When The Big Ones Abandon the Marketplace: Morals and Politics of Price in Equatorial Guinea

The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price

ISBN: 978-1-78743-574-2, eISBN: 978-1-78743-573-5

ISSN: 0190-1281

Publication date: 19 June 2019

Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out among market sellers in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo at the height of its oil-boom in 2010–2012, this paper explores how prices were negotiated and set. It describes how the marketplace constitutes an important institution in Guinean society, not only as a site for provisioning, but also as a space for fostering relationships, engaging in politics and seeking social justice. The case of Equatorial Guinea helps us to re-think the notion of the just price as it is established through contingent and negotiated relations between traders, their customers and powerful political actors, rather than being the outcome of supply and demand or the result of struggles over the production and reproduction of labour. The emphasis on the political dimension of the just price speaks to key debates in the moral economy literature.

Keywords

Citation

Valenciano-Mañé, A. (2019), "When The Big Ones Abandon the Marketplace: Morals and Politics of Price in Equatorial Guinea", The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price (Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 39), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 49-70. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0190-128120190000039003

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019 Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

In January 2011, Lucrecia 1 , a second-hand clothing seller operating out of the principal market in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital, complained to me about the precariousness of her everyday life and that of those like her. ‘Things are going really badly for us. A tomato of 100 is already costing 200! They have completely abandoned us!’ she said. Complaining about how the national electricity company 2 was leaving entire neighbourhoods in the dark, and how Malabo’s inhabitants suffered from mud in their streets during the rainy season, or even sarcastically mocking the unaccomplished slogans of the State development plan Horizonte Veinte-Veinte, were everyday topics of conversation in the marketplace. However, Lucrecia’s comment sounded somehow more embittered than the other complaints. She referred to a price increase to point out that the elite was not fulfilling its duties; it had ‘abandoned’ the market women. It is this notion and use of ‘price’ that this paper explores by reading Lucrecia’s complaint through the lens of the classic literature on the moral economy (Scott, 1976; Thompson, 1971) and on transactions in societies in transition towards market principle-led exchange (e.g. Bohannan & Dalton, 1965; Mintz, 2011 [1961]). In this context, the marketplace is understood as a meeting space for people with different social backgrounds, who establish common ground to speak and to become equals for the purpose of trade. Lucrecia’s complaint suggests a transgression of this principle, expressed through the notion of a just price.

Between January 2010 and December 2012, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among women who, like Lucrecia, traded in imported goods and used the marketplace to organize their household provisioning. At that time, Equatorial Guinea was experiencing the height of its oil-boom, which had started in the mid-1990s with the discovery of off-shore oil wells. Oil changed some aspects of the political economy of the country dramatically, following the economic collapse of the 1970s and 1980s. In a decade and a half, Equatorial Guinea changed from being one of the world’s poorest countries into Africa’s third-largest oil exporter. With a population of a little less than one million inhabitants, the GDP per capita became similar to some European countries such as Portugal and Spain (Campos-Serrano, 2013). The redistribution of the oil riches, however, was geographically highly uneven, socially inequitable and deeply gendered. Adding to the country’s already complicated geography, composed of the mainland enclave of Rio Muni – the so-called “Continental Region” – and a set of islands the biggest of which contained the capital, was the concentration of resources in the main urban centres of the country, which effectively left the rural areas outside the oil-linked economy. Access to oil rents was organized through state institutions controlled by the President’s closest collaborators. Any available salaried work was mediated through patron–client networks and most of the positions were allocated to men (Appel, 2012). Female access to employment was limited to domestic work and to positions specially created by family members or patrons. Having the right connections with influential elite members was indispensable to access any paid position generated from the oil rents (Okenve, 2009). The inflow of cash did not result in investments, inflation did not incentivize domestic production, and the country’s dependency on foreign imports became absolute (Soares de Oliveira, 2007).

Market women like Lucrecia were practically excluded from access to oil rents. As most of them were widows or unmarried, or had non-connected husbands, they only had access to limited cash through their ‘less than valuable’ social networks. Family members who did have a regular income, or lovers with access to cash, provided a very irregular source of funds – effectively rents – to these women who, in order to manage and maximise scant resources, engaged in trading activities. All my interviewees, 15 in total, came from a Fang ethnic background and had arrived in Malabo from the rural areas of the Continental Region in various migration surges over the past four decades, and had no direct family ties with members of the elite. For these women, the marketplace constituted the space through which to forge relationships, both among peers with a similar background and with higher-up members of the elite. Buying and selling imported goods allowed them to travel abroad, build-up and strengthen networks, and to consume foreign commodities that otherwise they would not have access to.

By looking at the dynamics of the main marketplace, at how prices are set and negotiated in Equatorial Guinea, I will show how the particular ‘abandonment’ that Lucrecia was accusing the elite of, was not an abandonment of the crowds to the market ruled by the vagaries of supply and demand, but the very elite’s ‘abandonment’ of the marketplace as a space for provisioning and exchange and, therefore, as a space for discussion and negotiation. I will describe how recent developments in the Equatorial Guinean economy have led the better-off to choose other provisioning paths, as an alternative to the marketplace. The market thus becomes a place for provisioning for the less well-off and the servants of the upper and middle classes. Lucrecia’s verbalization of changes in price as an ‘abandonment of the marketplace’ helps us to stress the importance of social relationships to the notion of the just price. I argue that in this case, the just price is negotiated both across relationships of mutuality that market women establish with their peers and across the relationships of patronage that they forge with members of the elite and with the state. The goal of these negotiations is to ensure the livelihood of those who do not have direct access to oil rents by including them in distribution channels and, therefore, by maintaining relationships of patronage.

The paper is organized as follows: the first section addresses the work of E. P. Thompson and J. C. Scott and the relevance of the notion of just price for the concept and approach of moral economy. The second section looks at relevant debates in the literature on money, price, and markets in West-Central Africa. The third section looks at the historical context of the ethnography to stress the continuities and changes its protagonists were experiencing. The fourth section describes the various systems of foodstuffs provisioning Guineans 3 engage with, and how they are informed by discrete price-setting systems. The fifth section addresses how prices are set and negotiated in the marketplace, to then turn to how price-setting and negotiation becomes a political tool to assess, demand, and contest unequal relationships. I conclude that a focus on the relational aspect of price rather than its components constitutes a fruitful approach to notions of justice in economic exchange.

