Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 2–22, February 2013
This paper discusses démarcheurs, intermediaries in the second-hand car markets in Cotonou, Bénin. An ethnographic case study shows how démarcheurs make a profit by creating barriers between car buyers and sellers. In this way the paper presents an alternative interpretation of intermediaries: not as brokers of market information in fragmented business networks but as skilful information manipulators who pretend to be important. By analysing how démarcheurs interpret the car business as an information game, the paper tries to make understandable the cultural logic of their economic behaviour. This shows that market information is socio-culturally constructed knowledge and that intermediaries play a crucial role in its construction.
These people are like flies: They are everywhere, and a nuisance to everyone. How can I do business with my customers like this!
This paper studies intermediaries in the large and vibrant second-hand car markets in Cotonou (Bénin), a prominent trading hub in the Euro-West African car business. Locally called démarcheurs, these are groups of young men who accost visiting car buyers and insist on chaperoning them in one of the city’s car markets. Numbering some 8,000–10,000, démarcheurs constituted the single largest category of economic agents in Cotonou’s car markets at the time of the fieldwork. By comparison, at this time Bénin’s Chamber of Commerce had a mere 2,700 car traders on record. Because démarcheurs outnumber car traders, one is inclined to assume they make some important contribution to the car business; but the evidence for this claim is mixed. Some traders may feel attracted to them, but the trader’s contemptuous remark above, voicing a widely shared opinion in Cotonou, suggests otherwise: it portrays démarcheurs as obtrusive peddlers who hamper trade. Thus a major question remains as to how the omnipresence of these intermediaries in Cotonou should be interpreted.
Démarcheurs present themselves as information dealers, offering to put their clients in touch with sellers and help them acquire product and price information. One is therefore inclined to view them as information specialists. This interpretation of intermediaries is common in academic thinking too: the emergence of intermediaries is usually associated with particular information problems in markets. Some scholars, for instance, have shown that where market information is (i) costly to access (Stigler 1961), (ii) difficult to understand (Simon 1957) or (iii) asymmetrically distributed between buyers and sellers (Akerlof 1970; Rothschild and Stiglitz 1976), buyers and sellers face difficulties in finding out what is for sale and where (Evans and Wurster 1997; Stiglitz 2000). If the problem of information search becomes particularly acute, it is argued, intermediaries will specialise in information provision so that buyers and sellers can arrive at a better-informed economic decision (Agrawal et al. 2005; Cummins and Doherty 2006).
Likewise, it has been suggested that intermediaries will emerge when business networks are fragmented and buyers/sellers lack social contacts for dependable information. Intermediaries can resolve this problem by using their contacts to bridge/bond between hitherto unconnected market agents (Burt 2005; Podolny 2001). Yet as with the aforementioned view, this network perspective revolves around an interpretation of intermediaries that stresses their economic function: (i) as brokers negotiating fractured business networks (Obstfeld 2005); (ii) as go-betweens bridging inequalities between economic actors and/or goods (Bian 1997); or (iii) as middlemen dealing in business contracts (Lambsdorff 2002). This paper is also a study of how mediation is embedded in social contacts (compare Granovetter 1985; Swedberg 2003), but the ethnographic material that will be presented does not corroborate the type of economic functionality implied here. The intermediaries studied here try to create discontinuities by preventing buyers and sellers from creating dependable market relations, and by skilfully manipulating information to their own advantage.
The paper aims to offer an alternative, ethnographic interpretation of intermediaries by considering the cultural logic of démarcheur behaviour. Their origin provides a first clue for this. Many démarcheurs in Cotonou come from neighbouring Nigeria and become acquainted with Cotonou after dropping out of Nigeria’s school system and starting up a small business. Operating as a démarcheur is not dependent on formal education or training and requires little start-up capital, hence presenting an ideal entry into a business that is locally considered to be prestigious (Beuving 2004; Brooks 2011; Chalfin 2008; Dobler 2008). A second clue, presenting the substantive pivot of the paper, is that démarcheurs tend to understand the second-hand car business as an information game. It will be shown that, in this game, knowledge about the game itself is at stake: what players know, or think they know, about the rules of the game, about other players, about opportunities to profit from the game, and so on (compare Abolafia 2001; Zaloom 2006). It will further appear that the intermediaries’‘capital’ in this game consists of their trying to project a particular interpretation of the game that is favourable for their own ends.
A key outcome of the paper, therefore, is that market information figures as knowledge in a game. This outcome is inspired by the sociology of everyday knowledge, which argues that ‘information’ is not a collection of self-evident or objectified facts, but constitutes socio-culturally constructed knowledge. In this constructivist view, knowledge about the world is thought to present itself through actual human experience, which is shaped in everyday social interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1967). To understand markets, it follows that what actors ‘know’ about, say, prices and product characteristics is filtered through socially shared categories of signification (Douglas and Ney 1999). The paper argues that intermediaries play a central role in the construction of market information because key to their social practices is that they broker these categories between other agents. How intermediaries present the market to other agents may therefore provide an interesting way to look at market exchange.
The Cotonou market offers fertile ground for an analysis of the socio-cultural construction of market information because ‘information’ presents a highly contentious issue. The volume of traded cars is large, presenting traders with a problem of finding an appropriate car.1 This problem is exacerbated by the spread of the trade over several daily markets: at the time of the fieldwork more than twenty markets were operational. These markets are heterogeneous: little specialisation was found in makes and models of cars. An important consequence of this is that a particular second-hand car may be found anywhere – or nowhere. Further, second-hand cars are complicated machines whose quality is difficult to assess accurately. Many cars in Cotonou are in good shape (a consequence of MOT tests in the EU) but a large number are damaged, are missing important parts, or are simply worn-out due to old age. Because of the limited means for verifying technical quality, most traders resort to a visual inspection of the bodywork, revving the engine a few times, and perhaps a short test-drive in the marketplace. Establishing a car’s mechanical state remains ambivalent, usually constituting an important aspect of business negotiations and a source of dispute. Hence, in Cotonou there appears to be a need for dependable market information, but at the same time it is impossible to get it. It will be shown how démarcheurs capitalise on this ambivalence and in this way carve out a niche in the market for themselves.2
To further understand the presence of démarcheurs in the Cotonou market, the paper now continues by presenting an ethnographic case study involving a small group of démarcheurs. This is followed by an analysis of their cultural universe, showing that démarcheurs and their clients are entangled in a myriad of social ties, marked by a combination of scheming and counter-scheming, extortion and pretence. The paper shows how these practices connect to the information game démarcheurs play, and how this in particular revolves around a claim to privileged market knowledge. The paper concludes by broadening the lessons learnt from the Cotonou market to allow comparison with other cases. It suggests that, for intermediaries in information games to be successful economically, it is less important for them to actually be a crucial dealer who holds the best information possible than to be viewed as such by their clients.
