If there is one thing a ferengi likes to do on a holiday: it’s to browse the local market looking for souvenirs to wow their friends with back at home. Often, holiday-makers are taken to tourist-friendly markets selling local handicrafts and are left to browse for an hour or so before the bus picks them up.
Well, not this ferengi! Always seeking a unique experience, the opportunity to visit the biggest market in Africa was not to be missed. Billed as a hectic, noisy, crowded, colorful place full of anything you can think of, the Mercato did not disappoint.
Just getting there was a challenge. Fighting for a place in a shared taxi at Kazanchis I felt lucky to get a seat at the front, even if two of us were squashed into a space made for one. On the approach to the market the traffic crawled along bumper to bumper. Thinking it might be easier to walk, a quick look out the window told me that would be impossible to get out as all the vehicles were literally inches apart all competing for a tiny gap they could shoot through to get ahead of their neighbor.
Relieved to have got there in one piece, stepping out of the taxi, I almost got knocked over by a man carrying seven or eight large plastic barrels on his shoulders. Note to self: remember to look where I’m going at all times! Looking in all directions, clutching my bag in a vice-like grip (having been warned on numerous occasions about pickpockets) the road was successfully crossed.
At this point, I should mention that I am not attempting to navigate my way around alone; I’m in the company of a knowledgeable local who I could not do without. For any adventurous tourist reading this please don’t be tempted to go by yourself unless you speak Amharic or have been there before! As anyone will tell you the Mercato spans several square miles, and like the Minotaur’s Labyrinth in Ancient Greece there is a real danger of getting lost and ending up seeing out the rest of your days wandering round the maze of streets and alleyways in never-ending confusion.
The Mercato is not really a place to browse aimlessly. Along the main thoroughfares are general shops but there are distinct areas to buy specific goods, so a plan is needed. I had set myself a mission, to find five items that you would never see in a market in the UK and find out a bit about the items and the people selling them.
Time was of the essence, however as you can imagine it’s impossible to get anywhere fast inside the Mercato. If you are not dodging men with impossibly large loads on their heads, avoiding getting run over by a line of fast-moving donkeys or attempting not to trip over a pile of tomatoes with their owner sitting at your feet, you are watching your step on the uneven pathways and trying not to bump into other shoppers all at the same time!
Not far in, I came across item No.1: a man called Mama putting the finishing touches to a mattress he was hand-making to order. Made of cotton, there was 1,200kg of rough cotton inside a covering of strikingly decorated heavy bag. Each kg of the filling cost 100 Birr, the outer cover 270 Birr and the labor 300 Birr making the selling price a mere 1,770 Birr (@£50). If I had a suitcase big enough I would have placed an order there and then!
Moving on we came across the handicraft section, an indoor market full of stalls with brightly colored wares. One stall that caught my eye was selling hand-woven baskets, made of grass that had come from different parts of the country. In the UK we mostly rely on plastic containers for storage so it was interesting to find out more about them. Hannah explained to me where each originated and their purpose – a food cover from the south, a woolen basket for decoration from the north, and baskets to store injera and other items. They ranged from 20 Birr (<£1) up to 500 Birr (@£15) so I bought a little one to brighten up my house and remind me of my visit.
My companion told me that there were metal works in the market, something I was very intrigued about so we set off in the general direction and came across item No.3: the charcoal stove. This is definitely not something you see in the kitchen at home! Kidan had been running the stall for 15 years and sold wholesale as well as to the public. The stoves are made from clay and metal and come in different sizes for different purposes – a small one for burning waste, a medium-sized one for coffee and cooking and a large cooking one. At 300 Birr (@£9) for a big one I was tempted, however I think I would have difficulties sourcing charcoal at home let alone getting it on the plane!
After picking our way through some winding passageways the sound of hammers on metal reached our ears. In a narrow, rocky, downward sloping alley we came across the metal works. In tiny huts on either side of the path men were surrounded by scrap metal which they buy, straighten out with a hammer and brute force and sell on. Each hut is rented by an individual or two who run their own business; the man we spoke to had been doing it for over 20 years. It is a hard, back-breaking and dangerous job and we took care picking our way back up the path avoiding the pounding hammers, and metal rods sticking out everywhere threatening to trip us up.
It was almost time to go and on our way back to the main road we came across a woman selling rope made from banana leaves, something I’ve never seen before. Maraganesh was from the South and every Monday and Friday she receives a delivery from her village. She sells the rope to people who sell gypsum, who mix the two together to make plaster used in house building. The rope can also be used inside mattresses and she was also selling the banana leaves themselves, which can be used for cooking.
I was sad to leave as I’d had an interesting and exciting morning and could have explored further, I’m not sure the same could be said for my companion who seemed relieved to be on our way.
My experiences at the Mercato will forever stay with me and I wonder what it will be like in 20 years’ time; whether it will be the vibrant and diverse place that exists today…who knows, I may be back to find out!
Ed.’s Note: Elizabeth Mooney is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Elizabeth Mooney