Tomates De Cien: Prices and the Moral Economy

Returning to Lucrecia’s complaint with which I started the paper, how can a tomato of 100 cost 200? I had shopped in the marketplace before I heard Lucrecia’s complaint, so I knew that tomate de cien refers to a particular small can of concentrated tomato paste that is, indeed, sold at the price of 100 FCFA 4 . I had also seen that the prices for foodstuffs and basic produce appeared to be more or less stable, at least nominally. In Guinean marketplaces, onions, for example, are sold in bundles of either 50 FCFA or 100 FCFA independently of changes in supply and demand. What slightly fluctuates according to the availability of merchandise is the quality and the amount of onions in the bundles. At times when there is less availability of onions, the prices remain the same, while the quality of the bundle is reduced: fewer or smaller onions in worse condition. 5 The same system described for onions also applies to potatoes, tomatoes, limes, peppers, aubergines, and so forth. Non-perishable foods have a similar system: bundles of rice, salt, or little bags of cooking oil can be fuller or lighter according to availability, but their fluctuation in response to supply and demand is less common. Certainly, canned foodstuffs do not often oscillate, as the contents cannot be adapted with the same precision as the bundle system allows. The variation of supposedly fixed prices was an indication that something wrong or exceptional was happening at the time of Lucrecias’ complaint. The fact that the product that was experiencing a price increase was a non-perishable can was an indication that the system of price control for basic foodstuffs was failing the tight-budgeted ordinary Guineans.

The complaint included a specific accusation and was directed from a particular group (‘us, the market women’) to a particular group (‘them, the elite’). It seemed obvious that it was the governing elite that was accused of ‘abandoning’ ordinary people. The multiple grievances ordinary Guineans formulated on a daily basis would hardly ever include an ‘us’ and ‘them’. Guineans fear directing their protest at the ruling elite, as an accusation of being against the political establishment could be a cause for severe repression. The current regime of Teodoro Obiang-Nguema, who has been ruling the country since 1979, is infamous for its authoritarian methods in supressing political opposition (Campos-Serrano, 2013; Liniger-Goumaz, 1988; Okenve, 2009). The ethnographic material I present in this paper illustrates how conversations about price allow existing social groupings to be made explicit, and addressing the elite with a sense of entitlement and, therefore, without fear.

This sense of entitlement is only possible if it comes from the feeling that there is a common ground for conversation and a moral framework that is shared across social strata. While conversations about prices invoke a certain sense of justice and rights, they do not challenge the social order: they only appeal to a consensus. This consensus sits at the core of systems of subjection and – quoting William Roseberry – constitutes ‘a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about and acting upon social orders of domination’ (Roseberry, 1994, p. 361). An analytical approach that addresses the existence of this ‘common material and meaningful framework’ in transactions among different social groups is that of the moral economy formulated by E. P. Thompson and J. C. Scott in the 1970s and which, in the past decade, has experienced a revival in ethnographic explorations of present-day capitalism (see e.g. Narotzky & Besnier, 2014; Palomera & Vetta, 2016).

E. P. Thompson, in his classic reflections on eighteenth-century English food riots, showed how particular moral underpinnings played out in the transition to modern capitalism in the tensions between an extractive elite and a precarious crowd in Europe. Just prices were a crucial component of the ‘moral economy of the poor’, and their transgression was at the centre of complaints that triggered social conflict. In the protests that Thompson describes, the ‘fixing of the price’ of flour was central. Protesters stopped farmers on the way to the mills and either obliged them to sell their grain at lower prices set by the crowd or prevented them from storing it thereby forcing them to take it to market (Thompson, 1991, p. 229). For Thompson’s protesters, the just price was that which allowed the poor to be sufficiently fed, and provided a certain stability and control.

In work that consolidated the methods and approach of moral economy in anthropology, J. C. Scott studied the claims of South-East Asian peasants at the beginning of the twentieth century from whom the emergent colonial state tried to extract fixed rents and taxes: ‘a fixed charge which does not vary with the peasant’s capacity to pay in any given year, [...] is likely to be viewed as more exploitative than a fiscal burden which varies with his income’ (Scott, 1976, p. 7). Peasants claimed flexibility in their tax payments so that these could be adapted to their means. In this case, the just price that guaranteed the minimum for the subsistence of the peasants was flexible. In both Thompson’s and Scott’s accounts, the notion of the just price is constructed around the sense of entitlement to subsistence. What is understood as ‘a minimum for subsistence’ is obviously non-universal and constantly re-defined. The material circumstances of the producers and the consumers, the precariousness and the fluctuation of their income, their relationship with power structures, the perception of social hierarchies and classes, the reciprocity norms and expectations, and so forth, lead to particular definitions of what is just in exchange.

Recently, Palomera and Vetta (2016) have called for a return to the original formulations of the moral economy established by Thompson and Scott, to stress its political content. Understood as the set of norms and values that underpin transactions between unequals (see also Narotzky, 2015), the moral economy connects the field of political economy – concerned with power relationships, processes of accumulation, and inequalities – with the ethnographic reality of particular practices and meanings in people’s everyday lives. It contemplates the shared ground on which different social groups establish their relationships and, therefore, it speaks to class and how hegemony is reproduced and contested:

Moral economy seemed particularly well suited to illuminate broad processes of continuity and change by looking at the ways in which labouring people understand and become involved in actions in the market (their political culture, dispositions, traditions, etc.) and their changing social alliances with economic elites and the state. In other words, the original moral economists put forth the theoretical foundations for thinking about social reproduction at large, while keeping a grounded perspective – particularly in contexts where market forces and the logics of capital accumulation are becoming dominant (Palomera & Vetta, 2016, p. 418)

In the light of ethnographic material from the marketplace in Equatorial Guinea, the just price appears to be the catalyst for this ‘consensus amongst unequals’ which constitutes the moral economy. Each time a price is set and negotiated, this consensus and common ground of rules and moral dispositions is performed and reassessed. Social difference and status is realized in each transaction and therefore the verbalization of different social groupings, an ‘us, the market women’ and ‘them the elite’, becomes plausible. In the following section, I stress how important it is for price-setting to be present so as to actively enable discussion. By situating the Guinean material within debates on markets, money and price in Equatorial Africa I attempt to show how, in price negotiations, staging and performances are crucial, and they prevail over the calculation of the costs of production or distribution.