Ethnographic case study: a day in the life of Nigerian démarcheurs in Cotonou
The contentious nature of information presented a challenge for fieldwork among démarcheurs. It is, for instance, telling that the observations for this paper were made towards the end of the fieldwork, after I had developed trust relations with several démarcheurs. To do so was not easy. At the beginning of my stay, démarcheurs regarded me as yet another car dealer, and they approached me as a business opportunity. Conversations with démarcheurs were therefore initially bland, because they were keen to prevent me from getting a glimpse of their information practices. Then one day, one of them, a young Nigerian man called Emmanuel, accosted me, asking what it was that I really wanted. I seized the occasion and invited him and some of his démarcheurs friends – all Nigerian-English speaking – for a drink. In the following weeks, I continued to have drinks with them, and later even food. Again later, I invited them to dinner parties in my Cotonou home. As my home was located halfway between their quarters and the Cotonou market, they then began to congregate there, especially at weekends when the car markets were closed. Around this time I also began to visit them in their homes. This presented good opportunities to engage in private conversation, away from the car market.
After thus establishing a trust relationship with them, I was allowed to accompany Emmanuel and his friends on their tours in the car market. By then I had spent considerable time in the Cotonou market, and many car sellers were therefore already acquainted with my presence. Because I never took up car trading myself – a deliberate decision made early in the fieldwork to avoid being seen as a competitor – they were not so worried that I would find out trade secrets and therefore allowed me considerable room for manoeuvre. Car traders that I knew superficially sometimes responded with surprise when they noted me in the company of démarcheurs, but mostly remained indifferent to it. Car sellers that I had befriended in previous months initially saw my presence as an occasion to outmanoeuvre the démarcheurs– hoping I would help them. However, after several discussions with me, they decided to drop it and let me be. As this happened around the final stages of the fieldwork, I felt sufficiently confident to push the friendships with car sellers slightly outside our usual comfort zone and insisted on working with the démarcheurs.
A few words about Emmanuel and his friends, the dramatis personae of the case study. Emmanuel identifies himself as Ogoni, he is unmarried and in his early twenties. Emmanuel comes from a modest background: his father was an infantryman in the Nigerian army and his mother retails foodstuffs in a fruit market in Lagos. In 1996, Emmanuel’s parents could no longer pay school fees and he started commuting between Cotonou, where he bought clothes, and Lagos, where he sold them piecemeal. With the small capital he thus accumulated, Emmanuel settled in Cotonou a few years later and started working as a démarcheur. Terrance and Tony, also unmarried, identify themselves as Yoruba and have a similar, modest, background to Emmanuel; they are also early school leavers. They arrived in Cotonou after Emmanuel and were in the process of establishing themselves as démarcheurs in Cotonou when I met them. Israel identifies himself as Hausa. He is the most veteran of the men and settled in Cotonou a few years before Emmanuel. Initially, he tried his hand at selling cars for a boss, but failed, and then became a démarcheur.
The case study is written as a description of a single day between dawn and dusk. It is a composed case, much in the sense of how Clifford Geertz reconstructed the narrative of the Balinese cockfight after spending many hours with his Balinese informants (Geertz 1993: 412–48). That is, from the observational data recorded in my field notes, I selected particular episodes that represent key aspects of the information game that the démarcheurs play. Further, the case study is written in the present tense, though the fieldwork was carried out during fifteen months of fieldwork in the early 2000s. It should be noted that this is done to bring the story closer to the reader and does not suggest that the Cotonou market has not changed since then.3
Not long after dawn, I find Emmanuel already awake in his small rented room in a poor area on the outskirts of Cotonou. He tells me that fellow démarcheur Tony has gone out already. A few weeks ago, Tony moved in with Emmanuel after he ran into trouble with his landlord. Although Tony’s sister provides him with accommodation at the weekend, he needed a cheap place to stay during the week.
Emmanuel beckons me inside and points at a sleeping figure in the back of the room. He tells me that late last night, while playing billiards with some friends after work, démarcheur Terrance had asked if he could spend the night at his place. Emmanuel recounts that Terrance had reluctantly explained how he had run out of money and therefore had to abandon his room earlier that morning. To convince Emmanuel of his trouble, he had shown the receipt for his mobile phone that he pawned that night. The sleeping figure evidences that Emmanuel invited Terrance to stay over, but Emmanuel’s face reveals his displeasure with the prospect of having to put up another of his démarcheur friends.
Emmanuel now starts his morning preparations. I see how he polishes his shoes, selects an ironed shirt from a coat hanger dangling from the ceiling, brushes his cropped hair, switches on his – recently bought – mobile telephone and puts on a fancy-looking watch. A last look inside confirms that Terrance is still sleeping, so together we walk away towards the main road. Here we flag down a taxi-moto, a rented moped, which takes us to the main car markets downtown.
Along the way, Emmanuel receives a phone call from his friend, Doctor. This is a Nigerian general practitioner who alternates his work at a Lagos hospital with a prospering car business. He usually contacts Emmanuel before coming to Cotonou. From earlier conversations I know that the two young men go back a long time because they grew up in the same army barracks: Doctor’s father is an old army comrade of Emmanuel’s father. Emmanuel indicates to me how this time Doctor’s call worries him: whereas Doctor normally comes to Cotonou unaccompanied, he now unexpectedly spoke of someone who would come along with him today.
When Emmanuel and I get off the moped at the entrance to a group of car markets commonly referred to as ‘German.Co’, he checks his wristwatch and concludes that it is still early. Doctor has asked Emmanuel during the phone call to wait for him near the entrance to the markets, but Emmanuel knows from previous experience that his Nigerian friend will not arrive before noon. Therefore we enter the main gate of the corridor that separates the different markets constituting German.Co. Halfway down the corridor, we enter the ‘office’, a small, shed-like construction where most démarcheurs gather during the morning before starting their business.4
Inside we find Tony, who is devouring a plate of food and engaging in conversation with a food vendor. Emmanuel orders some food too and, as the two men eat, I see them watch the already substantial mob pass noisily through the corridor: customers (mainly Nigerian), often chaperoned by démarcheurs; importers accompanied by their employees; and repairmen hastily heading to a job at one of the car markets. Emmanuel and Tony’s heads move nervously from left to right as they survey the corridor for possible clients, preferably those with whom they have worked before. In the meantime, a few loudly hooting cars are trying to make their way towards the main gate, hampered by waiting groups of people, and skirting large potholes dotted throughout the corridor.
