I have no idea what other people do when they have a day to spare in a new city, but I visit street markets. Nothing better captures the energy of a city and its inhabitants. Nothing offers a better opportunity to people watch, examine exotic products, and inhale unknown smells. In particular if the market is in Africa.
Mornings in Addis Ababa are breezy and pleasantly warm. The air is still clear, waiting for the smog to descend in the afternoon. Compared to other African cities, maybe with the exception of Kigali, the streets of Addis are quite easy to navigate.
So camera in hand, I follow my guide and driver to the car. I’m itching to see the iconic Merkato, which as some maintain is the largest market in Africa, or even the largest outdoor market in the world. I’m severely disappointed when the guide doesn’t let me get off the car.
– You’d die – she says simply. At five months pregnant, I feel I’m in no position to argue, so instead we drive through Merkato, or rather, let ourselves be carried by the constant flow of traffic made up of vehicles, cycles, pedestrians and donkeys. It will take us hours to re-emerge from this chaos.
Merkato covers several square miles and allegedly gives employment to 13,000 people across over 7,000 businesses. Its name dates back to the days of Italian occupation when a new marketplace was created for the use of the indigenous population, with the objective of pushing local tradesmen out of the city centre.
There is not a single thing you cannot buy at Merkato. You can see people loading, transporting, carrying, selling and buying every item imaginable. Coffee is of course a big commodity, but you can find other agricultural produce, textiles and everything else.
A pile of bright yellow canisters catches my eye. These canisters are used all over Africa to carry water from the pump back to the house. Old canisters are recycled. The guide points to a shoe stall where one can buy sandals made of recycled water canisters in all colours of the rainbow. Nothing goes to waste here.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a stall at Merkato. Those less lucky place their modest goods directly on the ground. It is difficult to establish the boundaries of Merkato, as street sellers occupying the pavements push the fringes of the market further and further.
Unfortunately, the wind of change is blowing and it brings bad news to the traders of Merkato. If you look up, you will see scaffolding towering over the market. Work is in full swing to build a new covered market and close down the old one. Those traders who are able to afford the new, higher rents, will move their stalls there. Others will lose their businesses and their livelihoods.
After this I’m dying to explore on foot, so our next destination is Shola Market, a smaller and slightly less manic one. I jump off the car and immerse myself in a maze of narrow dusty streets filled with colourful stalls. I spend a leisurely afternoon walking from stall to stall examining the piles of fruit, sacks of grains and spices, baskets of coffee and vegetables.
Similarly to Merkato, not all traders have stalls. Small-scale sellers are sitting directly on the ground, offering just a few tomatoes or a small pile of garlic. Everyone is trying to make a living with whatever means they have.
I walk around the textiles and household goods section admiring the beautiful woven baskets, meant to store food, in particular the Ethiopian flat bread injera.
The traditional clothes are not less impressive, with fine embroidery and bright colours.
It is a noisy, dusty, sweaty and inevitably exhausting experience, but I leave Shola with newly found energy, having experienced this amazing place pulsating with life, exploding with colours and scents.
The afternoon ends with a mixture of traditional foods in a local restaurant, served typically on an injera. Small piles of food are placed directly on the spread out bread and one uses bits from another roll of injera to pick up the food in small mouthfuls. This food, together with a cup of steaming coffee, dark and strong as the devil, is definitely not recommended for pregnant women, but I don’t care.
My head is spinning with the sights and sounds of the Merkato and Shola markets and there is nothing better than local food to pick me up, ready for my flight back home.