The Broader Picture: Africa's overhead market place

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IN AFRICA, as soon as children can walk, they start to balance things on their heads, joining the end of the procession to the well with a little tin, imitating their mothers, who carry five-gallon drums of water. It always looks like a miracle: backs straight, eyes ahead, arms quivering slightly, the women rise vertically, lowering their burdens gently on to their heads. Sometimes a little wad of cloth, rolled grass or banana leaves is used to form a cushion.

Anything can be carried this way. Unless it is something awkward like a log, the carrier does not need to use a hand. Then off he or she goes with the easy gait that comes from always supporting something on your head. These people have the poise of monarchs. I've never seen anything fall from the head of an African.

Over a few days in one town in Sierra Leone I saw all these carried on various heads: socks, quinine leaves, firewood, peanuts, a table, cans of water, oranges, cakes, crates of beer, a chicken in a basket, bags of sweets, a hoe (balanced perfectly a quarter way down its haft), a bed and a sewing machine.

In the towns, street sellers operate like mobile shops, delicately balancing great baskets of cigarettes, toothpaste, mats, chewing-gum, biscuits, laces, batteries, all jumbled up together. They sail through the crowds with consummate skill, shouting their wares, watchful of thieves but also ready to barter and argue over a few coins. They can shout and wave their hands, even shrug off a meagre offer without tilting their heads a fraction.

In Uganda women perform a sexy dance, waggling their backsides with a rapid, smooth flicking movement without moving the rest of their bodies. The best dancers perform to rhythmic applause with a glass of beer perched on their heads.

Both men and women in most African societies have this extraordinary talent for transportation, but it is the women who do most of the carrying. Men carry particular things on special occasions - a bed when moving house, a sewing machine when it needs to be repaired - or if they are doing paid work. But the carrying of food, water and firewood is always done by women. It is a typical image of Africa: a woman walking barefoot with a bundle of goods on her head, a baby on her back and a long way to go.

(Photographs omitted)