The silence that has settled between Emmanuel and Tony is interrupted by the arrival of Israel, another Nigerian démarcheur. Israel, who came to live in Cotonou before Tony and Emmanuel, greets us and then excitedly exclaims that he has spotted a Nigerian acquaintance. ‘Let’s follow him’, Israel suggests, ‘I know he has brought some money and wants to buy a V-boot’ (a newer model Mercedes, characterised by a vaguely v-shaped boot). Although the prospect of earning some cash this early in the morning is tempting, I notice that Emmanuel hesitates: ‘Doctor called me just now, I think he will arrive here around noon’, he objects. Tony now cuts into their conversation: ‘Don’t mind Doctor’, he says to Emmanuel, ‘I don’t want to wait for this man’. Emmanuel appears not yet convinced. ‘Why give up on Doctor’, he mumbles, ‘when this guy [Israel] never shares his money with us?’ Israel, restlessly moving to and fro, encourages both men to join him: ‘Come now, my man won’t wait all day, there’s no time to lose’.
Emmanuel unenthusiastically gets up and together we follow Israel and Tony, who speed towards the entrance of one of the car markets. There an older, stout man dressed in colourful garments is engaged in fierce debate with a young man. ‘You, go away’, the old man shouts in broken English, ‘I don’t need you!’ Israel quickly steps forward and pushes the young man aside: ‘What are you doing, harassing my client like this?’ Daunted by Israel’s intimidation, the young man takes to his heels and disappears into the corridor. The older man, a well-known Nigerian Hadj (Muslim pilgrim) from Kano, brusquely turns around and asks Israel in his native language, Hausa, several questions; it later appears he wanted to know why Israel had brought the other two démarcheurs with him. As the conversation between Israel and el-Hadj develops, I can see how Emmanuel and Tony impatiently await translation. Israel later confides in me how he not only succeeded in calming down el-Hadj, but also secured el-Hadj’s promise to give him an extra commission. Emmanuel and Tony, however, remain oblivious of this special agreement and believe throughout that Israel is acting in their mutual interest.
We break up. Israel stays with el-Hadj, he takes the sleeve of his garment and gently ushers him away from the entrance where by now numerous démarcheurs have gathered. Israel clearly attempts to isolate el-Hadj from competing démarcheurs and from direct contact with car sellers. Tony, Emmanuel and I head for what most démarcheurs consider ‘good’ markets: those dominated by Lebanese importers. Tony and Emmanuel split up and arrange to meet halfway through their tour and to maintain contact by mobile phone.
Emmanuel and I enter the market, and we walk at a brisk pace along the neatly parked rows of second-hand cars. Almost at the end of the row, it appears that Emmanuel finds what he is looking for: a ramshackle paillote where an older Lebanese man, Ahmad, is comfortably seated with a pocket radio in his hand.5 Underneath the paillote, a small group of lively chatting West African men hang about. While I keep somewhat aside, I notice how Emmanuel approaches the yard laid out around the paillote and greets the Lebanese man: ‘Salut patron, Salaam Alaikum’. At this, Ahmad looks up, mumbles a greeting in reply, and points to the group below him. As it is common for Lebanese traders to charge their senior employees with the sale of their cars, Emmanuel reacts unsurprised when a middle-aged man breaks away from the group. The two men have met on previous occasions, and I hear them greet each other jokingly: ‘Ah, you Nigerian thief, have you come to rob us again?’ the man asks Emmanuel. ‘So you never take money from your patron?’ Emmanuel replies. As the senior employee, called Pierre, bursts out laughing, I see that Emmanuel gestures towards a newer model Mercedes parked in the yard and asks its price. Before the employee can respond, Ahmad leans over the paillote’s railing and cries ‘Don’t let this youngster chop my money!’6 As the two men turn their backs to the paillote, Emmanuel’s phone rings. I hear him talking to Tony, who apparently has met a reseller at the other side of the market with whom he is acquainted. It appears that Tony’s contact is offering them the type of car they are looking for at a cheap rate, provided that they share their commission with him. I see that Emmanuel shakes his head disapprovingly and then replies that Tony should continue to look for a better offer. Pierre, who leans against the car that they were talking about before, now asks Emmanuel how much he is willing to pay. Without looking at Pierre, Emmanuel walks around the car, peeps inside, pats the bonnet, and asks for it to be opened. Pierre hisses at one of the young men beneath the paillote, who flings him a set of keys with which he opens the car, unlocks the bonnet and starts the engine. For a while Emmanuel listens attentively as he lets the engine roar, and then closes the bonnet resolutely. He looks at me, then at Pierre and says ‘This engine is no good’, and resolutely walks away. Pierre, who has kept an eye on his on-looking Lebanese patron throughout, calls Emmanuel again ‘Bring me two-six’.7 Emmanuel turns around and I hear how he starts bargaining for a much lower price, claiming that he works as a reseller at another car market and should therefore be offered a better proposition. Then Ahmad, still in his paillote, gets up and says ‘What do you know about cars? You’re only a démarcheur! I have seen you before: bring your customer, and then we’ll talk’. I notice how this remark offends Emmanuel, and so does Pierre, who gently leads Emmanuel towards the edge of the yard. Before they say goodbye, they exchange a few words. Afterwards, Emmanuel tells me that Pierre proposed to call him back later ‘so that we can do business without my boss seeing me’.
We now set out for the ‘office’, where we meet with Tony who has returned empty-handed as well. For a while the two men discuss their affairs, complaining how they both failed to secure what seemed a promising transaction. ‘We bring the Nigerians to this place, these white people [Lebanese traders] cannot do business without us, and we get nothing in return’, Tony grumbles, to which Emmanuel nods in agreement. We order some bottles of beer, which we drink silently until Israel returns, unaccompanied by el-Hadj. ‘This man means Wahalla’8, Israel explains to us, ‘I tried to show him around, to help him make up his mind. But when he showed me his money, it was only enough to put down a deposit!’ I can see how Tony and Emmanuel look up in disbelief: Israel is reputed to be a conscientious démarcheur, who would surely have verified his client’s money beforehand. Israel justifies this negligence by referring to his personal relation with el-Hadj: ‘I worked with him before; I thought I could trust him’. Although Tony and Emmanuel sympathise with Israel’s failed transaction, in fact, Israel’s explanation is inaccurate. Israel later tells me that, once he had spotted a suitable car, el-Hadj withdrew his original offer of additional commission. This meant that, since Israel had concealed the particulars of the arrangement with el-Hadj from his friends, now he could not involve them to exert the additional pressure needed to coax the recalcitrant businessman into collaboration, and thus he withdrew from the transaction altogether.
