"I had been vending for forty years without success. I was suffering alone."
Just as she has done for almost four decades, Martha Nyirabambogo, a 67-year-old street vendor, begins the long day in silent darkness. Martha must get to the Bweramvura Cell produce warehouse early to purchase deep red tomatoes, large grapefruits, sweet figs, and ripe mangos. Walking on foot, she’ll transport this heavy load on her head to the Nyabugogo Market, a trading hub outside of a busy bus station where she’ll organize and display it in time for the market’s opening at six. Here, amid the chorus of voices negotiating prices and the smell of fruit and vegetable skins mixed with that of tall lilies, she’ll stay until eight at night. In 14 hours, she’ll hope to earn the equivalent of five US dollars.
This five dollars, while still not enough to lift Martha and her family completely out of poverty, is five times the amount she earned just four years ago. Before that, she says, “I had been vending for forty years without success. I was suffering alone.”
Martha began street vending in 1973 when she became a 33-year-old widow with children—five in all—to support. “Life was very bad,” she says. “I started street vending to be able to raise my children … I had to carry all of them with me all along the day. We were chased from the house we slept in front of. We didn’t have enough food to eat.” This hardship and isolation was made infinitely worse by the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis, when all of her close relatives—brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles—were murdered.
Like so many other survivors, Martha not only continued to live with the trauma of what she’d experienced, but she was further entrenched in poverty that the country had no ability to help her overcome. More and more people became jobless and turned to informal work like street vending, so even if Martha could have afforded a stall’s taxes and rent, competition made it difficult to get a market space. At the same time, government law prohibited (and still prohibits) vending on sidewalks or streets. As Martha says, “There is insecurity vending on the street—you can have car accidents, and your children can be out in bad weather. And we were chased on the road.” Like other street vendors, if Martha and her children were apprehended by police or security guards for vending illegally, they could be confined in “rehabilitation centres” for up to three days before release.
Insecurity in vending sites and the constant threat of police harassment and confiscation of goods leads to insecure income, which means parents like Martha often cannot provide adequate food or housing for their children or pay their school fees. Illiteracy and a lack of knowledge of the laws and rights affecting street vendors exacerbate the difficulties. Both can lead to a feeling of powerlessness and a lack of hope in ever being able to change the situation.
But in 2014, Martha’s life and livelihood did begin to change when she decided to join a newly-founded trade union for domestic and independent workers in the informal economy: the Syndicat des Travailleurs Independants de L’Economie Informelle (SYTRIECI). SYTRIECI is committed to protecting and promoting the rights of workers in the informal economy by improving their living and working conditions through education, collective action, and the increased representation of informal workers in decision-making bodies.
After joining SYTRIECI, Martha began attending its monthly meetings. She learned about saving and joined an SSF group, which allowed her to increase the quality of her products and take out interest-free loans. With this help, she was able to afford the market stall SYTRIECI helped her advocate for. Working in the market has increased her daily income and her income security. Now, she is able to save, manage microcredit, and make rental payments on her house each month.