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Traditional Measurements In The Nigerian Open-Air Markets

Rice in Mudu | Image: Village Square

One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions – Grace M. Hopper

Measuring is as old as man. People always have measured things; distance, length, weight. Measuring has become so easy that we don’t even think of the act. This simple act has gone through an evolution. Finding a standard measurement was difficult for our ancestors in the very beginning.

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One of the earliest methods of measuring is the use of the human body. Africans measured things differently with body parts and sometimes with objects or farm tools. In Igbo, the length of the middle part of an average person’s index finger is called Ntaji and is equivalent to twenty millimetres in western measurement standard. The Yorubas measure litres of water in garawas, and oil in Ìgò which means bottle.

Tomatoes and pepper in paint containers

The most everyday places you can notice how measurement works are the marketplaces around Nigeria and Africa at large. A little observatory walks around famous open-air market around Nigeria such as the Balogun Market, New Benin Market, Oja Oba in Ilorin, Ibadan’s Bodija Market and Enugu’s Ogbete Market or even the Yankaba market in Kano shows grains and spices have a particular unit of measurement.

Before colonialism, our forefathers have several ways of measuring their farm produce and quantifying them for sale. Most of these practices are still quite in use today, and most have come to stay. Let’s explore a few.

Mudus, Kongos and Rubbers
Mostly in Northern Nigeria, the mudu [pronounced:moo doo] is the unit of measurement. Although all the mudu are not of the same size; they are typically identical in design, mostly cone-shaped. The one found in Kaduna, Taraba, Kastina and Abuja are similar dimensions, and the ones in Kano are twice bigger. Therefore people of Kano refer to that found in Kaduna as half mudu or tiya. A mudu can be filled with about 0.17 kg of grains for the smaller one you see in the capital city Abuja and 0.32 kilograms of the bigger mudu common in Kano.

Eggplant in paint containers | Image: Kitchen Butterfly

The smallest unit of measurement is the tin, mostly tins of evaporated milk brands. Often referred to as goni goni named after a famous tin manufacturing company. A smaller container is the empty 170g milk tin or 410g for the bigger. About eight of the big milk tins would fill the typical Kano mudu and about nine of the smaller would fill up the Kaduna/Abuja mudu. As you move towards Southwest Nigeria, Kongo is the prevalent unit of measurement. For example, in Balogun market, most sellers fill sacks using kongos and buyers are typically asking for the price of a kongo of rice or beans. Oyo, Ogun, Osun have the same size while Lagos, Kwara and Ekiti are slightly bigger. A kongo takes around 1.5-1.7 kg of grains for local measures, which is about five times of a big mudu. The smaller unit is called the derica, which is named after the tin tomato brand ; a derica is half of a kongo.

In South-Eastern Nigeria, crayfish and most grains are sold in plastic paint containers which they often referred to as painter. These are empty plastic containers used to store paint or popular custard brands. These four-litre containers can hold grains or food items of about 2.75 kg. In Enugu’s Ogbete market, egusi, ogbono seeds or bambara nuts are sold in smaller tins; milk tins, tomato tins, margarine tins, similar to what you find in Northern Nigeria.

The equivalent of a painter in Benin city, South-south Nigeria, is “the rubber.” In Marian market Calabar, “Cups” are standard for selling gari, rice, beans, melon and other seeds.

Tomatoes in baskets | Image: Kitchen Butterfly

Baskets or Plates
Onions, sweet potatoes or Irish potatoes and tomatoes are mostly sold by volume in baskets, plates or bowls in most Nigerian markets. Arranged in heaps or mounds, the tomatoes, onions or pepper balance on each other in a pyramid shape to fill this medium size plastic basket commonly used as domestic bins, and on a larger scale, big hand-woven baskets are used in wholesale and retail market sales. A big basket of tomatoes weigh between 40-60kg with the tomatoes mostly sold by volumes, and those that can’t afford to get in bulk go for the smaller plates or bowls, which are usually plastic dinner plates.

These systems of measurements are far from perfect as they are measured in volume which depends on the size and density of the products and also how the seller fills them, instead of their weight.

Crayfish in paint containers | Image: Kitchen Butterfly

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