Without mentioning any of this to his friends, Israel takes a seat next to us, sips from one of their bottles, and starts looking up and down the corridor again. By now it is around noon; Doctor can show up any time.
For a while not much happens: we drink our beers and the three men squabble about the right phrasing of currently popular songs. Their interaction stops when Emmanuel, with an outcry revealing dismay, suddenly gets to his feet. I can see how he has spotted Doctor, who is accompanied by Terrance and another young man. They exchange a few words in their shared language, Ogoni. Emmanuel later explains that he quizzed Terrance about how he had arrived there with Doctor, and why he had not called to tell him this. Terrance grins sheepishly in response and replies while he motions to Doctor’s companion: ‘Tunde phoned me a little while ago; he’s my high school friend and it was he who brought Doctor along’. Emmanuel looks upset: I know that thus far he considered his personal contact with Doctor to be a well-balanced mix of friendship and business – a balance that now seems to be undermined by a fellow démarcheur. Since Emmanuel cannot hector Terrance in front of Doctor, he resorts to a condescending joke: ‘Hey small boy, did you come along with the big men today?’ Meanwhile I see how Doctor stands forlornly aside; he speaks Yoruba and therefore does not understand what is being said between Emmanuel and Terrance. Emmanuel notices this too, and he therefore addresses Doctor with a reassuring smile, gestures in the direction of the car markets and indicates that they are ready to go.
On their way to German.Co, Emmanuel tries to establish which car Doctor wants to buy (also a Mercedes V-boot) and, more importantly, how much money he has brought along. Whereas the other démarcheurs follow Doctor at some distance, I notice how Doctor’s young companion Tunde tries to stay as close to him as possible. Emmanuel sees this too and therefore interviews Doctor cautiously, avoiding direct questions. ‘Did you bring the same money as you did last time?’, Emmanuel asks. Later he tells me that he hoped that Doctor had not mentioned this to Tunde. Doctor seems surprised at Emmanuel’s indirect phrasing, but nevertheless nods affirmatively. Next, Emmanuel turns around and, without further explanation, instructs Israel and Tony to start their tour of a nearby car market and asks Terrance to join Doctor and himself in yet another car market. The two groups split up; I can see how Emmanuel is annoyed to learn that Tunde is staying with him. For the next half hour, we wander about the car market in silence; they do not attempt to speak to the car sellers they walk past. When we approach Ahmad’s paillote, Pierre walks up to us and asks Emmanuel what he wants. Tunde, who has thus far remained silent, now clears his throat and asks the price of one of the polished cars. I can see how Emmanuel is baffled by Tunde’s question, yet he silently awaits Pierre’s asking price, which, as he explains to me later, is much too high. I notice how Emmanuel, alarmed by Tunde’s intervention, retreats out of sight of the party and calls for assistance by pressing a few buttons on his mobile phone. Emmanuel’s premonition proves to be correct: Tunde reacts to Pierre by disputing the proposed price: ‘Why do you insult me like that, this is a ridiculous price!’ Tunde’s reply obviously annoys Pierre, and Emmanuel quickly responds by pushing Tunde away: ‘Shut up, you are spoiling the deal; you know nothing about this trade’. Pierre, seemingly unmoved by Emmanuel’s outburst, turns around and continues his polishing.
Next, Terrance takes Emmanuel aside: ‘Don’t mind this man’, I hear him plead. ‘Let’s go on, we will come back here later’. Doctor hears this too, nods in agreement, and motions to Tunde to follow suit. When the men make a start to continue their tour, Emmanuel is called from a distance. Israel and Tony hurry towards us: ‘I received your beep,9 has your man brought out his money?’, Israel breathlessly asks. Emmanuel shakes his head in negation and points at Tunde, stating ‘He oppresses us, he makes Wahalla’. A brief discussion between the four démarcheurs follows, and it appears that Israel and Emmanuel agree to unite their efforts: they will go back to Pierre; Tony and Terrance continue to accompany Doctor. Afterwards, Emmanuel confides that he assumed that Doctor would be reassured by Terrance’s presence, which is why he did not offer any further explanation to Doctor as regards this manoeuvre.
We turn back to Ahmad’s yard, and I can see that Emmanuel and Israel are relieved to notice that Pierre is still alone. The senior employee explains to us that his boss went to meet his older brother in another car market. The absence of Ahmad changes the situation for the démarcheurs. On the one hand, they can discuss the details of Doctor’s purchase much more openly when the Lebanese patron is not around. On the other hand, it is most likely that Ahmad took the car’s import documents and registration certificate with him, so Doctor will have to be coaxed into not making a down payment. Démarcheurs normally prefer their clients to pay the total sum due, so that a commission can be pocketed immediately.
Emmanuel now starts commenting on Pierre’s mobile phone. ‘Patron, if we make our client bring out big money, will you give me your phone?’ In reply Pierre states, ‘You go chop big, you cheat your man [Doctor], and now you want my phone?’ As we see Pierre walk away indignantly, Emmanuel calls after him: ‘Give us a hundred, you can take twenty’. This remark reflects a common approach among démarcheurs: once they have established the range of the selling price (the ‘two-six’ mentioned earlier by Pierre), démarcheurs attempt to settle their commission. With his proposition, Emmanuel shows he is aware of how much Doctor is willing to pay, but he also comments on how the money appropriated should be divided between the démarcheurs and Pierre. Although it turns out later that Pierre disagreed with Emmanuel’s suggestion, he does not react immediately and keeps silent instead. Meanwhile I see how Israel, who has wandered around the car and glanced inside several times, turns towards Pierre and asks for the car’s spare parts.10 Pierre, who has so far maintained his reserve, suddenly jumps up and moves towards the boot of the car from where he produces a large plastic bag with the parts. After the two démarcheurs have inspected the contents of the bag and hand it back, we slowly walk away from the yard.
To the casual observer, the interaction between the three men thus far may seem to lack the concreteness for conducting business. Those involved, however, interpret the situation differently. Discussions with Pierre, Emmanuel and Israel during the following days suggest they were fairly convinced that they had come close to concluding a transaction. By asking for the spare parts, the démarcheurs expressed genuine interest in Pierre’s car. Also, by none of them remaining behind in the yard, Israel and Emmanuel demonstrated their conviction that Pierre would not sell the car behind their backs. Finally, Pierre’s silence on Emmanuel’s proposition reassured the démarcheurs that they are near to securing their commission. If not, Pierre would have protested against the proposed minority share, they said.
