Selling Groundnuts for Peanuts: A Profile of the Sierra Leone Informal Economy (2)


By Dr. Umaru Bah, CEODataWise (SL) Ltd.

Aminata is exhausted.

Like the one-hundred-plus other visitors at New England ville. That’s understandable. It is now a few minutes past 5:30 p.m. Has been an unusual and eventfully long day. Unusual for Aminata’s co-visitors, who are here for a special occasion. You could tell from their livery of black suits and black ties covering white shirts. Mostly borrowed, a few recently purchased, all judging by the ill-fits and, had she dared to go close enough to any of them, by the lingering smell of oxygen-deprived muskiness. The kind you smell from clothing locked tight at the bottom of a suitcase, which sees literally the light of day only on special occasions. The very special kind that happens only once every 18 months. Like this one.

A dead-pan livery of black suits, black blouses and skirts, white shirts. All adorned with hushed conversations occasionally interspersed with the buzz of bumble bees. Reads like dawn of a funereal wake. Sounds like it. Funereal it is not. Or perhaps it is, Aminata would have found out or verified had she cared to ask one of them. At least of one them would have suffered the dignity of her invisible presence and informed her that they are there to interview for the British Commonwealth scholarship. No laughing matter.

Hence the ice-cold silence on a sticky-hot tropical November reluctantly welcoming Harmattan.

Sixteen to 18 years of official schooling and varied levels of very hard work have brought them here. All have earned a bachelor’s degree, some already lawyers or attending law school. A few in the official workforce. A few, but probably not quite a few, because it’s been hard to come by well-paying government jobs for graduates for decades now, back to even when most here were even born. Well, take "well-paying" to mean what they earn from their official paycheck. Thus do most feel compelled to be on the take. The norm, they would argue. They would say that that’s what quite a good many have been doing well before they were born. That that's the only way to survive.

So they know what earning a Commonwealth scholarship means for their career. It gives them the privilege to escape their normal moral quandary. And a huge leap forward. Some of those who earn the scholarship are never coming back (soon). Perhaps after a long time, they will visit for the holidays or to take care of family-related matters, often funerals. They will be called diaspora, the local moniker for those Sierra Leoneans long emigrated to the US, UK, Europe and Australia. Sierra Leoneans living in any other country, they don't quite consider diaspora. Those who remain at home are called homebase, who have a complicated relationship with diaspora.Homebase would love to become diaspora and often and mostly depend on their financial remittances. But detest them for that very emasculating relationship borne of that inescapable dependency.

Of course some do come back after finishing their studies. When they do, they see more doors, and much more desirable ones, opening for them here. Whatever the outcome of the application of these Men and Women in Black, it’s certain that in the future, they (and their likes) will be the very selected few charting the future of this country. For better or for worse. That’s what earning even a bachelor's degree guarantees them.

It also means they will most likely be determining Aminata’s fate in the next couple of decades. That is if she is still around as she would be close to forty and close to the end point of the country’s life-expectancy.

Aminata at New England Ville

But Aminata would care less. All she cares about is selling every single groundnut on her large tray atop a large rubber bowl of the same diameter, which she balances precariously steadily on her head the whole day. She typically finishes in 11 hours. But she is excited that today is one of those very rare occasions where she could do so in about 8 hours. Aminata is not here about anything relating to school. Not today. Likely never, if you know that 18-year-old Aminata dropped out of school years ago after completing Grade 6 and customarily sitting to the National Primary School Examination (NPSE). She says that neither she nor her family members can afford for her to continue on to Junior Secondary school.

That's all behind her. She is here now. And now, she must expend all her intellect toward ensuring that she sell every single groundnut on her tray. That’s what she would need to make the day’s quota of 30,000 leones (Le) profit. That’s $3.53 at the current fair market exchange rate. Comes up to 21 cents per hour. A little bit above a third of a penny per minute.

That’s what 18-year-old Aminata makes. A life-saving profit of $3.53 a day preparing and selling groundnuts precariously balanced in pygmy pyramidal mounds on a tray atop a bowl on her head. Walking for 12 of the 17-hour gig. Or 11 hours continuously, if you take away the continual few-minute intervals she puts the tray down to measure and sell to customers. And for the harrowing pressing bathroom breaks.

But all that’s just fuzzy math to Aminata. All she knows is that she must contribute $3.53 to the family to have a meal. And that to get that she must buy, boil and sell every single peanut on that tray. And that to do that, she must wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day. And finish selling everything, which she does typically by 9:30 p.m.

That’s a 17-hour daily gig. So for her, any opportunity to sell off all her groundnuts before 9:30 p.m. is welcome. Like today. It’s looking like all would be done by 6:30 pm. A good 2 and half hours early. It has been a long day today. Just as it has for the others. As did probably all of them, she woke up at 4:30 this morning. But they woke up that early because of this special day today. It’s not everyday you go interview for a life-changing career-advancement opportunity that a scholarship to the UK would grant you.

But for Aminata, waking up every single day at 4:30 a.m. is a life-saving event. And she must do so every day, Monday to Saturday. Because it’s the only way she assures a meal for the family. That’s what the daily profit of Le 30,000 (or $3.53) affords them.