Presence and Performance: Markets, Money and Price in Equatorial Africa

As elsewhere in West and Equatorial Africa, the history of prices in Equatorial Guinea is closely linked to the Atlantic Trade and the establishment of colonial states. The market women use a term from the Fang language to refer to price, namely tang/ntang 6 , which is also the root of the term used to refer to ‘whiteman’, ntangan, literally ‘those who count’/‘those who pay’ (Bibang, 2014; Fernandez, 1984). The tang or ntang of something is the result of the negotiation that takes place in the nkuan (marketplace) among nkuan (those who transact). The fact that both the place and the people of the market have the same denomination signals that the marketplace is a meeting point for people and their relationships rather than an abstract or dis-embedded institution. The transaction, nkus, establishes a ntang and when this latter is perceived not to be adequate or abusive, a nkus is considered to be abé, which can be translated as ‘bad’ or ‘off’ but is also used for ‘evil’. Transactions are usually considered ‘a good thing’ unless there is abuse or wrongdoing from one of the partners. It is agreed in the historical literature that Fang people did not have a commercial tradition before the establishment of European traders on the coast. In fact, the pre-colonial Fang institution known as bilaba, a ritual performance in which two heads of family exchanged goods in a competitive manner, has served as one of the models to explain how exchange and circulation of imported goods took place without trade during the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century (Balandier, 1982 [1955]; Guilbot, 1951; Guyer, 2004).

In colonial Equatorial Guinea, the prices of extractive commodities and of imported goods were fixed by the Spanish Junta Reguladora de Importación y Exportación, an organ that claimed to have absolute control over prices (Perpiñá-Grau, 1945, p. 283, 403). Marketplaces were also established under colonial rule in an attempt to govern valuation habits. While exchanges could take place in improvised spaces at a very wide range of prices, the colonial state tried to control and tax exchange activities by establishing particular dates and regulated spaces dedicated to market exchange (La Guinea Española, 1925). Fixing prices was yet another tool that the colonial state used to consolidate its domination. Colonizers considered negotiating, discussing, rounding, and adapting prices to be problematic and tried to govern valuation systems and all kinds of transactions (Roitman, 2005, p. 72). Prices were justified calculating components that were mostly opaque for the African populations. These made colonial exchanges and taxation possible. The extent to which state regulation mediated all transactions is difficult to assess, but it seems clear that there used to be different systems of price-setting due to the prevalence of smuggling and bargaining; the adjustment between prices, wages, and taxes constantly failed and generated other compositions embedded in relationships beyond the state and the market (Guyer, 2009).

The Africanist literature offers a rich framework to analyse an economic rationale and praxis that shaped the colonial State’s attempts to regulate, as well as the various local forms of exchange. Bohannan (1955) introduced the concept of ‘spheres of exchange’ and documented the existence of multiple ‘special-purpose currencies’ among the Tiv in pre-colonial Nigeria. The subsequent introduction of colonial all-purpose money generated a crisis in the moral arrangements of the spheres of exchange. Following Gregory’s (1982) critique of the Maussian classification of gift and commodity exchange, Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch contested the general assumption that ‘monetization generates an atrophy of moral economy arrangements’. They argued that ‘money itself did not transform relationships’ as it ’contains and transmits qualities of those who transact it’ (Parry & Bloch, 1989, p. 8). The study of the imposition and domestication of colonial and postcolonial currencies in African marriage payments, for instance, has illustrated the limitations of classical European economic theory: the possession of general-purpose money does not directly imply ‘complete personal freedom’ from social obligations as Simmel had argued in his ‘Philosophy of Money’ (Simmel, 2004, p. 311), nor does its introduction imply that everything (commodity or not) can be purchased and valued against it, as Marx argued in Capital (1975, p. 161).

Rich ethnographic and historical work has shown how colonial supposedly all-purpose monies were incorporated into multiple-currency repertoires, and how commodities and money constantly traverse different ‘regimes of value’ (Appadurai, 1986): special-purpose currencies were produced and encouraged by European traders in the nineteenth century (Law, 1995); commodities were used as money in both ritual and secular exchanges (Heap, 2009); and cattle was used as ‘commodity money’ (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1990). As Jane Guyer has argued, ‘Atlantic Africans’ were and are well acquainted with multiple currencies, and are familiar with negotiating and ‘exchanging goods and services that are explicitly not the match of each other while still measuring on a monetary scale’ (Guyer, 2004, p. 47), while calculations are constantly made, and equivalences re-arranged to face the uncertainties of their economies with weak state regulations (Berry, 1995). Calculations, ranks, and conversions have proved eminently political as they are the result of a continuous assessment of the social and the material conditions of the transactors, and multiple-currency repertoires constitute a basic tool to face the precariousness and uncertainty often omnipresent in African livelihoods.

For the peoples of Equatorial Africa, money has a crucial function not only in day-to-day economic transactions but also in ritual life. Pricing, ranking, and haggling over money are activities that not only transcend the marketplace and dominate the public space but also penetrate the most intimate spheres of ordinary people’s lives. In marriage arrangements, for instance, the names of the relatives of the bride are exhaustively listed in a notebook. Next to each name the family discusses which items each member should receive as part of the bride price (nsoá in Fang). Not only is the item’s category listed, but each type of good is ranked according to a price. A hypothetical example would be: ‘Oyono Mba wants a mattress of 50,000, Ndong Mba wants a shirt of 20,000, Maria Mayé Ndong wants a cooking pot of 10,000…’. In this manner, kin proximity and rank are calibrated with certain categories of goods and particular prices. The price is at the centre of the wedding ritual, when a fierce discussion about the goods and money that the groom’s family offers pivots around the prices and qualities of the items. Negotiation over prices inevitably implies the assessment and the ranking not only of goods but also of people. The valuation of goods and the evaluation of people configure scales that can be linked to each other, and price constitutes a numeric expression of these scales. At the same time, the price negotiation is staged and performed, whereby the performance itself functions as a mechanism to deploy ones’ abilities and, therefore, to perform self-worth and prestige (see Guyer, 1993).

Peter Geschiere described how confrontations over money, counting banknotes, and fierce haggling constitute the climax of funeral and wedding rituals amongst the Maka of southeast Cameroon (bordering Equatorial Guinea). When a funeral participant asked a priest for a toll at the entrance of the village of the deceased, Geschiere’s assistant observed ‘they are making the market everywhere’ (Geschiere, 2000, p. 63). My point here is not so much that ‘the market is everywhere’ but rather that the market, and the marketplace in particular, is mainly about establishing, assessing, and readjusting relationships among people and that the just price constitutes an expression of a harmonized arrangement. These arrangements among people of varied social background are contingent on particular historical trajectories and they are based on continuities and experiences of change.