Once we have left the yard, Emmanuel takes out his mobile phone and calls Terrance to bring Doctor along. Moments later the two démarcheurs, Doctor and his companion Tunde show up and join Emmanuel, Israel and me. Without further ceremony we now walk towards Pierre’s. ‘Chairman’, Emmanuel addresses Doctor respectfully, ‘we have talked seriously to this man Pierre, and he can help us’. I see how Doctor, who is flanked by Emmanuel and Israel, turns his head around to cast a warning glance at Tunde. Thus Doctor tries to remove the doubt that Tunde had earlier cast on the course of business. Later it appears that Doctor has brought along Tunde, a younger paternal cousin, to meet a moral obligation. Although Doctor prefers to operate solo in Cotonou, he felt he could not refuse to allow Tunde to come along: Tunde’s father in part financed Doctor’s medical education. Doctor did not want to lend money to Tunde, nor did he want to pay his cousin a salary. Instead, he raised Tunde’s hopes by saying that clever men could make money in Cotonou.
Now that Tunde has been convinced not to intervene, Doctor addresses Pierre: ‘How about two-zero?’ he asks. Pierre replies by laughing: ‘Maybe cars don’t cost money in Naya [Nigeria], but here we pay’. ‘Chairman’, Emmanuel intervenes, ‘this car is fine: we checked this morning’. ‘I’ll bring two-one’, Doctor proposes. Pierre shakes his head in disagreement and replies: ‘Then you’ll need to talk to your boys’. I notice how Emmanuel and Israel look up startled; this indicates that they realise that Pierre is about to break their agreement not to mention the size of the commission. Although by saying this Pierre runs the risk of Doctor retreating, afterwards he confides that in this way he hoped to put pressure on the démarcheurs to accept a much lower commission than they had initially discussed. I can see that Pierre’s remark infuriates Emmanuel; this is because he realises that he cannot express his anger openly without alarming Doctor. Israel seems aware of this too, and to prevent escalation of the situation, he restrains Emmanuel and promises Pierre that they will pay the parking fee due.11 After a brief silence, I hear Pierre mumble: ‘Bring me two-three’. Before Doctor can react, he is taken aside by Tunde from the waiting group. The démarcheurs and I can pick up only fragments of the talk between the Nigerian GP and his companion, but it is clear to them that Tunde is attempting to torpedo the mediation. While the démarcheurs deliberate their situation, Doctor summons Pierre to join him. Emmanuel responds by leaving the other démarcheurs and cautiously approaches Doctor and Pierre. When he watches the two men discussing how to deal with the car’s import documents, Emmanuel interjects: ‘You get your V-boot tomorrow, don’t mind the others: we have our fathers in common’.
Next, I see that Doctor produces a thick wad of banknotes that he hands to Tunde. Silence settles between the démarcheurs, who gaze intently at Tunde’s hands as they count and recount the bank notes. Once he has thus ascertained that the amount of cash is correct, Tunde triumphantly pulls out a ten thousand CFA note (about €15), which he pockets, and presents the remaining money to Pierre. After Pierre has recounted the money and handed a receipt for the sold car to Doctor, we leave the yard. Doctor and Tunde hurry towards a clearing agent’s office in the corridor where they will try to arrange customs clearance and payment of shipping before closing time. The démarcheurs linger for a while. I notice how they tensely look around to see if Doctor has already disappeared. Then Emmanuel halts us with a gesture, turns around and hurries towards Pierre, leaving us behind.
‘You no go chop today!’ we hear Pierre exclaim as he notices Emmanuel’s reappearance. ‘Patron’, Emmanuel retorts irritably, ‘we worked hard today, our client brought out big money’. Pierre sighs and then selects several well-worn bank notes from the pile of money he has just received and waves them in the air. Quickly Emmanuel snatches the money away and immediately starts leafing through the notes. Although it appears that the money is somewhat less than they first agreed, Emmanuel does not protest. Pierre later explains his sudden change of mind as follows: ‘You have to watch out with them; if you don’t give them something, they’ll come back at night and damage the cars’. The other démarcheurs have by now entered the yard and, since Emmanuel clearly does not want to involve them in the details of his agreement with Pierre, I can see how he quickly stuffs the money into his breast pocket, then brusquely turns around and urges the other démarcheurs to follow him.
Livelily chatting and cheering, we stroll to the main exit of the car markets. By now it is around five o’clock: soon the car markets will be closed for the day.
With Doctor and Tunde gone, we flag down two taxi-motos and the four démarcheurs and I go to a small square beneath Cotonou’s lighthouse where many démarcheurs meet at the end of the day to drink large bottles of Beninese beer and to play billiards. We dismount and are cheerfully greeted by some of the démarcheurs with whom we often pass the day in the ‘office’, their common meeting place. The news of their successful transaction has travelled fast: ‘Give us some beer, we have been out there in the sun, like you’, one of them shouts. In reply, Emmanuel looks at us, shrugs and enters one of the small bars nearby. Minutes later he returns, arms filled with bottles of beer. ‘Hey, take it easy with our money!’, Israel comments on Emmanuel’s generosity. After the beer has been passed around, and bottles have been clinked, I see how Israel pulls Emmanuel aside and asks: ‘How far, let’s rub heads?’‘Yeah, I want to get my phone back’, Terrance joins in, ‘Bring out the money’. Emmanuel, irritated, reacts: ‘What are you saying about this money? Doctor is my man’. Terrance laughs out loud, surprised by Emmanuel’s outcry, and then tries to pull out one of the banknotes in Emmanuel’s breast pocket. In a split second, Emmanuel pushes Terrance away and kicks off his shoes to show his anger. Before Terrance gets the chance to react, Israel interjects. ‘Don’t go crazy now’, he urges, ‘we should talk about this money’. Israel succeeds in calming down the two men and asks Tony, who is watching the scene from a distance, to bring two more bottles of beer. Israel uses the silence that has settled to suggest splitting the money between them. ‘Doctor is your man, so take twenty, and I’ll share the rest with them’. Although Israel does not know precisely how much money Emmanuel has pocketed, he later tells me that a brief glance at the bundle of money in his breast pocket reassured him that there was enough to go round. Emmanuel agrees quickly. Afterwards he confides that 20,000 CFA corresponds to about what he considers to be his fair share. So instead of negotiating a larger share, Emmanuel takes out the money, extracts 20,000 CFA and hands the remaining notes to Israel. Then he accepts a cue offered to him by one of the billiard players, turns around and starts to play. From some distance, I see how Israel swiftly hands some of the money to Terrance, who has silently watched the game and to Tony, who has just returned with more beers. They empty their bottles and make a start to leave the lighthouse. Emmanuel looks back, hands his cue to another player and joins the three démarcheurs. Before he disappears into the falling night, he turns around and nods at me: ‘See you tomorrow’.
