Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Merkato

One of the things I had long ago added to my list of things to do/see when we got to Ethiopia was to visit the famed Merkato market.  This market has been in existence for many years, since the Italians were present in fact, the word 'Merkato' comes from the Italian word for 'market.'   It is the largest open-air marketplace on the continent of Africa, covering several square miles of space and housing somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 business is massive, and it would be impossible to see much more than a few small corners of it at any one time!!  Although technically the majority of the merchandise passing through the Merkato is locally-grown agricultural products (coffee being one of the predominant items), pretty much everything one might ever want/need to purchase can be found here in great abundance.

We decided to visit the Merkato on one of our first few days in Addis.  It was the first day that we hired our lovely driver, Marcos, to take us around to places, and we were very glad to have him with us when we went to the Merkato.  The moment we parked the car (squished in along a curb in a spot that really wasn't designed to be a parking spot...but oh well), my car door was opened for me and a man stood there waiting for me to emerge.  A few seconds later, Marcos explained that the man was wanting to be our guide through the market, and that it might be a faster way of finding some of the things we were looking to buy there (though, in hindsight, Marcos could have done the job just as well, as he was clearly very familiar with the market).  Given that, in the end, we only had to pay the guide 30birr ($2), I didn't mind the extra company in an unfamiliar place.

"OK," I said, and off we went.  The next couple of hours were a whirlwind, and we were utterly consumed by the sights, sounds and smells of the marketplace.

I've never been anywhere even remotely like that place.  It was a giant maze of filthy streets, some narrow and some wide.  It was filled on masse with shoppers, vendors, beggars, goats, laden mules and people, and vehicles.  People, animals, cars and trucks moved at random amongst the street, with no seeming order.  Beggars and the destitute wandered the streets, leaned one after the other in endless lines against the walls of buildings, lay unprotected and sleeping in the middle of the streets, crawled and crab-walked in the filth where legs were bent beyond usefulness.  It is here that I almost stepped on a (uncovered) newborn baby as she lay next to her sleeping mother in the middle of the road, and here that I saw a man lying splayed in a garbag-filled corner as if dead, covered in banana leaves and refuse.  We learned quickly to veer out of the way of men and women carrying the heaviest of burdens on their heads or shoulders - one man I saw was grimacing as he carried eleven mattresses on his head and shoulders, piled higher overtop of him than the height of his body.  The shops, from the tiniest to the largest, were crammed from floor to ceiling with goods for sale...not an inch of space was wasted.  Some of the shops were only a few feet across; I remember having to turn sideways to enter into a few of them.

The sounds attached to what we were seeing filled our ears: the conversation and laughter and yelling of people as they made their way hurriedly in seeming chaos; the bleating of goats as they were herded through the streets with stick-wielding boys; the snorting and belching of giant trucks as they made their way through the crowds, and the persistent horn-blowing that accompanied their impatience; the hooves of the mules as they trotted by us (and into me!); the pleas of the beggars who roamed the streets trying to catch the eye of the next benevolent shopper; the quiet words of Marcos as he repeatedly advised us to hold tightly to our backpacks given the expert pickpockets who followed us throughout one section of the market.

The sights and sounds alone were enough to overwhelm.  But there were also the unforgettable smells:  of dirt; truck fumes (oh the pollution that blackened the insides of our noses and throats); coffee; body odours; spices; raw sewage; and so many other indefinable things.

Even our sense of touch was engaged:  the confident hand of our unsolicited guide as he reached into the car to help me out of it; the touch of a boy on the skin of my arm as he asked for money; the roughness of the burlap sack and a quick rub of donkey coat as one rammed into me with his heavy load; the gentle and insistent and relentless squeeze of vendor hands on my arms or shoulders, pulling me into their shops to "look, sister, just look;" the feeling of dirt on my fingers and grime caking my face after walking about for as long as we did.

The market was overwhelming, utterly fascinating, a little anxiety-producing and, ultimately, still indescribable.  It seemed as if we must have seen all 7-8,000 shops in those couple of hours, though of course this was impossible; it was dizzying in its magnitude.  Despite the chaos that seemed to surround us, we learned that the Markato was strictly organized into sections:  crafts; art; housewares; spices; etc etc.  When we told our guide the things that we were looking for, he strode off immediately, telling us that first we would go to this section, then to another section, and so on.   Marcos was so helpful in advising us with a whisper into my ear when to consider buying and when simply to look and express gratitude - knowing that at certain shops, the prices would be elevated even beyond the usual "ferengi" prices to reflect the outrageous commissions that our guide would receive should we buy from certain vendors.

