The Ghanaian market is filled with a cacophony of sounds – vehicle engines and horns, the occasional radio playing music or talk shows, women calling to potential customers, and in some markets, loudspeakers blasting to make market-wide announcements. Distinct calls are made for certain kinds of goods. Hawkers sell UV-treated drinking water in bags (also referred to as “pure water”) with a high-pitched “Yeeeeessss pure”. Some hawkers clang bells to draw attention…
Periodically during the day, one sound overwhelms all others- that of preaching or gospel music amplified through an electric megaphone or a microphone. Amplification technologies, whose usage is motivated by an evangelical imperative to spread the word of God, are found in many spaces in the broader Ghanaian urban environment (including churches, restaurants, drinking spots, Internet cafes, as well as the markets). All the markets I visited in Accra, from the largest to the smallest, served as places where preachers-in-training hone their craft, either relying on the unaided projection of their voice or using amplification equipment to spread their message. At some markets, preachers organized themselves into shifts or, if they put enough distance between one another, even preached simultaneously.
Some of the amplified preaching was so loud that it was difficult to carry out face-to-face interviews, let alone audio record them. I found myself arranging my research schedule around times when the preachers would not be in the market. And I began to wonder, how do market women receive phone calls? How much does market preaching interfere with the market women’s ability to call and negotiate with customers? More generally, why would market women tolerate something that, from an economist’s perspective, seems a totally irrational interference with their ability to generate daily incomes? Especially when preachers conclude their sermons by circulating the market and requesting offerings, thereby further depleting their income?
I found three explanations for the market women’s tolerance: (1) the social risk was too high to justify speaking out against market preaching (2) it is a form of entertainment that many market women enjoy (3) the market preachers served the function of dealing with specific spiritual threats that are widely understood to exist in these spaces.
At the level of social performance, the practice accords with a kind of obligatory religious membership in Ghana. Church-going, or other evidence of a person’s faith, are part of how people are judged as ‘good’ and moral. In a conversation with a Ghanaian friend, she noted, “you try to complain…people go like oh, here’s the devil, doesn’t want to hear the word of God… So, you keep quiet.”
Another dimension of social performance relates to gender. The term ‘oba gyata,’ a pejorative term that translates to “lioness woman”, was invoked in two separate sermons (one by a market preacher, one in a women-led gathering of the ‘Women’s Aglow’ Christian group). It refers to a woman who is ‘cold’ or ‘hard’ or ‘too proud’ or who engages in ‘backbiting.’ In such sermons, there were frequent calls for women to be ‘modest’ and to avoid ‘greed.’ Such a woman was seen as frequently getting into conflicts or participating in violence. The stereotypical ‘oba gyata’ brings about “confusion” or disorderliness wherever she goes. ‘What name do people call you in your area?’ women were asked in both of these sermons that mentioned ‘oba gyata.’ Market women were (through various modes of communication including sermons) encouraged to concern themselves with their social reputation and to seek to reform it if necessary.
In the markets, I observed that many market women’s reactions to the preachers were, at least outwardly, enthusiastic. Preachers engaged traders in call and response. Some played gospel music and, if they selected just the right familiar song, inspired traders to dance and sing along. Market preaching was a form of entertainment. It filled time when trade moved slowly.
When I probed further and, in interviews, asked market women directly about the market preachers and ambient noise levels, a sense of cautious ambivalence emerged. Many women qualified any complaints they might have had by condoning market preaching on the whole as ‘good.’ Mama Akosua (a cloth seller) for example, observed the burden of offerings which the preachers collected by circulating the stalls after their sermons. She noted of the preaching, “it’s good, but not every day. I can’t be giving you money every day. How much profit am I making?” In reference to a market preacher who had just passed by she commented, “And its not him alone… he is the third person now.” A young woman, the daughter of a tomato seller who often looked after her mother’s stand, admitted that the preachers did make it difficult to take phone calls when they preached in the mornings and that she sometimes missed customers who couldn’t hear her calling out to them. She said that if she were asked, she would advise the market ohemma to forbid amplified preaching entirely.
These preachers, I was told, would sometimes single out a particular trader after having seen an evil spirit afflicting her. This special attention might yield a grateful offering. Some market women believe that some traders call upon demonic forces to boost profits. Some severe market conflicts are cast in supernatural terms. For example, I was told about a male tax collector who fell ill and died a few days after a woman in Market A threatened him. In his sermon, one market preacher cast out evil spirits and asked God to touch everyone’s work. Later, he instructed traders to place their hands on their goods while he prayed for them, cursing any spirits that might impede their customers and reminding the women to pray each day before coming to the market. Thus, the preaching can be seen as a functional force that ultimately had a positive impact on profitability. In this view, market preaching was not necessarily perceived to be at odds with transaction optimization.
Market preaching demonstrates how markets caught in the cross-currents of various cultural influences develop a distinctive work culture. In these markets in Ghana, mobile phone usage is somewhat constrained by the broader technological environment. A preponderance of information and communication technologies and their widespread diffusion thus does not always yield to more options or greater possible configurations. Instead, ICTs may work at cross-purposes – as the market preacher’s amplifiers do in relation to the market women’s use of mobile phones.