A Walk through Africa’s Largest Open-Air Market

Reputed to be the largest open-air market in Africa, Addis’ Merkato is many
blocks wide and stretches several blocks long in the heart of the city’s
Muslim community. Their main mosque is located within Merkato.

One can find whatever s/he may need in the market. We set out looking for a
very specific umbrella: the rainbow colored one used by the parking ticket
ladies. No, they do not hand out fines. They put little tickets under your
windshield wiper marking the time you pulled up and parked your car. When
it is raining, you can easily spot them by the
rainbow-colored-pie-chart-looking bumbershoots held over their heads. My
wife thinks the umbrellas are pretty. I find them practical, as they are
quite large. Last Saturday, we went to Merkato in hopes of finding our

We set out first for the spice section, along the way passing by the herbs
and incense section. Women with deeply-wrinkled skin sat by their offerings
spread out before them on cloth. I recognized the cinnamon and cloves, but
the other bark-like items had me baffled. Language barriers prevented me
from learning their names and uses. None to worry, I was quite happy to be
in the setting: exotic food stuffs, elbow-to-elbow people, warm sunny sky,
and that image you enter markets for in the first place.

She was sitting behind her herbs and a few grains. Skin brown as mud and
few teeth in her chuckle. Gray hair wisping out from her dark blue head
scarf. Thin used-up arms and long fingers pointing towards me. And over
her eyes, black framed glasses with perfect round lenses thick like
magnifying glasses. I immediately thought her to be a woman of profound
knowledge of concoctions. How I wanted to be her pupil, a fleeting thought
interrupted by her neighboring marketer trying to sell me an incense burner.

We soon found the curries and pepper spices of yellows, golds, mustards,
burnt reds, rusts and flame oranges that sat in sacks tended by smiling
women. Me being the curious one, I had to taste them. They obliged the
strange white guy, handing me scoops to dab a finger at. I did. Laughs
went around as I made some faces and gestured some smiles of my own. Only
one pepper spice lingered on my tongue longer than I would have liked.

Across the street we stepped into the veggies and chickens stalls.
Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, leeks, peppers and cabbage were seen in every
direction. The chickens were squished into cages made from tree branches
bent to make a dome tent-like cage that stood rooster-head high. The
cobbles beneath our feet were wet and muddy from an early morning rain. The
smell was one of sewage.

Onward and upward, we came to the traditional clothing area. Stall after
stall of beautiful traditional Ethiopian dresses and shirts was the
highlight of our time in the market. We twisted and turned through narrow
passageways admiring handcrafted clothing of a fine quality similar to white
linen hanging above and beside us. To our surprise, we noticed that nearly
all the seamstresses were men. We later decided that the seamstresses were
mostly men probably because it is men that have the money to buy the sewing
machines. Nevertheless, the talent on display in their tiny “stores” was
second to none. Patterns and designs of all colors and rooted in Ethiopian
Christian Orthodox Church images were threaded by hand. The men were warm
and very polite, giving us several “welcome to my country” greetings as we
walked through their obviously proud artwork. We told them we would return
to buy a few pieces another day.

The quiet pathways of the clothing area gave way to the horns and choking
diesel fumes of the street. We crossed over and circled around to an old
bank that was converted to an indoor selling area. We made way to a small
restaurant on the third floor for a rest of feet and a drink. Orange Fantas
slid down our throats as we talked about things I no longer remember.

Still without the umbrella, we decided to begin walking in the direction of
our home to exit Merkato and find a taxi. Whether we found the umbrella or
not mattered less to us. We were getting hungry. Lunch was weighing more
heavily on our minds. Besides we could come back with our Ethiopian friends
and get one in a few minutes time.

Not out of the market yet, we walked by stands selling more belts than I
thought could ever be found in an area the size of the Hanover square.
Belts and men’s underwear everywhere.

And then the man carrying foam mattresses piled 10 high on his head. At 8
or so inches a pad, carrying the stack was a feat made more difficult by his
having to dodge cars and car-dodging people.

And the bucket man. He carried a stack of purple buckets length wise over
his shoulder. The stack was around 20 feet long, 10 feet of Barney purple
plastic going out in both directions from the shoulder. Somehow he managed
to not knock anyone on the head in the twenty seconds I walked behind him.

Before we knew it, we were on the edge of Merkato. We decided to keep
walking, having given up on the umbrella. We soon flagged down a taxi and
scored our first honest price for a ride. We headed off for an Italian
restaurant at Amist Kilo, a traffic circle on the main road heading north
through the city, for some grub.

Later, umbrella-less and full-stomached, we departed for home. We
experienced Africa’s largest market unscathed, meaning no pickpockets, the
only negative claim-to-fame of Merkato. I left the market wanting to go


There is something about being in a market that fills my every pore. There
is a pulse there, an energy that gets at the very essence of life. The
buying of goods for life’s survival. Basics for daily needs. A true free
market economy at my fingertips, where my senses are heightened.

Watching fellow human being going about their lives…where are you taking
those purple buckets? How many chickens did you sell today? How long did
it take you to sew that dress? How did you come to sell spices and not
belts? Why did you buy that incense and not the other?

(written 11 September 2005)

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