From Street Hawkers to Street Vendors
By Anil Gujadhur
Street hawking has been part of the culture of Port Louis for ages. Many other countries host all-and-sundry shopping places. One of them is the mediaeval ‘souk’ in the city of Aleppo that the Syrian army has just set on fire. Wherever such activities are allowed, they operate within well-defined geographical boundaries.
When the City of Port Louis was not studded with skyscrapers not too long ago, we used to have the familiar ice cream vendor with his wares mounted on the back of his bike, moving up and down mainly Bourbon and Corderies Streets. That was a real hawker on the lookout for clients, mainly during Civil Servants’ lunch time in summer. His familiar repetitive call, “Kulfi Malai!”, as he strode up and down pushing his bike along the streets still resonates today. But there were other familiar characters as well who were not so mobile. Which wayfarer of Port Louis would not recall the seller of pots and pans at the corner of Queen and Corderie Streets, laying down his wares at a reasonable enough distance from ‘Nadess Feraille’, a seller of wares in identical range on Royal Street? So as not to be directly in competition with the latter who had a fixed ‘pas-de-porte’.
Sellers of fruits mingled with a few ‘Dholl Pouri’ hawkers on bikes at some points along Sir William Newton Street. I recall one of the ‘Dholl Pouri’ merchants having to wait for the other one to finish off before he could really attract customers to himself. Buyers went for quality first. There were sellers of steaming ‘Sormai’ and ‘Boulettes’ higher up in China Town in front of ‘Wing Tai Chong’. The ‘Naan’ merchants set up just outside the beautifully sculpted doors of the Jummah Mosque up Royal Street, along with certain other specific ethnic delicacies. There would be litchis and ‘longanes’ spread out on chairs and tables in the most frequented parts of the City during the season as if Port Louis had become part of a spreading orchard. There was another one not far from the MCB who specialized in peeling off pineapples at an amazing speed, the perfume of that fruit going out into some distance to draw up buyers. All of them were part of the nice City folklore without which Port Louis would have looked less of a beehive of welcome activity that it was.
The practice of hawking, scattered about as it was at different spots in the City in those days, from the City centre up to Cassis, from Pope Hennessy Street along Desforges to Plaine Verte, and from the nooks and corners of Ward IV up to the sea front, was generally widely accepted by the public. There were, of course, certain reservations and unwritten codes of conduct which everyone took care to respect. At one time, Roger Merven popularized the fascinating joke that a green lottery ticket seller who used to do business at the doorstep of MCB’s headquarters on Sir William Newton Street on the back of his bicycle would have concluded a deal with Yvan Lagesse, a high-spirited, jovial and enterprising General Manager of the bank at the time sitting on the 14th floor of the MCB building. According to Roger, the two would have agreed that they would not compete against each other by sticking to a prior condition for both of them to carry on their respective trades. So, the pact consisted of Yvan agreeing not to sell lottery tickets in exchange for the other guy undertaking not to sell loans to customers or take deposits from them.
We lived then through a beautiful time that saw the City blossom out into an even more assertive centre of the country’s economic and social life as time went by. It was a harmonious and uncluttered piece. People would naturally stream in from all parts of the country into the City through its two main gateways, as it were, notably by the North and Victoria bus terminals. It drew all of them uninterruptedly as it was the most important centre of all: public administration, the judiciary, health and educational services, trade and finance. Barring Rose Hill perhaps which had a bigger commercial base than the rest of the towns, the latter had more of a residential character than a commercial vocation. Nevertheless, there were a few renowned street selling places like the ‘Dholl Pouri’ spot at Trou aux Cerfs or Curepipe Road in Curepipe or the old lady who sold ‘Pootoos’ near Ste Thérèse Church in Rose Hill.
However, Port Louis went on accommodating increasing numbers ever the more down the years, an increasing population of Civil Servants, growing commercial spots like the Caudan and Harbour Waterfronts and taller buildings which not only changed its skyline but dwarfed as well its retail shops in the same breath. Even decentralisation in the shape of bigger retail shops called shopping malls setting up in other places, was not enough to stem the tide of core shoppers in the main corridors of the City at peak lunch hours. At the same time, exporting nations like China, Vietnam and South Korea began floating a huge stock of manufactured articles of all sorts on global markets at low prices. The variety of goods so obtained by indviduals but not least by the importing houses themselves, suddenly caused the City’s street trade to grow more fiercely than ever beyond the peak daytime of working days, even spilling out into weekends.
It was this wave of low-cost manufacturing boom in the so-called emerging economies that fed into the swelling ranks of street hawkers in Port Louis. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, a few even older than these. This explains that the sudden upsurge in their numbers is a more recent phenomenon going not much beyond the two past decades coinciding with the international commodity boom. They are able to import a wide variety of day-to-day products, ever more plenteously during the Christmas season as bargain-seekers fill up the place. Those wares are now displayed wantonly on footpaths to the point of suffocating central footpaths and streets of the City. Degradation of the City proceeded apace along with this kind of encroachment on the public space. No need to add the City has lost its pristine appeal in the process. It has been in need of urgent repairs to reverse the continuing degradation.
This flea market spilling out onto the pavements and streets of the City must be largely accommodating the less skilled members of the population who find this a cheaper way to ply their trade. They come from Port Louis but increasingly also from other places in the country. There are also in their ranks part timers who already hold a permanent job in the public service, in municipalities and elsewhere. There is an unsuspected ingenious trading device accompanying all of it. Goods are airfreighted as excess luggage by travelling traders when shopping timelines have to be met. Alternatively, they are delivered by shiploads of containers clearing faster through bureaucratic controls than the customary slower path of clearance of goods taken by formal imports of the established business houses.
The street supply has grown and sustained itself primarily because of the forces of supply and demand. But it has also asserted itself because ordinary retail pricing and range of supply have proved to be no match for it at the level at which it operates. Besides, in a place like Mauritius, more are concerned with price than with quality especially when their means limit their choices.
Here we have a set of relatively new economic players whose ranks have kept swelling up with time. That process will no doubt continue. The disruption has been assuming ever larger proportions. Many are the voices which have been asking for some amount of orderliness to be restored in the City. The petty traders are in no mood to relinquish their costless occupation of prime locations. The premium place for them is where most pedestrians move along, notably the most frequented streets. With the courts moving in to declare their occupation of streets illegal, the street traders have constituted themselves into a political force if only to fight it up should the authorities entertain weird ideas about housing them collectively in places that would not suit their convenience.
Governments have been unable to take the decision they should to clean up the growing mess into which the City is being turned. Political parties have been passing the buck for this sorry state of affairs to each other. In the meantime, the original street hawkers have formed a coalition taking the legal precaution to call their association that of street vendors rather than hawkers. A hawker as of old was required to be on the move constantly; a vendor has a more or less fixed place. In this case, the place is the street, the very source of all the chaos and impediments that have set in. There is no doubt that no one really intends to hurt the livelihood of all these folks who have flooded our streets with their “temporary” stalls and their wares. There is no doubt also that transgression of the law cannot become a permanent feature in a so-called rule-of-law country. So far, no one has been able to provide a durable solution to the satisfaction of the two sides. At this pace, it looks like we will be going deeper into the mess when the frenzy of purchasing catches up with the population as the year nears its end. And, who knows, even beyond?
* Published in print edition on 19 October 2012