Oil Economy, Price Disparities and Spheres of Exchange

The production of foodstuffs for an internal market has always been very limited in Equatorial Guinea and trading has historically been peripheral to subsistence (Balandier, 1982 [1955]; Fernandez, 1984; Guyer, 2004; Vansina, 1962). The local population had only occasionally engaged with the Atlantic trade through small-scale cash-crop production. Both the nineteenth century foreign company-based economy and the Spanish colonial model established a cash-crop and timber-based extractive economy which relied on foreign migrant labour and with which the local population only marginally engaged (Martino, 2017; Sundiata, 1990). Throughout Guinean history, women have contributed to the supply of household foodstuffs through systems of self-sufficient small-scale farming. Since at least the first decades of the nineteenth century, they sold the meagre surplus from these small farms in improvised marketplaces in urban areas. Other imported and essential products (such as salted fish, oil and salt) complemented the vegetables supplied through these plots. Following independence from Spain, the cash-crop economy collapsed, which signified the total breakdown of the Guinean economy. During the 1970s and 1980s, the population fell back on self-sufficient farming and on a system of state rationing. Only since the late-1990s has the circulation of oil rents attracted people back into urban areas. This relatively new urban population has now largely abandoned self-sufficient farming. Their livelihoods depend on access to and the management of rents that derive from the extractive economy that they get through their social networks, and on access to imported goods that range from tomatoes to washing-up liquid, clothing or even furniture. On the whole, both elite and non-elite Guineans have based their engagement with capitalism not on the generation of surplus value through production or ownership of the means of production, but through rent-seeking activities. The valuation of goods, therefore, has not been the result of the calculation of costs of production and circulation, but has responded to other logics including ideas about reciprocity and redistribution.

The oil industry’s needs, like those of the old colonial extractive economy, have been completely externally sourced. These imports range from foreign labour and electricity generators, to groceries and toilet paper for oil rigs and gated compounds. Investment in the construction of general infrastructure such as electricity plants, drinking water distribution, and education, has been extremely slow, leaving the general population in precarious living conditions. More than two decades after the discovery of oil, inequalities have become dramatic. Luxury cars commute between glamorous hotels and tall glass-fronted office buildings mushroom alongside insalubrious slums and shanty towns that have grown with various waves of migrants attracted by the possibility of making a living and accessing the revenues of the oil economy. The dependency on foreign imports and the influx of oil money resulted in particularly rapid inflation during the first years of oil exploitation (Frynas, 2004; Campos-Serrano, 2013). Inflation stabilized at around 5% after 1996 and dropped to 1.6% in 2015 according to the World Bank database. 7 My experience in the 6 years (2007–2013) that I intermittently lived in Equatorial Guinea was that the prices of basic foodstuffs such as bread, cassava, beer and canned tomatoes remained relatively stable. Major inflation occurred in those sectors oriented to the newly rich elite and to the foreign companies offering services to the regime. 8

The reasons for this disparity in the pricing system are diverse and are a combination of market logics of supply and demand, state regulations and policy, and implicit rules grounded in particular ways of understanding distribution and exchange; a moral economy that is constantly under construction and negotiation. Equatorial Guinea has been part of the Franc CFA zone and the Customs union of Central Africa (CEMAC) since 1983, 9 which has slowed the devaluation of the currency and helped to avoid episodes of hyperinflation experienced in other oil producing African countries such as Angola or Nigeria. The Union guarantees the convertibility of the Franc CFA to the Euro at a fixed rate, which means that the margins for manoeuvre in the currency policy of the Central African State Bank (BEAC) is limited. The circulation of foodstuffs and basic necessities attracts low custom’s charges. Most of these goods are taxed a small amount when they cross the borders of the CEMAC and have free-circulation within it. Additionally, certain basic foodstuffs produced within the area, such as rice, corn, sorghum, beans, cassava, palm oil, cocoa and coffee, have special status and can circulate freely between the member states. Other goods, including canned and frozen foodstuffs, are taxed at higher rates and, finally, luxury goods attract the highest customs charges and are relatively more expensive.

Customs procedures and regulations, however, do not fully explain the disparity in the price system. This is especially the case because the application of tax is variable and often dependent on further informal relationships between importers and customs officers. Smuggling small quantities of goods for sale is common practice amongst those who can arrange trips abroad and can fill their suitcases with merchandise. The latter is so common that, sometimes, smuggled goods make up the majority of the merchandise in a market stall. Alongside official customs regulations there exists a set of implicit rules that protects small-scale traders and allows them to circulate their merchandise without extra costs. The avoidance of customs, however, does not necessarily have a direct impact on the final price paid for these goods by the end consumer, as the final payment is the result of the assessment of particular relationships at the very moment of the transaction (see below).

A further explanation for price disparities is the existence of different provisioning systems that function according to differentiated price logics. For basic foodstuffs, there are at least three paths through which imported goods arrive in the hands of Guinean consumers. Most of the foreign companies that employ expatriate personnel import their own groceries directly, either through their own means (filling containers from their countries of origin) or through the catering companies that have set up businesses after the oil-boom to provision expat compounds. These compounds are walled residential areas which are fully catered and provide services, such as domestic work, child care and leisure activities, that according to a worker from one of the main oil companies ‘compensates the burden of living far from their homes and in a country that cannot guarantee certain standards of living’ (Deborah in Malabo, January 2011).

A second system of provisioning involves the big importers that own supermarkets in the main urban centres and import groceries mainly from Spain. Retailing is only one of many activities for these companies, who are also into construction, logistics, transport and wholesale. This sector of the market is dominated by three companies. The prices of the goods that they sell is high, especially compared to the average household income. They cater for the newly wealthy elite, selling them luxury products such as expensive wines, imported frozen meats, gourmet goods and expensive perfumes. The same companies, however, also import basic bulk foodstuffs to supply marketplace retailers, such as rice, flour, salt and sugar of lower quality and at a lower price, but still high compared to the average Guinean income.

The third provisioning path for foodstuffs in urban Guinea is the marketplace. Marketplace retail is controlled by women who source the goods they sell in their stalls either from the commercial wholesalers (the second distribution channel) for items such as rice and stock cubes, or directly from the market in Akombang in Cameroon for fruits and vegetables. They turn bulk commodities into small affordable portions that fit the everyday budget of ordinary households. The prices of basic foodstuffs in the marketplace are not necessarily lower than those of the supermarket (where these commodities are sometimes sourced) but the portions are made to fit ordinary households’ daily budget. The marketplace is also the only space where one can find fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables, bush meat or fresh fish.

