Fragile Incomes - The Burning of a Mchikichini Market

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When I checked my phone on Thursday, at first I was excited to see a message from one of my Tanzanian co-workers. But my delight quickly turned to horror as I read through the message.

A fire broke out at Mchikichini Market on Thursday night and swept through the entire market. Good news: no one was reported injured. The market was closed for the night so it was largely empty when the fire spread. Bad news: as you can see from the photos everything was destroyed.

The women traders have been campaigning to improve market infrastructure at Mchikichini for the past few months. They cited health risks and fire risks among the reasons to rebuild the market. While many traders were on board, there was a steady resistance from the owners of some of the stalls. You see, the municipal government has committed to a one stall per person rule for any new markets. Which meant that anyone who owned more than one stall was going to loose income. When I left Tanzania in April, women were lobbying for the market committee to approve the rebuild.
Mchikichini Market last fall. The billboard in the background is the one you see burned in the picture above.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the situation is that a rebuild has to happen. However, the municipality moves slowly and I would bet that illegal structures will be thrown up as fast as possible. And I would also put money on a fair amount that there will be conflict over stalls, ownership and boundaries. None of these will likely go in women's favour.

But more than the conflict and chaos of rebuild, this event makes me think about how very fragile life is for women traders. These women don't have anything to fall back on. They don't have income saved to cover off a month or more without business. They are going to have to seek income somewhere else, and in truth there isn't an obvious place for them to turn. Most of them had to fight hard to get those spots in the first place. The public markets are already full and spilling into the streets. And if they move somewhere else, they risk loosing their spot when the market is put back together.

These markets are where people go for hope of a better livelihood. They are the step up from selling out of your house or the street. But this shows that there is more to financial security than increased income. We (Canada, UK, USA) take our systems of protection for granted. In fact, we regularly attack them as sheltering the lazy or wasting money. But if your work burned to the ground, you would be okay while they sorted things out. It would take some time, things would be tight but you'd probably manage. The truth is because of these systems, its really hard for us to imagine what having absolutely no where to turn would feel like.

It seems so unfair that these women, who have already shown so much strength, so much determination and worked so hard have yet another hurdle to overcome. I have no doubt that they will rise to the challenge, but I wish they didn't have to. I wish they had the sort of security, however imperfect it might be, that I had.


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