market. Used wisely, the money will always cover the intended expenses. This is an exact law.

The tragedy of life consists in the fact that some people go to the market without an idea of what they had come there to buy. Some forget what they had been told. They have talent but no ideas. The instructions have fled their memory. Rather than return to the source of instructions even after they had strayed far from home, they decide to brave it to the marketplace in what can only be described at this time as an outrageous act of ignorant courage.

They get there naked and unsure. They search about for nothing in particular. They distract easily. They spend a long time chatting with family, friends and strangers. They neglect their duty because they have none. They roam about as escorts to other people’s purposes, witnesses and advisers to other people’s successes. They are there for a long while doing nothing meaningful. Meanwhile, the sun beats down. Time passes. Evening comes. They have been there for long with nothing tangible to show for it. A mild anxiety grips them. They feel they are running out of time. They see the market emptying of focussed people. They begin to panic. Then their mindless buying begins. They see a saucer and buy it, a pencil and grab it, pinafore and take it. They see some shoe polish and take that too. Then on another aisle, they find crayfish and buy it, a mirror and bath towel two aisles away.

Promptly, you realize that there is no cohesion. Their purchases do not tell a single story. Regardless of this, they take photographs of these discordant items that have no inherent connections to one another and post them on Facebook. They then wait for the electrical impulses that they call friends to indicate whether they “like” what they had posted or not – which is the most bestially inane thing I know to be happening presently on the internet.

With this level of discordance, you will find that these mindless marketers have frittered away their resources. They have wasted their daytime destinies. What will they say to their father when they get home?

The tragedy of life is shown in the inefficiency of people’s behaviour in the marketplace. If your earthly father, being evil, knows how to give good things, and supplies you with money and a list of things to buy before sending you to the market, how much more is your Heavenly Father able and willing to give us talents and gifts together with a matching purpose in this Marketplace of life? What list did you come with to this market?


Obono, is a Professor of Sociology.

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