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May 30, 2017

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Khartoum's walking department store is hardly a dream job

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The Sudanese man with an armful of battery-powered wall clocks pushes one through the taxi's open window. His head follows.

"For you, a good price," he tells the passenger. "How many dollars?" he asks expectantly, hoping for an offer.

On the other side of the car, the taxi driver negotiates with a vendor selling cheap flashlights.

The Merchants of McNimir Street are always at your service — a walking department store serving a captive market of motorists stuck in gridlock on one of central Khartoum's busiest roads.

Without leaving their cars, drivers can buy the latest newspapers, glasses to read them with, and tissues to wipe the ink from their hands afterwards.

The vendors' amusing and seasonally changing range of goods includes electric haircutters, weighing scales, and a complete set of fishing gear which, one eager seller assures, is perfect for use in the Nile River just straight ahead at the end of McNimir.

A broad selection of kitchenware ranges from pink plastic baskets to silver mixing bowls, from drinking glasses to vegetable chopping devices.

Toy aeroplanes are held aloft, hoping to catch the eyes of children or their parents.

Street vending, widespread in Africa, reflects a troubled Sudanese economy that saw youth unemployment reach around 34 percent in 2011, according to government estimates cited in a March report by the U.N. Development Programme.

"Almost half the population of Sudan live in poverty," UNDP said, adding that since South Sudan separated three years ago with most of the north's oil production, Sudan has become poorer.

The Khartoum street vendors, some of them teenagers, say that dodging cars and law enforcement officers in temperatures near 40 degrees Celsius is not the life they dreamed of.

"I have no choice," says Magdi Mohammed, 23.

"My high school marks weren't good enough for university and I couldn't find a job."

Mohammed, the son of a farmer, hails from Gezira state, south of Khartoum, where years of under-investment and other factors have led to decay of the agricultural infrastructure, according to analysts.

Good Days, Bad Days

Now Mohammed plies the four lanes of McNimir Street, hawking green plastic vegetable slicers.

On a bad day, he earns nothing.

A good one can bring him up to 100 pounds (about US$10.75 at the widely used black market rate), and he says business has picked up during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on June 29.

"I think that's because people aren't able to go to the market while they are fasting," Mohammed says.

"Our prices are also lower than the market," he adds, an incentive for buyers struggling with inflation that rose to 45 percent in June.

Lower prices may be the rule but street vendors try to squeeze as much as they can from unwary customers. The cheap-looking black plastic flashlight eventually sold for 10 pounds, down from 25 which the seller initially asked from the taxi driver.

"Their prices are better than at another market," agrees Hassan Mubarak, who is stuck in traffic and confesses to having occasionally bought from the young men walking between the rows of cars.

"Sometimes it's just a small thing so there's no need to go to a shop," he says.

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