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    New Year shopping, dented wallets

    If you are seeking someone to help you with your shopping, I’ll tell you one person never to call; me. Yes, it is that bad. You know, I’m the sort of guy who gets a five birr discount from a thousand birr item and feels he hoodwinked the entire Wall Street. “Look, I bought it for nine hundred birr; you can have it for 995, and I’m doing this for you. “Bingo! I‘ll be making some noise about my shopping exploits, and a couple of friends will have to put up with my bragging.

    Talking of shopping, I’m going to be frank. It hasn’t been a good holiday. ‘Good’ is my way of sounding nice. But for New Year shoppers nothing was anywhere close to good. Price hikes on many holiday commodities proved ‘hurricane something’ on the wallets of many.

    “Could you give me that sheep?”

    The merchant drags the unwilling sheep; at least it doesn’t look sick! (We’re lucky there isn’t anything as forged sheep, at least for now!)

    “How much is it?”

    “Four…”

    “You mean four hundred birr?”

    The scorn on the sheep merchant’s face could have melted half of the Golden Gate Bridge.

    “No; I mean four thousand birr.”

    “Four…four thousand birr! Four thousand birr for THAT!”

    Additional attention from the merchant is the last thing you’ll get. It was that bad.

    “Could you hand me that chicken?”

    “This one?”

    “No, not the red one; I want the black one. How much is it?”

    Five hundred birr.”

    “I don’t mean both. I only want the black one.” 

    Additional attention from the merchant is the last thing you’ll get. It was that bad.

    Why are we so obsessed with holiday shopping? I’ll tell you why. Ethiopian holidays are not about the dazzling neon lights in big shopping malls, or the all-night parties in nightclubs. They aren’t about the ‘special TV programs,’ most of which push you close to the preliminary symptoms of cardiac arrest. It is not about the “Happy holiday” messages of the top brass, most of whom don’t look like they really mean it!

    Most Ethiopian holidays are about the hustle and bustle of the noisy sheep, chicken etc. markets. They’re about the very act of dragging your sheep all the way to your village and the neighbors peering over fences to see if the unlucky animal has any meat on it. Ha!  They are about avoiding the beak of the clearly angry chicken. They are about the heated exchanges between shoppers and merchants. They are about the smell of butter and the eleven-plus spices; they are also the smoke bellowing from the traditional kitchens where the habesha dabo (local bread) is baked. Sadly, all these things are in the process of being hurled into the dustbin of history. Most are becoming “Once upon a time…” memories.   

    Some ask, “Why are people spending so much for a single day?”

    “Why are people making such huge dents in their already strained budgets for a single day?”

    Indeed, these questions make economic sense. But, in a nation where real happiness is in short supply, holidays offer that rare opportunity to turn one’s back to all nastiness of life and just feel happy for a couple of days. For those couple of days the entire world could turn on its head and no one is going to miss a single heartbeat. It is our holiday, smart guy!

    This brings me to the larger issue of everyday shopping. Things are changing in this city of untold surprises and wonders. The past few years, buildings have been springing all over the city, and almost every one of them comes with a mall. I’ve got one problem with malls. Maybe it is because a visit to the mall is like peering down on New York from the Empire State building. All of them are so alike! Not much creativity, except, maybe the hairstyles of the lady clerks.

    And, there is good old Mercato; a place of a thousand and one memories, presently losing its unique, indigenous luster of yesteryears. It’s not only the largest open air market on the continent; it is a place where life moves at a completely different pace of its own. The stories you hear about Mercato could fill volumes and volumes of thick books and there will always be more. It is a place where, from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich, everyone finds anything and everything one needs. Mercato is a place where you pay not only for whole dishes but also for mouthfuls! With one mouthful going for one birr or so, five mouthfuls could turn your belly into the midsection of our Olympic swimmer. Ha!  (In case no one told you, we eat by hand around here. Of course, we’ve heard of some ‘sophisticated’ Ethiopians using knives and forks to eat Injera bewet at parties. If such a guest comes to my house, which wouldn’t happen in another millennium, what he will be getting wouldn’t be knives and forks; it would be the boot!) Now, they are tearing down Mercato and few, if any, of us are smiling.

    I don’t know about town planning or any planning of that sort. But you don’t need to be the architect of the Empire State Building to know something isn’t working when you see it. When it comes to Mercato its new look isn’t working for me. “Why are they doing this?” I mean, couldn’t they, at least, try to sort of balance the old and the new!

    We simply like to bargain, whether it is a sack of cereals or a pair of pants. The items might have price tags on them; still a little ‘price negotiation’ makes the purchase a little.  Here is a confession, when they sell me something without us spending a few minutes haggling over the price, I don’t feel that comfortable. Maybe it is the distrust in us of all business people; “They are one big bunch of greedy, inhuman guys who would anything as long as they make the additional buck.” That might be going a little overboard. But, if the recent New Year shopping is anything to go by, those people have a lot of explaining to do. Of course, that’s nothing more than wishful thinking; explanations on anything don’t come that easily around here, if they ever come, that is.

     

    Contributed by  Ephrem Endale

     

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