Merkato: The Largest Open Air Market in Africa

Merkato

Since abandoning the hunter-gatherer way of life in favour of exchanging money for goods, men have become the greatest value hunters on the face of the earth.  In order to facilitate the exchange they managed to set up venues where they came together in their large numbers. This general fact holds to be more or less the same everywhere around the world and across societies. In this regard, around Addis Abeba one market venue, in particular, stands out in attracting almost everyone who is looking for an bargain: An enormous sized shopping venue, known by the name Merkato exists in the heart of the city. The place is worth to visit either to hunt for a fat deal or just to fish and release.

Merkato, meaning ‘market place’, is an adapted name from the attempted occupation of the Italians during the Second World War. With the intention of making their stay in Addis as comfortable as possible and as a way of avenging their imperialist forefathers defeat during their previous encounter, the Italians tried to segregate the city. Piazza becoming their city center where they did their shopping and everything else. The indigenous Habeshas, deliberately omitted from the equation, had no other option but to set up new shopping venue. The city dwellers and people living in the surrounding towns, without any direct influence from those in power started getting together just west of the Italians’ Piazza to exchange their produces. As a living testimony to the unlimited potential of the free market, Merkato flourished both in size and variety of supplies right under the eyes of the doomed occupiers.

Geographically speaking, Merkato is found in the northern side of western Addis Ababa. It lays on several square kilometers of area in Addia Ketema sub-city, one of the ten sub-cities Addis Abeba is segmented into. On the southern side, Merkato borders Black Lion specialized hospital and extends for three or more kilometers to the north all the way to Amanuele hospital,  center for the mentally ill. passing by a number of renowned and historical landmarks like Saint Teklehaimanot Square, named after the adjacently located Ethiopian Orthodox Church with the same name, where the former Emperor used to execute capital punishments and the Grand Anwar Mosque, the largest mosque in the country, are few of the attractions found on the north-south route. On the eastern side, Merkato neighbors Piazza, its former competition and going downhill  west bound from there it extends all the way to the Federal Supreme Court extending to about three or four kilometers.

Traveling around Merkato is a fascinating experience, much like visiting Willy Wonka’s factory in the absence of Mr. Wonka himself and his Oompa Loompas. Well, sort of. The identical little people are replaced by the diverse cultures of merchants who come from all over the nation trading not just candy and gum but an endless array of products. When you are in Merkato never expect a personal tour as one would get in the imaginary land. In Merkato one has to find his own way through the extreme crowd and countless turns. The visual paradox is just too much to take at once, confusingly mesmerizing to the imagination: the newly built modern shopping malls look down at the old stores as if saying we are better than you. The make shift stores on the side of the road block the walk way with their protruding displays leaving the pedestrians without an option but to walk on the main road side by side with the barely moving vehicles. The Grand Anwar mosque and Saint Raguel, Church of the Ethiopian Orthodox, their compounds separated simply with a fence, coexist in peace and harmony. The followers of these two old religions mingle in their secular affairs without any boundary, a brilliant manifestation of inborn tolerance at its purest form.

What makes Merkato what it is is not just what is seen from the outside but also what is found deep inside, intertwined with the trading culture of the people who run the stores and who dwell the streets. The small neighborhoods found in Merkato and the chain of stores with names describing what they have to offer add another dimension to its unique features. For instance “Goma Terra” meaning “chain of stores for vehicle tires” is where stores that sell different types of car tires are found. Similarly, “Atikilt Terra”, located at the eastern border of Merkato close to Piazza is an equivalent of Farmer’s Market where variety of fruits and vegetables are brought directly from the countryside to be sold at a discounted price. Despite their attractive bargain for fresh produces Atikilt Terra is not for the faint stomach. The smell from rotten fruits and vegetables supplied the previous days is sensible from afar. Anyone who dares to approach closer is guaranteed at least to go through a rumbling stomach. But despite this, make sure to give a freshly prepared cocktail salad or mango juice a try.

The nomenclature of the places in Merkato, as helpful as it is in locating commodities, it is sometimes deceiving. For example “Bomb Terra” (meaning a chain of stores that sell bombs) have nothing close to weaponry in their stocks but rather they provide consumer goods at  wholesale price. If one wonders how the name was given, after some investigation, he or she will find out that Bomb Terra has retained its name from the past when it used to sell guns and ammunition.

Yet again, one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Merkato is perhaps, “Minn Alesh Terra” translated as “what have you got”. At first glance the place looks like a junk yard. This is where products that have outlived their use are collected from all over the city to be recycled into something useful. Nothing is thrown away in Min Alesh Terra. A tin can is cut, Hammered and molded into a pot. A piece of metal rod thrown away from a construction site in another corner of the city is brought here by recycling agents, called “Quralees”, to be softened in a furnace, hammered, reshaped, sharpened and attached to a wooden handle to be sold as a kitchen knife. Min Alesh Terra also prides itself as being capable of having almost anything buyers are looking for. As unconventional as the inquiry is, chances are it is found there. Including, but not limited to, things like a single shoe.

The other “Terra” or chain of stores in Merkato is the infamous “Somali Terra” or sometimes called “the slaughter house of cars”, which used to sell car parts and accused of being behind many a theft of vehicles and vehicle parts around the city. The place where some drivers had to negotiate their own property after it was stolen and found its way to Somali Terra. Unfortunate occurrence to the drivers, while they are sitting in their car bargaining with the pretentious middle men for the return of their stolen headlight, the opportunist “handy men” of Somali Terra  dismantle the tail lights of the same vehicle. Their way of assuring the perpetuation of their evil deeds, they dare call business. Now, to the satisfaction of vehicle owners, the desperados of Somali Terra have scaled down since their relocation to the western tip of Merkato after their east cost anarchist territory was recently demolished to be replaced by window covered high rises. But the place has retained the name “Somali Terra”, as a sad remainder of the days of the wild wild east.

Merkato is now fast changing to match the rest of the city. Nothing is guaranteed to remain as it was. however one thing is certain, the daily people who flow to Merkato in large crowds will continue to do so and benefit from its blessings so long as Merkato continues to be what it has been for the past 70 years or so; the most convenient venue for the contemporary value hunter and anyone else who wishes to be part of its grandeur.

[WPMAP;14]

Written by Yonas Michael
Born and raised in Addis, i like to think i know my city like the back of my hands. However, i am amazed how Addis Ababa keeps growing and changing revealing its latest facet. I am constantly learning new staff. It is like i am a tourist in my own city, almost. As a person whose bread and butter is in the publishing industry i exploit every opportunity i get to communicate what i have learned. i consider it my prerogative.