On Sunday Irma was vending at one of the many Sunday markets that are held in Region Four. To begin trading at 06:00 hrs she had to be up by 01:00 hrs to assemble her stock and await transportation to Georgetown from her home on the East Coast Demerara. Women vendors from other East Coast communities heading for various Sunday markets travelled with her.
Last Sunday Irma was returning to this particular market for the first time in almost four months. She was selling pepper sauce, tamarind balls and used clothing. Unsure of what to expect, she was determined to remain in good spirits. She was also in the mood to talk.
This was her third tilt at vending. She had previously rotated jobs as a cleaner and a minibus conductor. It was eight years since she had left school, given birth to two children and rotated various low-paying jobs. She had turned twenty-five last August. Her perspectives on the future are vague, in her own words, limited to “surviving to see her children grow up.”
You have to talk with Irma to get a sense of the substance of the woman. Sunday’s vending pursuit is a microcosm of an unending ‘hustle,’ a planned and sustained process of seeking out and taking advantage of every conceivable commercial opportunity that arises and which might bring some measure of profit. It is a matter of carefully weighing up options and being prepared for outcomes that might bring either modest rewards or profound disappointments. The risk is unending.
For Irma, Sunday trading had been preceded by vending pursuits outside the school in her community and at weekend parties and ‘hangouts’ in various East Coast villages. Those takings, however, are modest. Three “good Sundays” at various markets would bring a significant windfall. That would provide a ‘cushion’ that would make her more modest weekday earnings ‒ ‘doubling’ as a cleaner in the early mornings and as a vendor in the market in the village where she lives – more bearable.
After a while it occurs to you that Irma is one of a much larger number of young and not-so-young women, early school leavers, undereducated single parents whose places on the commercial landscape are ill-defined and whose ambitions are limited by their perceptions of themselves. There is no question that if their determination and their unerring sense of how to make an honest dollar could be effectively channelled, then their lives and the lives of their children might be salvaged.
These are women, however, many of whom appear to believe that their destiny is to go it alone. They have created a sharp, well-defined demarcation between conventional business and their own ‘hustle.’ Theirs appear to be strictly short-term ambitions, limited to not much more than staying alive and remaining in good health.
Women like Irma will probably never complain, not because there is nothing to complain about, but because they have reached the conclusion that no one is listening anyway. If she had to ask for something, Irma says, it would be that the municipal authorities grant vendors like herself greater latitude to trade on Sundays without being removed from the roadway.
On Sunday Irma had come to the market hoping to catch what she says is a “month-end-weekend windfall.” She was, however, indifferent about how the day might go, preferring to talk about her optimism that this year her customary ‘hustle’ outside the Sophia Exhibition Centre during GuyExpo (she has never even contemplated securing a stall at the exhibition itself) and at the various schools sports venues in Georgetown “should bring in some real money.”
Women like Irma exist in significant numbers and, moreover, have become a critical part of the local business community ‒ except, of course, that, their contribution to commerce notwithstanding, they remain on the periphery, with little formal acknowledgement. More than that, formal provision for their growth is scarce if not non-existent. It is an issue which, for example, the soon-to-be launched Small Business Bureau might wish to take on board as it seeks to keep its promise to grow the private sector and enhance the well-being of more of our Irmas.