One and only big meal for a family of..how many? She does not know. That depends on which of the families, friends and relatives (staying, visiting or just passing by) who are literally present there and then. $3.53 promises a good family meal for tomorrow because her mom has already budgeted for and purchased the monthly bag of rice and five-gallon palm-oil.

We are talking a lot of peanuts. Like grains-of-sand numbers of peanuts. And closer to the literal than the figurative on that. But she must sell all everyday to punch today that family meal ticket for tomorrow. And get home by 10:30 p.m. to dine today yesterday’s hard-earned meal.

So she gets up at 4:30 a.m. for the daily 5 a.m. lumah (Farmer’s market) situated a bit further northbound of Waterloo, close to the 6-Mile area. That gives her enough time, plus five minutes to spare, to jump on an Okada (motorcycle transportation) and make the 25-minute ride. She used to get up as early as 4 a.m. to get there at 4:30 a.m. That’s what her mom still prefers. But that was before all this talk about the rampant child rape in the area. Did not scare her mom much either until that day one day when she ran home complaining that this okada rider took her off the beaten path and was about to do only God knew what before she screamed and he scooted away. Mom was glad that Aminata was ok. Also glad that she still had the money with her. But a bit upset that she came back home with the money. That meant no raw groundnuts. No raw groundnuts, no cooked ones. No 17-hour sale. No meal. So her mom tried to remedy the situation by explaining to the folk who rescued Aminata that Aminata was fine, that all she needed was a ride to the lumah to purchase those groundnuts. But they won’t listen. So she stayed home.

They had no choice but to halve Aminata's meal on that day. And the next.

All because some wicked Okada man attempted to rape her. She wished she had not screamed for help. What could the man have done to her that was more painful than the hunger, she asked herself. That’s two days of hunger. Not a pleasant feeling when you are always barely full with the usual portion, to begin with, So she vowed never again to be that hungry. That’s why since then, every single day, she makes sure she has enough raw groundnuts to make that profit of $3.53. They measure and sell them by locally fabricated tin cans of 2 kgs. They used to use the old tin cans of the biggest Blue Band margarine common in Africa. Each contained 2kg. Then Blue Band left when the country became too poor to afford their product. But 2kg remained as the standard measurement when the local blacksmiths stepped in. Aminata purchases 15 of each cup at Le 10,000 ($1.02). She buys Le 1,000 (12 cents) worth of lime and Le 1,500 (18 cents) of local salt.

She passes by some of her fellow 18-year-olds boarding the bus outbound toward town for the morning shift school. She can’t afford to join them. Costs too much, her mom says. And besides, most of them end up failing and getting pregnant. If that happens to Aminata, that would be one more mouth to feed at home on much less money. Makes no economic sense.

From 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., she washes off the excess dirt from the groundnut. Tough to do so with the same water over and over again. But sh can’t afford to use up more than three five-gallon drums of bore-hole well water to wash, clean, and boil. She budgets Le3,000 (35 cents) worth of water for all of that. A barely manageable overhead cost. Anymore beyond that takes her to the red zone. That would mean less rice for her in her meal.

When she boards the 8:45 a.m. bus for downtown, she figures that with any luck, she would be done with an empty tray latest 13 hours later. Only two things are certain about this whole thing. The first is that she only goes home when sells all the groundnut. No refrigeration and no spoilage allowed. That means no meal. Even if they had refrigeration, a non-fully empty tray means non-full bowl of rice. The second certainty is...well, actually, only one thing is certain. The second is an anticipation, having been doing this for just about six years now, since the age of 12. That is, that it typically takes about 11 hours to get a full tray of groundnuts to be fully empty.

Anything else is all up to chance. Chance that she spots and takes full advantage of. Like the one presented today. She was boarding the 8:45 a.m. bus for PZ. That famous unceasingly boisterous, incessantly jam-packed commercial turntable(roundabout) at the center of Freetown. She overhears this young lady in black livery talking lively on the phone about a whole-day interview at New England ville. Something about a scholarship. The lady thought it would be a quick interview. But is now distressed to learn from her colleague, the other one in black and white livery sitting right next to her, that no, it would be a whole-day affair. Lady in Black is worried about food. What is she going to eat? Where would she eat? Can she afford it?

Aminata didn’t know where new England ville was. But she figured tagging along would take here there just fine. That’s how she has been here since 9:45 a.m. It’s now 5:30 pm. She now has her tray and bowl by her side on the floor, against the exterior wall of one of the ministries of education building. The groundnuts are so few, she can no longer balance them on her head. She is sure she is going to get it empty within the hour. She is exhausted. But very happy that she has come. It is so tranquil. Except for the tangibly intangible air of apprehension hanging over hushed conversations interspersed with the occasional buzz of bumble bees. A far cry from PZ on a Friday afternoon!

It has been a great day today. Too bad today is the last day of the one-week-long interviews. She wishes she had known about the other days. But she is grateful. And she appreciates the ability to leave two hours 30 minutes earlier. If she is lucky, she can get her younger cousin Mariama to braid her hair for a treat. But only if she is lucky. Because that would depend on whether or not Mariama has met her own 17-hour daily quota earlier than usual.


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