Six Months in a Ugandan Market

by Will Monteith


“Is he is a spy for M7 [Museveni]?”

“I heard he carries dollars in his bag to give to the people…”

“He will steal the secrets that your grandfathers hid under their rugs.” [Luganda proverb]

Gossip and rumours are currency in the market, and people aren’t quite sure what to make of me. I am a thing of curiosity, a white spectre stalking the market, appearing in different places at different times, asking irritating questions and doing embarrassing things. I resemble a much sought after customer (a mzungu, foreigner), yet I rarely buy anything. I pester vendors about prices and suppliers, but I am not in business. I ask about the struggles that people face in life, though I am no missionary or NGO worker.

Confusingly, I associate with different groups – groups that do not associate with each other. I spend time with Ganda big men patrolling the pineapple department, Kenyan Rastafarians vending herbal medicine in wooden stalls, women selling shelled peas from makeshift seats, and young bayaye (supposed thieves) hawking old vegetables from the floor. Different aspects of my identity resonate with different groups. For example, in addition to being a white European, I am also a childless 26-year-old to the men, an unmarried atheist to the women, and a sanguine Tottenham Hotspur supporter to the boys. Each of these categories is significant and problematic in its own way (particularly the latter). However, they allow people to place me – and therefore better understand me – in relation to local frameworks of family, religion and football.

Breaking the rules

I also break market rules. I have been told that the dust on my trousers – accumulated from numerous boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) rides – makes me ‘dirty’ and ‘not serious;’ a contravention of Market Bylaw 12: ‘All people in the market should dress decently.’ Friends in the market have reassured me that this is a common accusation. However, appearance is key in an environment where people go to great lengths to attract customers. It is also an important part of performing identity in the market, of demonstrating one’s status, beauty and/or ‘swagger’ in relation to others. I have witnessed a female tomato seller perform an elaborate dance routine, singing the words “ndi mulungi” (I am beautiful) during an argument with an older vendor. She appeared to win the argument.

Thankfully, I am yet to be accused of not ‘bathing and washing regularly’ (Bylaw 5), though I have arguably been guilty of ‘committing a nuisance’ (Prohibition 6).

My official role in the market is one of a researcher conducting an ethnography of social and political relations. Markets conjure vibrant images of disorder and public spectacle that bring normal rules of social behaviour into question. I am interested in the different sets of rules and norms that govern life in the market. For example, the systems and customs through which leaders are (s)elected, disputes are resolved and new entrants are vetted. While some of these rules are explicit – such as the market Bylaws – others are hidden from view, such as the reasons why some items can only be sold by boys, and why the market leadership is dominated by middle-aged Baganda men.

I have been using a mix of interviews, surveys and participant observation in an attempt to investigate the social and political realities of the market. Participant observation requires researchers to immerse themselves in a particular social environment in order to uncover taken-for-granted customs and activities from close quarters. In my case, participation has involved attending market meetings, shadowing traders (including occasional overnight stays) and working as an apprentice on a papaya stall. Such activities are often challenging (turns out I am not a natural salesman), but they are never boring.

People in the market have generally been very supportive of my endeavour – even if they are not yet completely sure of its purpose. I am hoping they will let me look under a few more rugs over the coming months.


If you’d like to discuss this blog with the author or give feedback get in touch via twitter @collectivedev or email


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