Analysis: the cultural universe of Nigerian démarcheurs in Cotonou
A cursory acquaintance with Emmanuel and his friends entices one to agree with the démarcheurs who talk about themselves as market makers who, in the words of one of them, ‘help clients to make up their minds’. By bringing together buyers and sellers of cars, the démarcheurs act as touts; consequently they seem to help both parties to communicate, as Israel’s encounter with el-Hadj suggests. On the other hand, the case study shows that démarcheurs’ clientele do not always appreciate their services: démarcheurs elicit hostile reactions from buyers and sellers in Cotonou, as is exemplified by Ahmad’s response. This suggests that démarcheurs offer a service that is little in demand.
These salient features are difficult to reconcile with a role as productive brokers. To appreciate the démarcheurs’ relation to other economic agents in the Cotonou market, and hence situate the démarcheurs socio-culturally, I will now analyse three different spheres of social interaction: among démarcheurs; between démarcheurs and car buyers; and between démarcheurs and car sellers. Identifying separate spheres is to some extent an abstraction: car trading in Cotonou constitutes a single cultural universe, marked by a particular social order. For instance, it draws on shared understandings of the business – albeit that different actors may value this differently – and traders, démarcheurs, etc. are entangled in a myriad of – often weak and conflicting – social ties. None the less, analytically separating spheres of social interaction can help us to better understand the particular courses of action pursued by the actors in the case study.
Among démarcheurs: close, yet secretive
Démarcheurs generally operate in small teams. This seems related less to wanting company than to the need for a job-related division of labour: surveying different markets, monitoring buyers and preparing transactions. Although the tight and multiplex social relations characteristic of most démarcheur groups promotes this, the démarcheurs themselves experience their social density as problematic. It limits in the first place opportunities for chicanery. Israel, for instance, attempted to secure his commission by taking advantage of his contact with el-Hadj. After the Nigerian client turned down his proposition, Israel escaped scot-free by under-supplying his colleagues with accurate information. Similarly, Emmanuel made the best of a bad job by accepting the money from Pierre, so that he could at least conceal the amount he finally received.
Secondly, whereas the persons in the case study all attempt to coordinate the actions of those involved in a business transaction, control over particular situations is not easily attained, and sometimes downright lost. Emmanuel, for example, experienced difficulties in deflecting Tunde’s interference since he was unaware of Terrance’s contact with the young man. And although Emmanuel ruled the roost when they entered the car markets with Doctor, he could not prevent Pierre from withholding some of the commission.
These points show that démarcheur social life is driven by a tension between social proximity and opportunism: démarcheurs are close, yet secretive. This tension compromises their negotiations vis-à-vis other economic agents and hence contributes to the ambivalences they meet with in everyday life. Similar ambivalences have been observed for groups of young men elsewhere in West Africa (see for instance Geschiere 1997; Smith 2004), yet the form it takes here is thoroughly shaped by particular strategies of self-presentation, occasioned by the intention to manipulate information in the course of a relentless drive for commission.
With car sellers: creating a nuisance value
The reactions of businessmen like Pierre and Ahmad highlight the fact that few car sellers in Cotonou see added value in the presence of démarcheurs in the market; they argue that buyers would just as easily find suitable cars without them. There is considerable truth in their argument: buyers are interested in only a small fraction of the diversity of cars on offer in Cotonou, and these fashionable cars are widely in stock (exemplified by the Mercedes V-boot that both Doctor and el-Hadj are interested in). Further, most car markets do not specialise in particular makes and models; a brief market survey could result in several suitable cars. The information search challenge that car buyers face is therefore less complicated than it may seem at first. A related point is that the démarcheurs could in principle function as runners for sellers: they compete for car buyers in a tight market, and recruiting démarcheurs as client-bringers could boost sales. The case study shows, however, that the social relations between démarcheurs and sellers are usually so thin and conflictive that a mutually productive role of runner does not materialise in practice.
Nevertheless, despite the démarcheurs’ unpopularity, car sellers (or their workers) tend to collaborate with them. They do so for two reasons. Firstly, the démarcheurs increasingly succeed in controlling the movements of car buyers. A steady rise in the number of démarcheurs in Cotonou has resulted in more démarcheurs per transaction. It is therefore rare to find a car buyer roaming the Cotonou market unescorted. As a result, car sellers who refuse to do business with démarcheurs see their clientele shrink and their revenues diminish accordingly. Secondly, although relations with Emmanuel look fairly good on the surface, Pierre, like many car sellers in Cotonou, fears a violent encounter with a pack of angry démarcheurs and is apprehensive of the minor, yet costly, damage the démarcheurs may inflict on the parked cars in a rash moment. Well-to-do car sellers may respond to this threat by paying security guards, but a watertight security system is costly and difficult to organise. Most sellers therefore choose to pay a commission: to get rid of a – potentially nasty –démarcheur group.12
Dealing with one group of démarcheurs does not, however, safeguard against being accosted by another. This is related to two advantages that démarcheurs enjoy in relation to car sellers. In the first place, as signalled by the statement at the beginning of this paper, démarcheurs are ‘everywhere’: they outnumber other traders in Cotonou. Furthermore, most of the time démarcheurs hang about the car markets in anticipation of clients, and they therefore have abundant time to trouble car sellers. These two factors together mean the démarcheurs succeed in creating a ‘nuisance value’: they wear out car sellers who therefore mostly surrender and collaborate by sharing some of the profit in the form of a commission with them.
With car buyers: self-presentation as information specialist
Many car buyers value démarcheurs as a good contact in the chaotic world of second-hand car trading.13 In Doctor’s words: ‘This guy [Emmanuel] shows me around, and he doesn’t cheat me’. In order to give car buyers this feeling, démarcheurs present themselves as information specialists, or as actors ‘who know the market’. However, the case study shows that démarcheurs do not look for information that may lead to an optimal deal for seller or buyer; instead, they deploy a number of strategies to substantiate their claim.
In the first place, dress is crucial. Note, for instance, how Emmanuel dresses fastidiously before going to the car markets. In general, the démarcheurs stand out in the Cotonou car markets with their neatly ironed shirts and properly polished shoes.14 Together with the conspicuous display of mobile phones, watches and other expensive and much-treasured accessories, this reflects a style of consumption that is important in belonging to the second-hand car world (compare Friedman 1994; Miller 1998; Weiss 1996). That is, by surrounding themselves with the symbols that people in the second-hand car trade associate with successful entrepreneurship, démarcheurs aim to keep up an appearance of business success and virtuousness. Hence they try to come across as trustworthy business partners – even though they often lack the proper means to maintain the associated consumptive style.
