"Dog Chain" (Sundries Items) Seller
[Ebenezer Mehsah approached Samuel in a lorry (truck) station in Accra, where he was selling his wares. His wooden tray held flashlights, batteries, combs and mirrors, photo albums, headphones, empty cassettes, pen knives, and other items. (The term, "dog chain seller" is commonly used for the young men who trade in such small items, which may include chains for restraining dogs.) Samuel has been a trader for about five of his 22 years. He reported that he had never attended school. The interview was conducted in the Twi language.)
I sell my goods at various locations. Yesterday, the police came on the roads to drive us away. That is why I am operating at the lorry station today. I hope that very soon the tension will die out so that we can go back to the roadside again. (Such sellers are often found on streets where the traffic slows or is often stopped.)
Before I started this trading activity about 5 years ago I worked as a laborer at a construction site for one year. I was able to accumulate some money so I decided to go into buying and selling. I started with 65,000 cedis (then, about $130). Initially I bought batteries, combs and mirrors and other items that sell fast. Within a week, I was able to sell all my goods so I went to the stores to buy more goods. As the years went by I increased my range of goods. Normally I read the market to see what types of items are in high demand. Sometimes people buy a lot of batteries so I go in for more batteries. Other times people demand cassettes or films for cameras so depending on the market demand for the products I channel my attention and resources to those areas.
I come to the roadside or the lorry station, whichever is safer for business at that time, by 7:00 in the morning. I do my trading from then until about 6:30 p.m. I scarcely have time to buy a nice meal for lunch. I usually get prepared meals being sold wherever I am operating. This is where the danger in my trading lies. If I am not careful, I will end up spending all my money and go bankrupt after my sales. I always calculate my profit levels based on the sales made and the number of goods left unsold. Then I know what percentage of the money I can safely spend.
I like this job because I did not have the opportunity to go to school. I cannot work at any office. These days, even a messenger should have at least a middle school leaving certificate or an "O" level certificate and should be able to speak good English. I don't have any of these qualifications so my rightful place is at the roadside where I am the boss over my activities. I always have money on me. When I have the opportunity to sell at the roadside, I make a lot of money. But at the lorry station, trading is very slow.
The frustrating aspect of this job is that it is a risky type of trading. When you least expect it, your goods can be taken away by either the police or the City Council guards. This risk increases when I am on the roadside. When your goods are taken by the police, you may lose everything or you have to pay a fine for selling in an unauthorized area.
I am aware of these dangers so I have conditioned myself for any eventuality. Sometimes we battle it out on the street with the City Council guards when our goods are seized. Due to this situation, they either come with armed policemen or militia men.
Despite these problems I love this job. It is adventure as well as trading. By nature I am very hard so I prefer such conditions. It hardens me all the more.
Most of the goods we sell are either imported by the big stores or brought in by traders who buy in larger quantities from Lome (capital of neighboring Togo) or Lagos (Nigeria). When there is a crisis leading to a border closure, we can't get these goods from the stores to re-sell. Or if they are available, the prices are so high that you make little or no profit at all.
Recently, due to political problems the traders can no longer go to Togo or to Nigeria by road to bring the goods, where they are cheaper. Though the same goods are in the big department stores in Accra, the price is very high. It makes the business quite unprofitable.
At the roadside, I am able to sell about 20,000 cedis ($40) worth of goods a day. I sell along the airport road. It is one of the busiest routes in Accra and traffic tends to block. The passenger lorries from towns outside Accra have to stop at several points due to traffic jams, so we have the opportunity to sell to the passengers. The drivers and mates (workers who collect fares) also buy a lot of things. Some buy dusters, car stickers and other lighting systems and items to decorate their vehicles. The villagers also buy flashlights and batteries, mirrors and combs, and other items that are rare at the villages.
The customers always think that we want to drain them of their money. Even if you call out the right price of an item they ask for a reduction. Some of them even tell you what they would prefer to give. It is very annoying when a person handles an item for several minutes and then gives it back to you saying he has no money to buy it. In such situations I have to exercise patience, otherwise I will find myself behind bars.
I normally ask for a higher price so that after lengthy bargaining the customer will end up paying more than I expected or at least something that would give me some profit.
For example, I might get 2000 cedis ($4) for one flashlight and 1200 ($2.40) for another one like it. In this case the extra profit on one makes up for the shortfall on the other.
Sometimes the number of sellers on the road is a nuisance to traffic and pedestrians. I sometimes agree with the city authorities for driving us away from the road. Many of us have in one way or another caused an accident on the road. When that happens, we escape from the scene and the drivers involved have to battle it out for peace to prevail. When such a thing happens, I will not sell along the same street until several months later.
The roadside hawkers have no association but we join the 31st December Women's Movement whenever they meet. The association is for women but it is fast becoming an association for traders here at the lorry station. At such meetings, the traders bring out some of the problems that they are facing. They also try to find solutions to such problems. Sometimes, petitions are sent to the city authorities, who come to our aid.
It is at such meetings that we try to appeal to the city authorities to help us make a living along the streets. Such appeals sometimes lead to some peaceful moments but our misconduct on the road brings the tension back.
At the 31st December Women Movement's meetings we are educated by officials as to how we must conduct ourselves. We are discouraged from selling at the roadside but we insist on doing so. Like I mentioned earlier on, we make a lot more money there than when we are forced to come to the market areas or the stations. Sometimes we point out to the officials that we are made to pay taxes and daily income tax along the road. If trading along the road is illegal, why do the city agents come there to collect money from us? If you are not adamant and hard you cannot make enough money in this trading. A fearful person cannot actually do this business unless he or she decides to sell at the markets or the lorry stations where sales are very slow and unrewarding.