Food, Peace and Organizing: Liberian Market Women in Peacetime



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This dissertation explores Liberian market women's food distribution activities and specifically focuses on their organizations and practices in postconflict times. During the last few years, Liberian market women have received considerable national and international attention. They have been hailed as heroines because of the significance they played in supplying food to Liberians during the civil war. However, little is known of their micro-world. This paradox constitutes the starting point of my dissertation, which explored market women's micro-level understandings and practices as related to peacebuilding. I used African feminist ethnography as a theoretical and methodological lens to investigate market women's organizations and practices surrounding food distribution in the capital city of Monrovia. African feminist ethnography incorporates insights from African feminist theory and feminist ethnography. It gives attention to issues of importance in West Africa like food and violent conflict. It also rejects the framing of African women as victims of war and recognizes their full agency. I conducted 40 in-depth semi-structured interviews with market women as well as observations in Fiamah, a daily food market located in central Monrovia.

I examined market women's grassroots organizations called susu groups. Susu groups are informal credit unions that provide money to market women, necessary to purchase food items and maintain the market business. Findings illuminated the significance of wartime memories on postconflict susu group organizing practices. In this sense, memories of disruption and distrust engendered susu groups that were different from their prewar counterparts. Results also pointed at the invisible nature of susu groups, which had to balance their tendency towards secrecy with the pressure to become visible in a postconflict context where questions of organizational transparency dominated.

I also investigated how market women made sense of their food distribution position in the peacebuilding era. Findings revealed that the women framed their role as one of community keeping. They emphasized the physical nature of food distribution which also necessitated maneuvering. Ultimately, food distribution gave them a sense of empowerment in postconflict times. These understandings reified class distinctions between market women and Liberian elites.