Secondly, the démarcheurs, while showing their clients around car markets, attentively monitor their reactions. These reactions, often revealed in facial expressions or minor remarks, inform the démarcheurs about their clients’ preferences. This is why Emmanuel is keen on staying with Doctor: it gives crucial information that he cannot get otherwise. In the event of a client showing what seems to be genuine interest in a particular car, the démarcheur starts to downplay the qualities of the car, the reputation of the car seller or both. Thus, démarcheurs try to steer their client’s attention away from the desired car, only to return at a later time to set up the conditions of the transaction. By means of this practice, the démarcheurs let their clients select, meanwhile suggesting that they were the ones who found the appropriate car.
Thirdly, démarcheurs deliberately try to keep their clients in the dark by removing both history and social context from market transactions. They do this by minimising clarifications of their courses of action, by limiting their consultations with fellow démarcheurs in the presence of a car buyer and by refraining from making references to previous business. By practising this strategy of minimised information sharing, the car buyer is made to believe that attempting to carry out business off his own bat will lead to misfortune; hence buyers become reliant on the démarcheurs. This suggests that giving the impression of being informed while at the same time hiding information is essential for démarcheurs to achieve their unique position in the second-hand car market.
Discussion: playing information games
The analysis showed the limitations of looking at intermediaries as information/contact brokers who are driven by a wish to faithfully inform and bring together the car buyers and sellers with whom they work. The model of the intermediary as resolver of discontinuities in business appears to be problematic in view of the presented case material. Rather, it appears that démarcheurs are in the business of constructing and maintaining such discontinuities in order to make a living. In the remaining few pages, démarcheur behaviour is discussed against another model: that of players in an information game. It focuses on three characteristics of games: contest and the stakes of the game; the strategies adopted; and the functioning of behavioural rules.15 These points are discussed against the lessons learnt from the Cotonou market, but with a view to develop a broader set of ideas about intermediaries in information games that may allow comparison with other cases wherein market information provokes argument.
Contest and stakes
Games engender a particular stake; usually, the desired outcome is winning. Essential to games, therefore, is a spirit of contest: players are competing with one another to win. In the Cotonou case, there is a contest between buyers and sellers, between sellers/buyers and démarcheurs, and among démarcheurs. The contest intensifies if the number of players increases but the desired outcome remains the same; then there is less to go round. It helps explain the virulence of the social interaction in Cotonou: many traders want to get a piece of the action once the business gains a favourable reputation. Games are not necessarily played by individual players. In many cases, playing games is group work for which collaboration is required: démarcheurs rarely work alone. Collaboration can take the form of a stable, sustained relation that continues during several rounds of the game, but allegiances may also shift, turning collaborators into adversaries. This happens when sellers become démarcheurs, or when démarcheurs start their own private enterprise without informing their colleagues.
In information games, the stakes for intermediaries are regulated by the fact that their capital investments are usually small in proportion to those made by buyers and sellers. Intermediaries must invest their time and surround themselves with the appropriate paraphernalia, but working as an intermediate is typically capital extensive. Thus, their stakes are not directly financial; for instance, they cannot see their capital investments evaporate. For intermediaries, a sense of being important is locked into the game. Since information commands a high prestige (‘finding out’ is considered an important thing in itself), those associated with it come to occupy a special place in the game. The Cotonou case suggests that the more buyers and sellers value dependable information, the more intermediaries may succeed in presenting themselves as important agents. Hence, the stakes of information games for intermediaries are not a given, following logically from the qualities of the products traded or from the networks in which they are traded, but depend chiefly on the success of intermediaries in projecting their own role as essential to other parties in the game.
Strategies and game plan
Players make particular moves in the game, but their adversaries do that too. To get the upper hand, they make use of a strategy; they think ahead and anticipate the moves of others. Moreover, they try to pre-empt them by preparing alternative moves. In Cotonou, sellers try to outmanoeuvre démarcheurs; veteran buyers try to roam the market without being chaperoned; démarcheurs try to hinder buyers and sellers from developing ties. Strategies may arise more or less spontaneously, in direct response to a move by one of the other players, or they may be part of a well-developed plan. Though risk can be minimised through a crafty game plan, obviously it cannot be eliminated, because other players prepare their own plans. However, essential in getting the upper hand with a strategy is that other players are not in the know about your strategies; otherwise, you yourself get outmanoeuvred quickly. Maintaining some degree of secrecy is therefore key to being successful in playing a game. This is apparent in Cotonou as well: démarcheurs put a lot of effort into controlling information flows.
Since in an information game information itself is at stake, the strategies of intermediaries revolve around practising disinformation and the manipulation of facts. That is, the less buyers and sellers know about one another, or about the goods that are traded, the more intermediaries can play out their role as information broker. It pays off, therefore, to keep their clients as much as possible in the dark about the motives and movements of the other party. Hence making market information scarce, rather than making it available, is crucial. There is a paradox here: the information that intermediaries try to make scarce is what they need themselves to make a business. That explains perhaps why much emphasis is placed on social skills: the ‘capital’ of intermediaries in information games consists of finding out what buyers and/or sellers want by getting close to them. Gaining their trust is therefore essential in their information practices. The Cotonou case, however, shows that this trust is limited, usually not stretching to allowing other parties a glimpse at their information practices. A successful intermediary is therefore often a person who can overcome the paradox of building up trust relations with different parties, while at the same time trying to prevent them from getting into contact with one another.
Rules of the game
In a game, the moves that players are allowed to make, and the associated behaviours that are considered appropriate, are prescribed by rules. For a game to function well, all players must make use of the same rules, and, if these change, players must abide by the new rules. Rules and rule changes are not necessarily of a formal nature; often they are informally circulated through social relations that players maintain; they carry with them a normative value about what can be done, and what cannot, and how one must behave. In such cases, the rules of the game appear as socially shared norms and expectations. For instance, car sellers in Cotonou are expected not to sell a car to a second buyer once they have received an advance payment from a first buyer. Violation of behavioural rules of course occurs. Cars in Cotonou sometimes get sold twice over (with or without the complicity of démarcheurs), and then buyers will usually appeal to an external referee, usually Cotonou’s metropolitan police.
For intermediaries in information games, bending behavioural rules may be seen as key to their game strategy. Intermediaries have to manage an impression as a credible information specialist to make a living – even though information retrieval is not necessarily central to their business strategy. Although intermediaries claim to sell dependable information, the Cotonou case shows how pretence and posture may be important social techniques for them.16 Making other parties believe that they command a crucial reservoir of information or a special set of business contacts is key for them to build up symbolic capital that makes it possible to occupy a special position in business. Hence, the function that intermediaries in information games fulfil may be thought of as a psychological one: comforting their clients from anxieties related to the market process. However, these are often anxieties that intermediaries themselves have helped to create. In that sense, the function of intermediaries referred to here may be different from that advocated in conventional brokerage analysis. None the less, it is one that must be acknowledged to improve our understanding of the role of intermediaries in information games.
