Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I had heard a lot about Merkato, the biggest open-air market in Addis Ababa and Africa. Many stories circulate about it; it is known for being a stronghold for pickpockets, thieves and swindlers, who target in particular Western visitors. Our driver Salomon warned me about it: we go to have a look but we don’t buy because I’ll be charged the “foreigner’s” price. If there is something I’m interested in buying, he will go back himself to buy it for me, as this is the only way to pay a fair price. After a couple of weeks, I start having a sense of the local currency’s worth, and don’t need to mentally convert every single price into euros. Converting currencies doesn’t really give a true sense of the local cost of living. By converting we transpose local prices into a different system of prices, so here in Ethiopia, everything seems cheaper when compared to the euro price. But, that’s an outsider’s view. Once we start thinking in local Birrs, we begin to understand what is cheap and what is not, and how people manage in their daily life.
Merkato is the place where residents of Addis shop for household items and clothes. Everything can be found there from electrical appliances, carpets, barb wires, paint to blankets, sheets, curtain fabric and ready-made clothes. I was told that about 300,000 people visit the market every single day. So it is a very busy place. The name Merkato actually derives from the Italian word mercato, which was slightly anglicized by changing the c into a k (like in market). Strangely a number of Italian words are used in Amharic, an inheritance from the Italian Fascist rule, which lasted only five years from 1935 to 1940. Because of that, I am able to pick up the meaning of some basic conversations. If people talk about cars, they use the Italian word macchina, bed sheets are lenzuole and a flag is a bandiera. So in Merkato, I was able to point out at the traditional cotton fabric I wanted to see – the one with the Ethiopian colours red, yellow and green as a stripy pattern – by just saying the word bandiera. From Rome to Addis, we’re not that far away after all! Salomon laughed in surprise (or shock), when I told him that my Italian grandmother had a dog named Menelik in the 1930s. Menelik II is so revered in Ethiopia, that it is very strange, almost irrespectful, to call a dog after him. He was the emperor who famously beat the Italians in the decisive battle of Adwa in North-East Ethiopia during the first Italo-Ethiopian war in 1896. He was also the one who transformed Ethiopia into a modern country and moved the capital from Gondar to Addis Ababa (new flower in Amharic) in the highlands, because of its central location and pleasant and fertile climate.
Merkato is somehow the heart beat of the city, where all the old crafts are at work. Cheap mattresses are being made almost on the street with bits of fabric and foam (the luxury version comes out of a factory). Seamstresses and tailors have their workshop (consisting of a table and sewing machine) on the pavement, ready to alter trousers or repair garments. Curtains are made on order. Binders are put together from recycled cardboard. Old plugs and sockets are turned into new ones. Electricians are able to fix anything that is broken. The zip of old bags can be replaced in minutes. Nothing is thrown away, everything is re-used and reusable. Merkato is also the place where reality hits. While I was walking on the main street, looking around at the various shops, I suddenly had to step aside to avoid “something” lying on the ground. In a glimpse, I realized that it was a trunk of a man with no limbs at all. He was lying there on a piece of cloth, right on the side of the road. What I found so shocking was the almost ecstatic expression on his face while he was rolling what was left of his body on the ground. A soul into half a body; a powerless body, yet still a human being. Humanity truncated.
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“By converting we transpose local prices into a different system of prices, so here in Ethiopia, everything seems cheaper when compared to the euro price. But, that’s an outsider’s view. Once we start thinking in local Birrs, we begin to understand what is cheap and what is not, and how people manage in their daily life.”
I have tried many times to explain this concept to a lot of my diaspora friends and co-workers who travel/visit, back to Addis from the land of “milk & honey”, aka USA….a lot of them just don’t get it or ignore this fact. Each time I read your blogs I am impressed with your perspective of life in Addis…learning a lot from your writing…
I also like your insight on recycling…it funny to me how the environmentally friendly (“Whole Foods”) community here seems to think of the practice as a “yuppie”/ progressive culture…funny how life works…
Thanks a lot, Mez….that’s very encouraging for me to continue writing and make more of it!! I see what you mean, I remember thinking this way before moving to Ethiopia..it has opened my eyes :)…..I’ll be back in September for more after a long break in Europe..