For vendors, it's a case of struggle -- and struggle again

Suzie Bernardo arrives at the market in the centre of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, at dawn after a long bus ride from a remote slum. There she erects her portable charcoal stove, and sets out tea glasses clouded with fingerprints, and jars of tea, coffee and sugar.

For ten hours each day Bernardo sells tiny cups of hot drinks while seated in a fragment of shadow cast by a brick wall. Temperatures usually rocket to almost 40ºC, and around Bernardo’s stove it is much hotter.

Across the way, dozens of men are plying their wares: watches, cellular-phone covers, socks, ties and shoes.

The petty traders who line the streets of Khartoum make up a large part of Sudan’s informal economy. With an estimated two million refugees having travelled to the city from southern Sudan during the recent civil war—as well as from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda—jobs for unskilled and uneducated workers are few.

But, local laws—or the application of these—appear to make informal trade a complicated affair.

While vendors are required to buy a licence to work in the markets and streets, many say they do not know the real price of a licence—and also suspect that police pad the fees that are charged. In short, say the traders, they just cannot afford to work legally.

“I have five children. I have got to feed them, I have got to pay school fees—my husband is paralysed and cannot work,” Bernardo says. “I have been arrested three times for selling tea here. They take my things and don’t return them.”

The final humiliation, she adds, is that the same police officers come to her later and drink her tea. Then, they refuse to pay.

Several times each day, the police sweep through this dusty corner of Sudan’s Souk Afringi. When they enter, blowing whistles and waving batons, the hawkers grab what they can and flee. Those unlucky enough to be caught are arrested and goods are confiscated—although a bribe may help an officer take a more lenient view of the situation.

“Sometimes [the police officer] will just ask for a little money for himself,” says Ali Hassan, who sells watches. Hassan has a licence now, but he says he did not for many years.

Sidiqa Washi, head of the Sudanese Women’s Union, also alleges that female traders bear the brunt of police aggression. Northern Sudan has retained a traditional Arab culture, and the notion of women sitting in public and chatting with men is offensive, she says. Yet, the job of a tea seller is—by definition—public and social, obliging women sellers to interact with male customers all day.

“Their problem is with women: they don’t want to see women in the street,” notes Washi. “Some of these women are young, beautiful. The men will chat with them—some of them even marry men with position.”

More seriously, Washi says that certain female traders who are arrested emerge from jail claiming that they have been raped.

Sudan’s police force vigorously defends itself against charges that officers accept bribes, abuse sellers and target women.

“These people are lying,” says police spokesperson Hamdil El Khalifa, a portly, engaging man who sighs with exasperation when confronted with claims that officers are behaving improperly.

At most, there may be a few men in the force who abuse their position, he notes—adding that precautions are taken to avoid this happening: “Most groups of police in the market are accompanied by an officer and an observer.”

El Khalifa flatly rejects allegations of rape. “That is impossible,” he notes. “Every police station has a separate section for women and for children. No men enter that part; there is always a female guard present.”

As for the claim that women are unfairly singled out, he blames action against female traders on the wares they deal in.

“These women sell local wine and narcotics—marijuana,” he claims. “It is just not as likely for the men to be selling these things.”

In Khartoum, liquor is illegal, and many southern women do brew a date alcohol known as aragi. Asked how much alcohol and narcotics are confiscated from local sellers each month, Khalifa replies, “tons”.

Rugaia Salih Mohamed—programme director at the Sudanese Development Association, which works to organise women in the informal sector—insists these claims are exaggerated.

“Yes, maybe some of them are selling alcohol, but not many,” she observes.

While Mohamed says that certain female traders exaggerate claims of abuse to gain sympathy, noting that no seller has ever complained of rape to her organisation, she also told IPS that women are targeted because they do not have the ability to evade the police as well as men—and often don’t know their rights.

“These women must simply stand up for their rights. We tell them to pay the licence. In the outer areas it is only 500 pounds [about a quarter of a dollar] per day. To me, if people can abide to have a licence, they will gain more than they lose.”

Overall, however, vendors appear to have a difficult road ahead of them.

An investment boom in Khartoum has prompted the city to polish its image. With an increase in paved roads, palatial houses and office complexes, the informal market is slowly being pushed out: El Khalifa told IPS that a law passed just one month ago now forbids street sellers from obtaining licences to sell in the larger markers.

In addition, the removal of traders cannot be seen as entirely arbitrary—even though the methods used by police may be questionable.

“One of the reasons [the authorities] mentioned [for banning traders] is that the boys in the street don’t pay taxes. The people who own the shops think that people will not buy from them because the street boys are cheaper; the shops have to pay rent and taxes,” says Washi.

Furthermore, the conditions in which petty traders sell food and drink are unhygienic, as thousands of men and women pack hot, dirty streets with no toilets or washing facilities. The threat of disease breaking out is real.

For now, most vendors live and work one day at a time.

Ali Hassan sums up the current situation. “Every morning you come here and struggle. Then the police come and tell you to go away,” he says.

“Tomorrow you come and struggle again.”—IPS

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