It’s hard to estimate the number of vendors on the pavements and streets of Georgetown. Those numbers ebb and flow. There are full-time vendors who trade most days and there are seasonal vendors who take advantage of consumer demand surges. During the period before Mother’s Day, for example, scores of short-term vendors take to the streets offering roses or I Love You Mom mugs. It’s the same in the period before Father’s Day or St Valentine’s Day or Easter Monday. The period before Christmas goes without saying.
There are weekend traders too, people who have weekday jobs and who supplement their incomes on Saturdays and Sundays. Then there are children who trade after school and at weekends as well.
The number of street vendors in Georgetown say many things about urban life in Guyana. The increasing numbers of younger street vendors point to a rise in the numbers of early school leavers. Most of them come from impoverished or dysfunctional families. The numbers of adult traders point to the scarcity of other meaningful forms of employment. That apart, young adults, these days, have additional responsibilities associated with parenthood and are not always qualified to compete for other forms of employment. Their circumstances have narrowed their options.
Interestingly, while their entry into the world of business occurred through the back door – so to speak – many one-time vendors have ‘graduated’ to running conventional small businesses of their own. For others, it has not worked. The two sets of disciplines are underpinned by different types of behaviour and success on the pavement does not necessarily transform into success in more organised forms of commerce.
Some of the best examples of small, informal beginnings that ‘graduate’ into successful small businesses are to be found in the city’s municipal markets. Many of the proprietors of grocery shops and snackettes in the municipal markets were once vendors.
Others vendors never get beyond vending. In some instances they simply do not aspire. They see themselves as being at the bottom of the pile, defined by the fact that they trade on the pavements.
Oslyn is about 24 four. For a woman who claimed to have had “a bad week” she was surprisingly good humoured. A “bad week” means that she is now behind in her payments to her supplier. Keeping business going means ‘turning over’ the stock she has to earn enough to meet at least part of the payment to her supplier whilst keeping herself and her three year-old daughter going. Nonetheless, even in the midst of her difficulties she appeared to have assumed what she described as an “accept and bless” posture.
For Oslyn, vending is a near breadline existence. Last week she was offering a new design in cheap ladies’ sandals imported from China. She explained that the problem with such items was competition. Chinese goods have become a first option for many pavement vendors. She was hoping to get some sales before the sandal ‘caught on’ on Water Street.
Oslyn is no fly-by-night vendor. When she was 15, her mother had taken her out of school to work as a helper in the family vending business on the Regent Street pavement. She says that in those days her mother would sell assorted clothing from barrels sent from New York by an aunt. Oslyn’s particular role at that time was to help in the hasty gathering up of the items on display once the City Police raided.
She had taken over inherited the business from her mother and, somehow, she had kept it going thanks to an evolved arrangement between the vendors and the municipality.
These days Oslyn has become a tough woman with a determination to make a living as best she can. At this time she has no personal ambitions besides doing what she can for her child.
When the issue of pavement vending and the transgression of the municipal by-laws comes up Oslyn seems shocked that the issue has come up at all. She says she didn’t know that that was still an issue. After that she launches into a quiet tirade about the demonising of vendors being hypocrisy in what she says is “a corrupt country.” She asks in a matter-of-fact way whether vending was not preferable to stealing, as though stealing was a natural option. She refuses to be restrained, going on to commonplace themes like “cocaine in fish,” and big “businessmen who don’t pay taxes” and tall buildings in the city, some of which are being built with “bad money.” She asks that you to compare those happenings with “poor people tryin to ketch deh hand pon de pave.”
What Oslyn was saying was that she refuses to be burdened by the moral baggage associated with vending on the pavements. She was suggesting in a none too subtle way that the burden of guilt be laid at the doors of people who are doing much better than she is by doing much worse than she is. Long before she had finished making her point you felt as though you had lost the argument.
A young man, probably two or three years younger than Oslyn arrived with one of those drums on wheels from which itinerant vendors peddle water and soft drinks. The young man is Oslyn’s brother and the water drum on wheels is the family’s “other hustle.” Oslyn explained that developments like the arrival of the Chinese wholesalers and the advent of the water drum on wheels have provided options for the vendors. On “good days” – good days in this case being hot – her brother might sell two water drums of bottled water and coconut water. She considered that “good business.”
Multitasking has become commonplace amongst pavement vendors. Some of them ‘double up’ doing lunches and pastries, providing midday meals and snacks for their own kind. It is their way of hedging their bets, of ensuring that no working day is an entire disaster.
Oslyn told us that her mother had had two or three loans. They had been used to purchase leather goods to have the business expand into itinerant trading. That was her brother’s first ‘hustle’ and it had worked for a while. She said he knew the streets, had many friends and therefore managed to do reasonably well, at least for a time. What she likes about him, she says is that he hates “working for people.” He likes “the freedom of the streets” and working for his own money in his own time.
The leather goods bubble burst eventually. Oslyn said that that was the way with itinerant trading. Demand for a particular good sustains itself for a while then consumer interest shifts to something else.
Some time ago the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) had announced that it had opened a “window” to membership by small businesses. It might have been a good idea even for the vendors. Membership of the Chamber may have provided vendors with a better opportunity to access the formal lending sector, or perhaps, might even have given rise to a strong lobby for legitimizing pavement vending. Up until now the Chamber initiative has not worked.
Oslyn doesn’t think it ever will, at least not for pavement vendors. She believes that we fool, ourselves if we think that vending is part of conventional business. She says that vendors are accommodated out of a belief that if vendors don’t vend they will steal. She says that hurts her. More than that, she says that having been spurned by the formal business institutions, “like banks,” vendors and other small business houses have created institutions of their own. “If I need money I know the channels,” she says. She explains that the structures (bonds, rather than structures) are driven by motivations that are different to conventional business structures. Her “all ah we is one” explanation is really an uncomplicated way of pointing to a class affinity amongst the vendors. Individual vendors are sustained by the collective strength of the group. That is why, for example, the ‘box hand’ has become a permanent feature of the informal business culture. It’s a different culture to the commercial banking culture and most of the vendors are comfortable with it.
Of course there is a sense in which pavement vending is part of the conventional business culture but there are lines that divide the pavement from the conventional trader. Pavement vending is driven by rules that often have to do with what is known as a ‘hand to mouth’ existence. To eat every day you must trade every day. When you are a pavement vendor you often walk a fine line between having a fair day and not putting dinner on the table. Fear of failure often opens up options which conventional businessmen and women might not even contemplate. When you talk with vendors about the rules underpinning commerce the response, invariably, is a cynical one. At least, they say, there is a transparency to their transgressions. Big businesses often posture as paragons of virtue until the tax man exposes their years of delinquency and we have now grown accustomed to those shocking instances in which those businesses once thought to be squeaky clean are fingered for trying to export drugs.
No one in Guyana any longer denies that there are cases in which those responsible for upholding the law benefit materially from turning a blind eye. We talk openly about corrupt traffic cops and City Police who ‘shake down’ vendors. These days it is an “understanding” rather than a shakedown.
A Bourda Market vendor talks about Market Constables who opt for taking greens rather than monetary bribes.
“Everybody got to eat.” he says with an expression which suggests that he is entirely satisfied with the arrangement. What are regarded in some quarters as corrupt practices is described by this particular vendor as “living along.” He, like Oslyn, talks about what he calls “corruption in high places” and the more you listen the more you come to understand that as far as ordinary people like pavement s vendors are concerned, the irregularities in their line of business are completely cancelled out by what they regard as a wider culture of unceasing corruption among the people with wealth and influence.