Perhaps the area that most fascinated me was the endless row of spice vendors.  Walking down that street, I just wanted to stop.  Take note.  Look.  Marvel.  Old women, lined and wrinkled of face and hand, sat against the walls of buildings, literally immersed up to their waists or chests in spices and roots of various undefinable kinds.  Their bodies were completely submerged in odd-looking and stick-like flavourings and spices, and their hands were busy sorting the good items from the bad, and selling them to passers-by.  Sometimes the spices were piled into huge bags that surrounded and effectively imprisoned the old women; other times, it was simply the naked spice or root that enveloped their bodies.  I took one or two completely-inadquate picture of this sight, and felt at peril despite the women's captivity, as they shouted "ferengi" and shook their fingers at me.  These poor photos are the closest I feel I came to violating the dignity and personal space of the object of my camera; I was otherwise quite careful to hold my camera-itchy fingers still.  And yet, I wish I could have taken a thousand more.

We eventually left, bearing the fruits of our canvassing:  an injera platter; silk table runners; children's knitted hats; wood carvings; and so on.  It is there, too, that I decided to test my own courage by learning how to negotiate price.  I would ask Marcos quietly what price range he believed to be fair for an item (I was never interested in gouging people who were poor enough without my adding to it) and, after watching him a few times, I began to take over the process.  To my shock, I loved it!  I learned that Geoff was right - there is a good measure of drama to be found in me.  With an alacrity that surprised me, and with no mockery in intent, I took easily to throwing my hands up in the air when hearing of the price being proposed; tossed back my own proposal, far beneath what I thought I would actually end up paying; stalked out of shops, waiting to be followed by a vendor suddenly a little more pliable; walked out again if necessary; eventually settling on an agreeable price; then shaking hands good-naturedly with the vendor before leaving the shop.

After leaving the market, Geoff and I decided that we needn't go back there.  We both felt quite overwhelmed by the experience and perhaps a bit intimidated.  However, after a few days had passed, and with the benefit of hindsight, my perspective changed on that, and I will look forward to engaging the Merkato again when we are next in Addis.

Here are a few of my pictures, none of which come close to doing justice to the Merkato.

So many many vendors

The spice vendors, literally immersed in their wares

You can't tell from the picture, but the man crawling along the sidewalk had one leg that was permanently bend sideways, rendering him unable to walk.  He was wearing flip flops on his hands to protect the skin from the rough sidewalk pavement.  We saw many people like this, often shuffling along on their rear ends or crab walking.

This is Marcos, our wonderful driver, leading our way through the Merkato

This is where we bought our injera platter.  Shortly after this picture was taken, and while I was in the heart of my price negotiation with the vendor, Marcos suddenly said that we had to go; a group of teenage boys were gathering in close behind us, all of them expert pick-pockets.  He urged us out of there fast. The boys followed us for about five minutes, and then disappeared when we finally turned into another aisle of shops.

Not an inch of wasted space.  We bought some of the cute little "Ethiopia" knitted hats that this vendor is selling...Matthew looks adorable in one of them, and I bought others for the other two kids, for when they arrive home.


  1. It looks amazing Ruth! I think I would feel the same as you - intimidated, yet fascinated. I still hope to travel to Ethiopia one day, even though my adoption plans have changed . . . I just have to try one of those tiny coffees!

    About the Merkato - do you know if people move their stuff in and out each day? Does someone always stay their with their "store"? It looks so temporary and yet I can't imagine that all of that can be moved around too easily!

  2. Melissa -
    that's a great question - I have no idea what the vendors do with their stuff at day's end. I have a hard time picturing everyone leaving the market with all of their goods, so they MUST somehow secure it or have someone stay there around the clock. Hmmph - now I'm stewing on that. No idea.

    Re: the coffees - you made me salivate just by mentioning them. Oh, I have SUCH a craving for one right now.

  3. I am really enjoying reading about your experiences and those photos are amazing! Reading about your trip is bringing back so many memories of my own trip to Africa a few years ago. Thank you so much for sharing with us and I look forward to reading about your next trip to meet your beautiful children and bring them home.

  4. Ruth have you ever been to Massawa in Osborne Village? I was thinking it might be a nice opportunity to go out one evening sometime, maybe even with the hubbies.

  5. Great pictures Ruth! Matty, Ephrem and I went to the Merkato twice.. once on our own (we took a minibus there) and just walked around, and a second time with a driver so we could buy some things we saw the first time and have the ease of having a car to put them in to take them back to the Weygoss. Both times we didn't take our camera so it was neat to see your photos. We really enjoyed it. There is something about the mass of people that makes you aware of your own humanity a bit more. I miss that about Ethiopia. The basket area was a great place to shop, I wish I had brought back much more.

  6. One more place I can't wait to go to when we go back. We didn't get here becasue there was no way I could carry a screaming toddler there.... I'm serious getting jealous about all the fmailies doing 2 trips- I know not of the extra flight expense or stress and possible delays... but absorbing more of beautiful Ethiopia and the amazing people.
    Did you get my blod invite before you left?

  7. Those are great photos! Thanks for sharing and giving us a very descriptive picture in our mind of what it's like. We didn't get to see the Merkato when we were there, but we hope to see it next time.