This paper discussed démarcheurs, intermediaries in second-hand car markets in Cotonou. Démarcheurs present themselves as information/contact brokers to car buyers and sellers in what seems to be a chaotic business world. However, ethnographic observation showed that their business success depends less on the provision of dependable market information than on their projection of the role of specialised information dealer. Successful démarcheurs succeed in convincing buyers, and to a lesser extent sellers, that their privileged knowledge of the market is crucial to making a profitable deal. Hence, démarcheurs overstate their significance, and this appears to be part of playing an information game that revolves around the claim that they are indispensable. By looking at intermediaries as players in an information game, the paper aims to open up alternative understandings of information mediation in markets. Key therein is that information does not comprise self-evident facts about product and market parties. Rather, where outsiders see objectified and reified informational aspects of market exchange, the exchanging agents see categories of signification that are (re)produced in social interaction between them. This allows broadening market information to socially constructed knowledge, and the practices of intermediaries as crucial in its construction, a point that is usually overlooked in conventional brokerage analysis.
Around a quarter of a million cars in 2002 (INSAE 2002). Second-hand car trade in Cotonou boomed following dramatic changes in the regional political economy. During the Biafra war of the late 1960s, Bénin’s main port town Cotonou, strategically located close to neighbouring Nigeria, developed into a regional node for capital, people and goods (David 1998; Igué and Soulé 1992; Igué 1999). Later, Bénin liberalised international trade and gained a competitive edge over Nigerian ports: car trade benefits from Cotonou’s free port status, from lifting the age limit of imported cars and from efficient port handling.
Démarcheurs are not limited to the Cotonou car market. The African record on intermediating actors includes ticket touts in Douala (Simone 2004), deal chasers in Uganda (Sørensen 2000), market runners in Madagascar (Walsh 2004) and mobile traders in Kinshasa (de Herdt 2002). None the less, it is not the ambition of the paper to make a definite theoretical statement on intermediation. The theoretical model of the information game was discovered following principles of grounded theory: it gradually emerged from empirical data on the Cotonou market (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Applying the information game model to another market situation without a careful prior examination of its actual cultural and social working, therefore, risks imputing a logic to the social practices surrounding intermediation where there may be none, or a fundamentally different one.
Other case studies in the larger research project on which this paper draws subscribe to the general image of the Cotonou car market as a booming business (see Beuving 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2009). High expectations among new entrants into the car market and more chequered fortunes among those operating in it have remained a salient feature since the fieldwork for this case study was carried out. Enduring contacts with traders operating on the market, as well as first hand reports by visiting migrant/traders on their way to European car markets (Brussels, Utrecht), suggest that the organisational set-up of the Cotonou car market and the mixed fortunes of its participants have changed little.
These constructions were originally built during the mid-1980s as offices for clearing agents, but gradually developed into pitches for (ambulant) food stalls and gathering places for démarcheurs.
Paillotes (from the French paille, straw) are small, roofed constructions on stilts where importers generally reside during market days. Paillotes provide useful vantage points to oversee the market and are favourite meeting places.
The phrase ‘to chop’, literally meaning ‘to eat’, here refers to appropriation. In Pidgin English the verb ‘to eat’ is often metaphorically applied where individual appropriation is concerned, and can have both accusing and admiring connotations.
The term ‘two-six’ means 2,600,000 CFA and corresponded to about €4,000 in 2002/3.
Wahalla is a Hausa word meaning ‘trouble’; the phrase has been integrated in Pidgin English and is nowadays widely used outside the Hausa-speaking community.
‘Beeping’ here means ringing someone once so that the receiving person’s mobile phone displays the number of the person calling.
Asking for spare parts is related to the practice of stripping cars of visible paraphernalia before they are put up for sale.
A lump sum per car is paid to the owner of a car market for a two- to four-week period. After this period, a per diem fee is paid, calculated as from the date of the car’s arrival in Cotonou. This date is normally written on the dashboard and Israel, who had looked inside the car earlier, thus knew the amount of the parking fee that had to be paid.
Obviously, there are limits to the démarcheurs’ interventions in Cotonou. Comparison of the failed deal (el-Hadj) and the successful deal (Doctor) suggests that multi-stranded contacts originating outside Cotonou (in most cases Nigeria) promote business success from the démarcheurs’ point of view.
This is not unlike la sape, the elegance of young Congolese men whose ‘success in their trading activities is manifested in the possession of luxury clothing’ (MacGaffey and Bazenguissa 2000: 140), or swenkas, black South African men who occasionally dress up in fancy suits and jewellery, competing to be the most stylish (Schoenmakers and van Oosterhout 2008).
These points are inspired by anthropological and sociological work on games, notably Norbert Elias’Game models (Elias 1970: 71–103; Clifford Geertz’Balinese cockfight (Geertz 1993: 412–48); and Ervin Goffman’s Fun in games and role distance (Goffman 1961: 5–75). The term game may evoke an interpretation of behaviour along the lines advocated by game theory in which players are expected to rationally calculate costs and benefits to achieve optimal outcomes (theorised in von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944). However, the sociological interpretation of games adopted here is critical of the formalist assumption of rational calculation, arguing that games are mediated socially and imbued with cultural meaning.
The pretence and posture of démarcheurs appear reminiscent of street hustling: ‘the ability to manipulate others, to inveigle and deceive them, if need be by joining violence to chicanery and charm, in the pursuit of immediate pecuniary gain’ (Wacquant 1998: 3; compare also Polsky 1967: 41–116). In ethnographic accounts, street hustling is often associated with illegal business, and with the unobtrusive insertion in economic situations to make a living (Pryce 1986: 39–55; Venkatesh 2006: 166–213). This applies to the Cotonou démarcheurs only to a limited extent. Démarcheurs fulfil an informal yet licit role, and their symbolic capital consists of maintaining a high profile, standing out from buyers and sellers in a distinguishable manner to perform their role as information specialist. Hence, while their social practices include hustling, equating démarcheurs with hustlers attenuates their special position in the Cotonou market.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented to universities in Birmingham, Johannesburg, Oxford and Uppsala. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) funded the research project from which this paper draws. Fieldwork was done while the author worked at the University of Amsterdam; currently he is affiliated to the Amsterdam University College. The author thanks Jens Andersson, Jan Kees van Donge, Tessel Jonqui`ere, Edwin Rap, Geert de Vries, two anonymous reviewers and the editors of this journal for their insightful comments, and Catherine ’O Dea for language editing.
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