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A Gift for Balance: ‘Soba’ Ladies Sell Their Goods


A banana and apple soba, or owner, selling her goods on the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in West Africa. NABILA EL HADAD
A banana and apple “soba,” or “owner,” in the local language, selling produce in true entrepreneurial spirit in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. NABILA EL HADAD

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Everyday, from dawn to dusk, under intense sunshine, thousands of women travel to work through the streets of this capital of nearly three million inhabitants, managing like tightrope walkers the dusty, cratered roads, slaloming between cars and motos, the skin of their feet cracked by the daily march, the lines of their hands hollowed, their heads burdened by the weight of their goods balanced on top, cushioned by a small folded piece of traditional cloth, or “pagne.”

Heads up, backs straight: “Ne y yibeogo,” good morning, they say, or nod, as they carry many kilos atop their heads to reach the city center, a strategic spot with many “maquis” — restaurants and bars and buyers. Other women stick to their own neighborhood, or district, like Gounghin, but they are never far from the main part of town.

The day is long, starting before the sun rises, so stopping to talk or to tend to their children, who often accompany their mothers, sometimes strapped to their backs, helps to break the tedium of standing or sitting or squatting in their patch of turf amid the city’s steady pace of traffic and commerce.

A closeup of the pagne, or traditional cloth, above the head. NABILA EL HADAD
A closeup of the pagne, a folded traditional cloth, above the head. NABILA EL HADAD

“Soba,” is what the women in this city call themselves, using the Mooré word for “owner.” Mooré is the language of the Mossi ethnic group, which originated in the central plateau of Burkina Faso, a dry, landlocked country in West Africa. It is a nation bordered by six others of varying size and diversity: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

Burkina Faso, which means, roughly, “country of honorable people,” was formerly called Upper Volta by its French colonizers, whose language prevails in government and business here and in many other countries in West Africa.

Ouagadougou, a relaxed, welcoming city that caters to a large crowd of international development organizations, mining businesses and a significant presence of the United Nations, received a jolt of media attention in mid-January when Islamist jihadis struck a popular cafe and hotel across the street, killing 30 people from across the world as well as Burkinabé.

Two months later, a sense of calm and resilience has returned to the city, but people have become more guarded and neighborhood patrols have sprung up.

“Water soba,” “apple soba,” “mango soba”: this is how the female merchants on the streets define themselves, earning their daily wage. But it’s not only fresh fruit and drinks for sale; vegetables, cut and sliced or left whole, are an essential product, too, hence the “carrot soba.”

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A tomato "soba." NABILA EL HADAD
A tomato soba. Most sellers are women, who rise before dawn to reach town. NABILA EL HADAD

Most of the soba sellers are women, and they have been doing this work for much of their lives, earning an average day’s income of less than $3, and they will spend their last breath doing so, as retirement here is a luxury. Access to education beyond an average of six years is rare; health care, more so.

As in many African countries, street vendors in Burkina Faso are part of the everyday scene in cities and villages, along rural roadsides and highway checkpoints, appearing out of the blue to rush over and proffer food or drinks or other goods through car, truck or bus windows, never giving up, always bargaining.

A woman sells jewels, kept on her head balanced by a "pagne,
This soba hawks jewelry, kept on her head, the money used to help her sister buy school supplies. NABILA EL HADAD

Informal trade of food and objects of everything imaginable represents the only alternative to poverty in a country like Burkina Faso, where its main exports, cotton and gold, have dropped in value, but where a new democratically elected government, presided over by Roch Marc Kaboré, could turn this country around.

First, however, it must recover from the last few years of upheaval, including a successful people’s revolt against a corrupt authoritarian ruler; a failed, weeklong military coup; the surprise Islamist terrorist attack; and debilitating drought disrupting agriculture production. Even the Ebola outbreak in 2014 raging in neighboring nations disrupted Burkina Faso, suppressing tourism in the region.

The International Monetary Fund, in its dry prose, predicts that economic growth could recover to historical averages in Burkina Faso, given a combination of factors like low inflation and continued cost-cutting steps made by the government. Poverty reduction efforts to improve education, health and job creation for women and youths was noted by the team that visited Burkina Faso in late 2015.

Meanwhile, as these photographs in Ouagadougou attest, the soba women will keep working.

The market empties, almost the end of another day. The soba women will be back, biking or riding their moto or walking to work. NABILA EL HADAD
The end of another day. Soba women will return in the morning. NABILA EL HADAD


Nabila El Hadad is a freelance journalist and photographer who has reported for French, Swiss and other national and private radio, TV and documentary sites from the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, Ukraine and France. In Burkina Faso, where she is currently based, she reported on the coup in September 2015 and the national elections in November 2015 for Jeune Afrique as a photographer. She also worked as a photographer for Agence France Presse (AFP) during the 2015 presidential campaign in Burkina Faso and covered the 2016 jihadist attack on Ouagadougou for French public radio and TV. Her photographs of the attack were published by AFP and by Reuters. She is currently working on a photo essay about women working in a granite quarry in Ouagadougou.

El Hadad studied international trade and journalism at the Institute of Political Studies of Aix-en-Provence in France.

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A Gift for Balance: ‘Soba’ Ladies Sell Their Goods
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