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UNCANNY ENTERPRISE OF T&T’S FEMALE VENDORS
The uncanny enterprise and resilience displayed by Afro and Indo females as vendors and associated traders (cooks, haberdashers etc) in the post-emancipation and indentureship periods to the present are astonishing, and full of potential; if only the wider society could perceive of those developed capacities in a positive and nation-building manner.
The true independence and enterprise of these women are well captured in the pioneering research work of Reddock, Craig and Brown-Glaude. That untapped potential struck me anew in re-reading parts of Craig’s two-volume research on Tobago’s socio-economic history from slavery into the 20th century. The sociologist recovers and records the enterprise of the African woman in Tobago, even while being enslaved, as being truly admirable. She was able to purchase manumission for her children and men folk. In instances, she even remained in a form of slave-like labour after emancipation to be able to earn, while investing in provision grounds and the like, because that suited her economic purpose.
Historically, the market traders, Indian women at the Mucurapo Street market in San Fernando, at Penal, in San Juan, Tunapuna, Chaguanas; Afro-women in Port-of-Spain at the old Charlotte, George and Nelson Streets market (special note of the patois-speaking women from Paramin) now on the Beetham; in Scarborough and on the streets of the cities and major boroughs and towns, have pursued the vending trade, adapting and innovating to meet the circumstances of the times.
Their ability to raise families and send children to school abroad for a university education is legendary. Indian women husbanded the family earnings and bought trucks and taxis for their men folk to work. Not that men were not contributors to the effort; but I am focusing on women in this column.
Unfortunately, succeeding governments have done little more than tolerate the female vendors for festival periods, often with electoral politics in mind (to make a dollar to place food on the table for their children); have hassled them in the interest of the merchandisers and pedestrians—the very ones who patronise them in droves—and occasionally placed the vendors in temporary lodgings which cannot be sustained and have little developmental prospects.
For instance, governments from the two major parties have placed the vendors temporarily on prime property in the centre of cities and towns from which they are driven after a relatively short period of time.
In large measure, governments have failed (not been able to understand and analyse) to recognise the enterprise and potential of the women to utilise their inherent and acquired generational capacity for financial dealings.
That enterprise of women has therefore not been factored into national planning and development; if it has on paper as in the 20/20 Vision document, it has not been operationalised in plans and programmes.
With the need for innovation in and development of the local economy, now is the time for systematic and structured plans and programmes to enable these enterprising women to emerge into the kind of small to medium-sized business operators who could provide jobs and services. Very importantly, the vending enterprises must be tied into the local production of a range of goods and services.
How to assist our female vendor classes to convert into small and medium-sized retailers of products produced in Trinidad and Tobago? How to get them off the roadsides into habitable surroundings close to pedestrian shopping areas is a challenge to be undertaken. Yes, there have been a few efforts going back to the conversion of the Eastern Market on Charlotte street, the successful crab and dumpling centres at Store Bay, the doubles vendors’ establishment in Debe; Tunapuna market stands out amongst markets; there has also been the attempt to transform the market in San Juan, but this still leaves dozens of vendors on the side roads.
What is needed, however, is a complete transformation of the facilities for the vendors. The Central Market in the capital city is a disaster. The facilities are primitive. There is no projection for a developmental thrust which takes into consideration the views and visions of the vendors and the potential to attract a range of customers. No attempt to link vending to production, to being part of an expanded enterprise beyond the Saturday and Sunday morning hustle.
The infrastructure in all of these markets is in a primitive condition - that is in the instances in which something of an infrastructure exists. Yes, the vendors know how to manage in the immediate their finances to buy and sell and to allocate something for their personal living costs. Advice, planning and development assistance to convert their small enterprises into formal business structures can expand the trade and convert their operations into establishments which can last into the future. More than that, they can support the back industries in agriculture inclusive of preserves for export production. The seamstresses, clothes designers, hair dressers and cosmetologists can grow beyond their present confines; the possibilities are many.
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambarat has shown an understanding and commitment to the task of developing agricultural production and has opened the possibility, even though temporarily, for a fortnightly market in the Queen’s Park Savannah. He should take up the challenge to facilitate a vending industry (beyond vendors in the markets) to sell the products of the farming community.
Organised linkages among production, domestic vending and inevitably export of the surplus production must be taken to a natural extension.
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