On the whole, price disparities reflect what could be seen as two main different systems of provisioning or ‘economies’ that have differentiated exchange logics: a ‘new oil economy’ and a ‘marketplace economy’. It is to these differentiated market logics that I now turn.

Provisioning and Pricing: Supermarkets and Marketplace Socias

In the provisioning of an ordinary Guinean household, the marketplace is used most of the time, while recourse is made to supermarkets for specific products only, such as drinks, tinned goods and powdered milk. The elite and expatriate newcomers, on the other hand, resource their household mainly, if not completely, in supermarkets. This difference mirrors wealth inequalities in the oil economy whereby, for example, the salaries of workers in the new economy are at least ten times those of long-standing civil servants such as school teachers (Campos-Serrano, 2013).

In the same manner that one can talk of different systems of provisioning, one can discern parallel pricing systems, or two spheres of exchange where different values, proceedings and rules apply. Provisioning in the supermarket means acquiring goods at pre-fixed prices, which are indicated on the labels of the products on the self-service shelving, in a classic commodity exchange mode. A few words, or none, are exchanged with the cashier, who is usually a foreigner (generally from India or Lebanon): the exchange takes place (cash for goods) and the transaction is finished. Two of the main companies that operate supermarkets in Equatorial Guinea date back to the colonial period and, therefore, have a long history of importing and distributing essential goods. Their customers are familiar with the quality and high prices of their merchandise and do not negotiate prices, nor ask to buy on credit.

Provisioning in the marketplace provides a very different experience from that of the supermarket. The relationship established between the market women and their customers is closer and has been built over time. Transactions do not end with the exchange of a particular good for a particular amount of cash. As already described by Bohannan and Dalton in a seminal volume on the functioning of West African marketplaces:

Market places fulfil many social and cultural needs of the population […] They provide a meeting place where at least a certain minimum of security is assured, and hence they can be used for political, religious, social and personal purposes. In a land in which collections of people on non-kinship bases or non-age-set bases may prove difficult, the market provides a facility for a very wide range of social usages. (1965, p. 23)

The main marketplace facility in Malabo is in one of the newly established neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Malabo, named after the first electric power plant built on that site after independence (SEMU, Servicio Eléctrico Municipal). The neighbourhood is occupied by a mix of wealthier and poorer people, and borders one of the poorest shanty towns in the capital. The Malabo city council constructed this large marketplace to relocate and control the increasing number of market vendors who had come to Malabo and had clustered around the old market hall and public squares in the historic centre. As already indicated, most of the sellers are Fang women who specialise in the selling of foodstuffs (bayamselam), second-hand clothes (asamsé) and prêt-a-porter first-hand clothing (elegancia), each product having a dedicated section in the market, and its own organizational institution, the relevant sellers’ association. Their customers are ordinary Malabo dwellers, servants who shop almost on a daily basis and other market sellers. It is rare to find an expatriate worker from an oil-related company shopping in the marketplace, and it is also very rare to see a member of the Guinean elite sourcing her household needs in SEMU. Wealthy households employ domestic servants who go to the market to source foodstuffs.

The range of merchandise one can find in SEMU is diverse and rigorously classified in locally established categories. These categories indicate different origins and qualities, and are, at the same time, ranked through the expression of a particular price. A good example is footwear, which from more expensive through to cheaper categories, includes closed leather shoes called mongob, good-quality training shoes called paredes, comfortable leather sandals known as kitos, sandals made from PVC plastic called bicai and the plastic flip-flops known as sansconfians (because ‘they break when you least expect it’). Although all sansconfians are unreliable and bad-quality shoes, even the category of sansconfians includes two quality ranges. Silvia, the young woman who had introduced me to the marketplace, explained to me: ‘there are sansconfians of five hundred and sansconfians of one thousand, as the plastic material of ‘the thousands’ are more durable than that of the ‘five hundreds’. As we walked along the street Silvia would categorize the shoes people were wearing according to their prices: ‘this woman is wearing sansconfians of one thousand, that man wears kitos of five thousand, this other guy has sansconfians of five hundred’. Indeed, all the commodities in the marketplace are ranked according to such seemingly fixed prices or price categories, including the following: the ‘tomato of one hundred’ discussed above; there is ‘a pineapple of five hundred’ and ‘a pineapple of a thousand’, ‘t-shirts of five thousand’ but also ‘t-shirts of ten thousand’.

In the marketplace the price category serves as a mode of classification, but in contrast to supermarket price labels the final amount of money and merchandise involved in the transaction is only agreed between parties at the time of purchase. During fieldwork, I observed that every day when Lucrecia left the second-hand clothing section of the marketplace to visit one of her usual foodstuff sellers in the corresponding part of the market, she took roughly the same amount of cash. The dinero de comida (money for food) was usually around 2000 FCFA, which sufficed to fill her cooking pot with enough food to feed her family. However, when she did not sell enough merchandise she might only take 1500 FCFA. Conversely, if her second-hand clothing sales went well she would increase her ‘money for food’ by a few hundred FCFA. Her foodstuff provider was aware of this situation and made sure Lucrecia could fill the pot every day by adjusting the relation between price and the amount sold. In exchange, she obtained Lucrecia’s loyalty and she made sure that every day she would sell a particular amount of goods.

At the same time, Lucrecia was aware of the hardships of food trading and she knew that she would not always get the same amount and quality of goods at the exact same price. Marta, Lucrecias’ usual vegetable seller, took the boat to the continental region of Equatorial Guinea roughly every week to visit a wholesale grocery market. The long trip to Cameroon to buy wholesale produce was expensive and physically exhausting. The margins of revenue that she was able to make through the selling of fruit and vegetables were very slim and, therefore, whenever she faced an unexpected event, for example when one of her children fell ill, she felt sick herself, or she simply had not been able to collect enough cash to take the boat, she ran out of goods to sell. The tomatoes, onions or potatoes that she brought from Cameroon were stored in one of the storage spaces provided in the marketplace, kept in cane baskets until they were sold. The lack of refrigeration did not allow for the keeping of her merchandise for longer than a week. Marta’s products worsened in quality every day from the moment she bought them in Cameroon.

When Marta arrived from Cameroon with the fresh merchandise, she organized them in bundles of different sizes and prices which would vary through the week, according to the deterioration of the foodstuffs. When Lucrecia bought her food for the day at the beginning of Marta’s trading week, she usually received an extra amount of some products. Similarly, if Lucrecia had had bad sales, Marta topped up the quantities so that Lucrecia could ‘fill the pot’. Also, when Marta had been unable to travel to Cameroon and went through a period with poor quality merchandise, Lucrecia kept spending her ‘money for food’ at her stall. The one purchase compensated the other and the price paid in each transaction depended on the assessment of the particular circumstances of each of the parties. This agreement was usually silent and implicit, rather than vocal. If everything went well, very few words were exchanged between Marta and Lucrecia during the transaction. Being silent or ‘not speaking too much’ was considered a positive attitude among the market women. Having to speak (tener que hablar) was perceived as an indication of disagreement and disagreement itself an indication of the wrongdoing of one or both of the parties.

These wordless agreements only worked because of the existence of a combination of long-standing market relationships that had produced nuanced knowledge about the social background of the parties and the conditions of the sourcing of the goods sold. The existence of a complex constellation of signs such as the state of the merchandise, the physical appearance of the parties involved or the body language during the transaction, provided references taken into account in price calculations. The starting point for reaching an agreement on the price of a good or a bundle of goods were shared rules and goals.

Market women and their customers called each other socias (literally, business partners). The term socia is used among all transactors in the marketplace: retailers, customers, wholesalers, clients, service providers and so on. Socia relationships imply long-term acquaintance and dedication, the establishment of ties through a range of favours and concessions and the existence of a ‘shared ground’ which invokes a certain equality for the purpose of the exchange. The just price agreed within socia transactions is that which suits the interests of both parties. This interest is mainly about making sure that both buyers and sellers can provide their households with the goods needed for reproduction and that the parties can continue their trading activity. These long-term relationships offer certain security in a context of uncertainty, where logistics are complicated, the competition is high and there are on-going fluctuations in the supply of commodities. The socia relationships offer the possibility to establish certain prices and assure quality control in a context where there is no other mechanism to perform this function. Similar systems have been described in other market contexts where there is a need to emphasize the reciprocal nature of relationships between buyers and sellers in the face of systems in which distribution has a markedly irregular character. Sidney Mintz, in his description of Haitian market practice, stresses how reciprocal relationships stabilized sequences in transactions and allowed for greater order in the distributive system as a whole, and provided economic value to the practice of buying and selling (Mintz, 2011 [1961]).

Even though the transactions are performed on the shared ground between socias, the actual price-setting requires an assessment of inequalities. Marta and Lucrecia were both market women and they both faced uncertainties and risks in market practices, which they seek to mitigate by establishing their socia network and sacrificing immediate gains in the interests of long-term benefits and security. Lucrecia’s business was less physically demanding than Marta’s, but it was just as risky and uncertain. Lucrecia purchased her second-hand clothing bales from a Nigerian Igbo trader who owned a warehouse in Malabo and imported second-hand items from Britain. Lucrecia thus did not have to travel far to get her goods, which were also not perishable. The money needed to start selling second-hand clothing was similar to the amount needed to travel to Cameroon, but the price of an item of clothing was higher than the price of a bundle of fruits and vegetables. The second-hand clothing bale, however, had a major pitfall, comparable to the risk of having rotting tomatoes at the bottom of the basket: the contents of the bale of clothing were unknown at the time of purchase, and the quality was variable. While the first days after opening a second-hand clothing bale generated good sales, earnings on following days diminished. The opening of a bale of second-hand clothes generated expectation among the socias who would compete to get at the clothes and pick the best items at a good price. The clothes that remained after a few days were not as attractive and were much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to sell.

Not all the socias who transacted goods in the marketplace had similar life circumstances and livelihood strategies as Lucrecia and Marta. As mentioned above, the marketplace, which before the oil-boom was the only space for provision, remains a meeting space across social strata. Teachers, nurses, low-ranked civil servants and policemen also resort to the marketplace to provision their households. However, income inequalities, supermarkets and luxury lifestyles derived from the oil economy have moved the elite away from SEMU, even if they still consume some of the goods, especially fresh foodstuffs that are not easy to find elsewhere. Nowadays, the marketplace is attended by ordinary Guineans who have little or no access to oil rents, and by domestic workers of wealthy families, such as Patricia – the domestic worker of a renowned lawyer in the capital – to whom I will now turn. The absence of the better-off in the marketplace complicates the transactions, especially when it is a domestic servant who purchases a wealthy household’s daily foodstuffs.

Patricia cleaned her employer’s house, ironed his shirts and cooked for him every day, except Sundays. She received a wage that did not exceed 175 FCFA per month, which was already more than some domestic servants received in urban Guinea. A visit to the marketplace to purchase daily groceries was part of her work routine. She had various socias in SEMU, who knew who Patricia was, and whom she worked for. The average amount of cash that Patricia brought with her everyday was higher than that of a humble family, but she purchased less as the family unit was smaller. Instead, she bought expensive ingredients such as fresh meat and fish. The price that Patricia paid for food she purchased for work was slightly higher than for her own household. Usually she purchased both her own food and the food for the lawyer at the same market stalls. The price, however, could not exceed the limit Patricia stated: ‘I cannot pay 200 for a tomato of 100. Otherwise my boss will think that I steal his money’. The aforementioned price category was used as a frame, especially in transactions where the actual buyer was absent. The assessment of the circumstances and the background of the buyer could not be complete when the person buying in the marketplace was a domestic worker, and sometimes this transaction required arguing and talking around the price. Sellers would reserve premium merchandise for the servants and also demanded a premium price. The domestic worker socias would agree to pay a certain amount extra for premium merchandise but would limit their expenses to what they considered reasonable.

Even though there was some consensus on the quality of the goods within a price category, there was always a subjective component when deciding, for instance, if a freshly caught sea bream was ‘of 1000’ or ‘1500’. When shopping in the marketplace, the domestic worker socias had to think if they would be able to convince their employers that the fish they had purchased belonged to the category of the price they had paid. The loyalty of these socias was constantly questioned but also rewarded by their employers if they felt satisfied with their services, and also by the other socias if they received good prices for their premium merchandise. Like the other socias, the domestic workers took part in all sorts of exchanges and thus operated through a wide range of social bonds and ties. Market women exchanged goods and cash amongst each other; they took part in rotating savings and credit associations which they could share with their non-trader socias; they ran small sickness and accident funds; they arranged Church services for the deceased and for the blessing of the marketplace; they organized care for their children; they distributed the tasks required for the purchase, transport and storage of merchandise; they shared costs of shipping if needed, and so on.

Participation in all these activities was part of the role of being a socia. The amount of cash involved in a rotating credit association, the contribution to a sickness fund or to the organization of Church Services reproduced differences in rank and background among the socias, who would gain or lose respectability through their participation in these activities. Engagement in various communal associations improved the mutual acquaintance between buyers and sellers, which made the assessment of each other’s reliability and capability a relatively easy task. Prices were agreed within the parameters built upon these relationships and when these relationships were missing, such as the case of Patricia’s employer, the negotiation became more challenging.

Big Socias and Adut Elang: Between Negotiation and Action

Market women in SEMU were supposed to pay rent and taxes in order to perform their activities in the space of the market. In exchange for rent they could occupy a stall and have access to a section of one of the warehouses that surround the marketplace to keep their merchandise. They also had to pay tax to the city hall, collected in cash in the marketplace by agents who circulated every day. Market women perceived taxes and rents as prices that needed to be agreed in order to be just for each party. They also considered the tax collectors and city-hall agents as their socias and they felt entitled to decide when and how they should pay, and which quantities were just or unjust. Discordant visions of this sense of entitlement to negotiate could generate conflict, requiring arbitration through the higher echelons of the State. Arbitration of disagreements between market vendors and Malabo Town Hall rent and tax collectors were often carried out by the First Lady, Constancia Mangue, the wife of the president Teodoro Obiang-Nguema. Constancia, often referred to as Nana Mangue or Mamá Constancia, mediated most of the disputes and often claimed to be impartial and just to everybody. As I describe below, the First Lady was the most powerful socia in the marketplace.

Every day, agents from the Town Hall walked through SEMU market to collect the taxes. Every woman was asked to pay between 200 and 500 FCFA, on top of the rent she already had to pay for the stall. In practice, every day a negotiation took place. Market women did not completely resist paying taxes but they only paid them when they considered they could, namely when their sales had been successful enough to guarantee their livelihood. The same types of conversations and rhetoric were repeated daily as the tax officer went around the stalls asking for payment. When a market woman saw the tax officer coming, her face would take on a serious expression and, without making eye contact with the tax collector, she would say: ‘My sister, don’t you see I’m suffering here? I have not sold anything today, not even a 500. I have to give food to my children’. In some cases the officer eventually left empty-handed with an angry expression. At other times, the officer insisted on payment, arguing that the seller had not paid for days. Then the seller took a couple of coins from under a cloth that covered the stall and gave them to the officer. Afterwards, the tax officer would issue a receipt and leave. The discussion could lead to heated arguments in which other market women intervened. When this happened, the officer always lost the argument and had to leave the marketplace, only to eventually return with a higher authority, this being the direct representative of the Mayor. Through this mechanism, market women communicated directly with state institutions and the elite. They did so on the basis of a common ground and shared an interest in preserving a certain justice among the parties in the conversation, which, as socias, entitled them to discuss and argue about prices.

Taxes and prices were thus used as political devices where little other space existed for political action. This is most clearly revealed when observing the structure and history of the SEMU marketplace itself. In 2004, Malabo City Hall decided to relocate the marketplace, until then located in the historic city centre, to the outskirts. The main reason for re-location was for the Town Hall to be able to manage and tax the increasing number of traders who had come to the city after the end of the Macias dictatorship. This strategy of re-location in order to tax and control has been observed and analysed for other African urban contexts, and ethnographic work has provided insights into the implications of these moves and traders’ strategies for resistance (Clark, 1994; Lindell & Ihalainen, 2014; Tranberg-Hansen, 2000).

In the case of Malabo, the move included the construction of a building, which was supposed to improve hygiene by providing running water and electricity for refrigeration. According to my interlocutors, it was clear from the start that the new building would be too small for the number of traders to be evicted from the city centre markets, as the association of clothing sellers alone already had 2,500 affiliates by 2004. Lucrecia said that the ‘conflict was ineluctable’. The distribution of the stalls was a difficult endeavour effected through intermediaries; powerful women, including the Mayor of Malabo and civil servants, acquired licences for the majority of the new market stalls expecting to rent them out to better-positioned market sellers. The market traders considered the distribution of the stalls in the new market to be unfair and the rents demanded to be extortionate. They decided collectively – and with the consent of the market-sellers association – to occupy the surroundings of the new market, build their own stalls and pay a ntang (price) for them. This section of the marketplace is known as Adut Elang, which means ‘taken by force’ in Fang (see also Melibea, Unpublished). The new marketplace building remained empty for almost 4 years until a consensus was reached in 2013 and a few women occupied the stalls. Adut Elang, however, did not disappear and it continued to host the majority of the sellers in SEMU market. When I spent time in SEMU, my interlocutors often narrated the story of the land occupation when talking about market women’s organizational strategies. As Maite, a first-hand clothing seller in SEMU explained in 2012:

we [market women] know that we need to contribute. Every market woman wants to pay her rent and make her contributions. We all clean the marketplace, we repair our stalls. We are always ready when the First Lady asks us to collaborate. Whatever she asks, we do […]. But they [the big ones, the tax collectors] know how to abuse. We don’t want to be abused and this is why we did Adut Elang.

In an attempt to control the organizational capacity of market women, the government, through the President’s wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang, created an association named after her: Naná Mangue (Mother Mangue). This association, founded in the late 1980s, extended micro-credit to sellers in the marketplace through subsidiary associations. The beneficiaries of the credit were supposed to repay the association, so that other market women could benefit. In reality, market women hardly ever repaid the full amount and the association quickly ran out of cash. No further loans could be given until the First Lady decided to make more credit available. What is interesting here is that not returning the full loan to Nana Mangue was not considered fraudulent. There was a general consensus that a woman who did not repay the full amount was exempt from blame if she could justify it by her circumstances. In the last instance, the person giving the credit was mother Constancia, the most powerful and wealthy woman in the country. The same allusion that Constancia made to kinship relationships in order to confirm her authority over the market women was used by the market women when their livelihoods were under threat to demand justice and attention from the State, or from the First Lady.

Back in 2011, when Lucrecia complained about the rise of the price of a can of tomato paste, market women had been going through a difficult period in which the borders had been closed for a few weeks and the cargo boats had been retained in the port due to a change in both coastal regulations and taxes. This had generated a prolonged period of scarcity that had been harder to handle than usual. At the same time, it had been 2 years since Nana Mangue had injected credit into the market trading associations. Alongside this, a rumour spread that Nana Mangue was about to open a supermarket of her own chain on one of the main roads in Malabo, and that she was in conversations with a well-known multinational fashion company about opening a shop in the capital. These rumours were not baseless as 2 years later, in 2014, the First Lady opened a franchise of the prêt-a-porter clothing firm, and her own chain of supermarkets already had branches spread across the country.

Los Grandes (literally, the big ones), as market women and ordinary Guineans refer to the elite, were abandoning the marketplace, both as their space for provisioning and as a space for conversation and negotiation. The existence of abusive and unjust prices for commodities was not perceived as a consequence of the logics of supply and demand, but as a consequence of abandonment, which left a helpless feeling of being completely excluded from the socio-political project of the elite.

Conclusion

I have argued that the just price constitutes a key device through which moral economies are put into practice, as the result of the assessment of particular relationships. The process of price-setting evaluates the quality of the goods or services that are being exchanged, and it also reflects an on-going relationship between people, which continues beyond the conclusion of a single transaction. Price negotiations are a fruitful site of ethnographic enquiry and they have proved useful for understanding status, prestige and power relationships, as well as to explore entitlements and possibilities for contestation. But what is assessed in the just price negotiation? The ethnographic material from Equatorial Guinea reveals that it is not labour value, as was suggested by Thomas Aquinas and his heirs (see Introduction, this volume). It is also not simply the ‘right to subsistence’, as E. P. Thompson and J. C. Scott suggested, looking at consumers and peasant producers, respectively. Negotiating the just price reflects upon contingency, precedence and a politics of distribution. It reflects - as well as solidifies - classes and ranks of things and people, and it establishes a common ground for discussion among peers and unequals.

E. P. Thompson pointed towards a ‘legitimizing notion’ present in the justification of the crowd’s claims during eighteenth-century riots in England: ‘men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights of customs and, in general that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community’ (Thompson, 1971, p. 78). This sense of ‘consensus’ is at the basis of the moral economy notion that Thompson formulated, and this social consensus is what the just price represents. However, while Thompson, Scott and many others have focused on how protest against exploitative states and private capitalists reveal the existence of a moral economy, as seen in just price negotiations in Equatorial Guinea, the moral economy constitutes a system of values and expectations that contribute to the perpetuation of inequalities. Price negotiations among socias depart from a sense of equality but are ultimately about assessing and negotiating inequalities.

There is yet another way in which price-setting and negotiations taking place in Equatorial Guinea offer an interesting addition to that described by Thompson, Scott, and others. Where most literature on moral economy reflects on tensions between either producers and consumers, or between peasant producers and an extractive state, in Equatorial Guinea the debates take place between consumers and distributors (who are in many instances the same people), and between these groups and the State. In other words, between an extractive privileged elite and a mass of ordinary Guineans who have to mobilize a great deal of resources of all sorts to be able to consume: their scarce income, their social networks, their labour power and efforts, their consumption knowledge and their travelling capacity. This reveals the nature of a State where everything is imported, and where (apart from oil, which is extracted off-shore by international business) practically nothing is produced locally (Campos-Serrano, 2013; Soares de Oliveira, 2007; Sundiata, 1990). The just price appears not as the guarantee of subsistence, nor as the fair valuation of labour, but as a mechanism for participation and inclusion in a common project. A project that has at its centre ideas about reciprocity and distribution across social groups. A common project that Lucrecia and her colleagues feel entitled to be part of, but that the absence of their most powerful socias in the marketplace makes an impossible endeavour.

Notes

1

To respect their privacy, I use pseudonyms for all my interlocutors.

2

The national electricity company responds to the acronym of SEGESA – Sociedad Eléctrica de Guinea Ecuatorial, S.A. In spite of the influx of oil rents since the mid-1990s, and the various investments that the state has made to improve the electricity supply, improvements have not really taken place. After two decades of oil extraction, there are still regular power blackouts in the main cities of the country.

3

Even though the demonym ‘Guinean’ is commonly used to refer to Guinea(-Conakry) citizens and its use here can create some confusion, I have decided to use the term ‘Guinean’ to refer to the people from Equatorial Guinea in order to be closer to the local usage, where the term ‘guineanos/as’ is used to refer to Equatorial Guinea’s nationals. On several occasions, I have been told that the term Equatoguineans ‘ecuatoguineanos’ can be perceived as offending because of the closeness to the French term ‘équato-guinéen’ which during Macias-Nguema’s dictatorship (1968–1979) was shortened into ‘ecuató’. Ecuató is regarded as a derogatory term that was used to refer to Guinean refugees in Gabon. The memory of the dearth and mistreatment that Guinean migrants experienced in Gabon during the two decades following independence is still vivid among middle aged Guineans.

4

1 Euro = 656 FCFA. These are the prices at the time of the fieldwork (2010–2012) . However, they still remain at the time of writing the paper (May 2018).

5

This has also been described in other marketplace contexts for instance by Clark (1994) and by Roitman (2005).

6

According to the most recent revision of Julian Bibang’s dictionary ntang and tang, in spite of their common root have slight different meanings: while tang refers to quantity, a particular amount that has to do with the value of an object, ntang would refer to the actual payment set after the negotiation (Bibang, 2018).

7

World Bank Database: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/FP.CPI.TOTL.ZG?locations=GQ, accessed on 31 August 2017.

8

Hotel rooms, night clubs, spa services and private car rentals have extremely high prices. Some of these services did not even exist in the early 2000s and it is only later that luxury hotels, and also medium range branches opened in the main cities of the country. To illustrate this, a meal in a well-established and reputed old restaurant in Bata frequented by locals costs around 5,000 FCFA while an hotel room in a medium range hotel (i.e. three-star Ibis branch) costs a minimum of 90,000 FCFA. The standard monthly salary of a local low-ranked civil servant such as a nurse or a teacher does not exceed 200,000 FCFA.

9

The Communauté Économique and Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale (CEMAC) includes Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Chad and Gabon. It constitutes a free trade zone together with a common currency area established under the supervision of the French. Surrounded by former French colonies, Equatorial Guinea has been part of the French zone of influence since the collapse of the Macias Nguema Regime in 1979.

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Acknowledgements

The ethnographic research for this paper was conducted for my PhD thesis, entitled The Clothes of Extraversion: Circulation, Consumption and Power in Equatorial Guinea (2017). I would like to express my gratitude to all the women who helped during my fieldwork in SEMU marketplace. I would also like to thank the panelists of the EASA 2016’s panel on the just price, the editors of the present volume and the anonymous reviewers, for their insightful and extremely useful comments. I also thank Dmitri van den Bersselaar and Enrique Martino for their comments and edits of the text.