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A merkato through the eyes of a firanji

By Jennifer McLaughlin / January 15, 2004

Soon after arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a week's visit, I began to hear about "the largest open-air market in all of Africa." It supposedly covered 50 square blocks: an endless array of vendors selling everything from retread tires to colorful spices to hand-woven baskets the size of a washing machine.

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Desperately hoping to go, I envisioned the setting. Growing up in the American Midwest, I'd thumbed through my parents' National Geographics and had flipped through weighty coffee table books about Africa. Then there was that episode of the TV show "Alias" where the CIA agent meets her contact in the back of a market stall in Africa. They all painted a clear picture of what I was sure I'd see at the Ethiopian merkato.

First of all, it would probably be a spacious, expansive plaza, packed with vendors selling exotic fruits and native wares. There would be bare-breasted women with rich, dark skin wearing beaded jewelry and balancing items on their heads. Photogenic children would probably be everywhere. And, naturally, I would barter intelligently to get low prices for quality goods. It would be an unforgettable experience, something to tell my friends and family about once I returned to the United States. Ready for adventure, I was undeterred by my guidebook's warnings about potential dangers at the market.

So when my Ethiopian friend Yalem offered to take me to the merkato, I jumped at the chance. Born and raised in Addis, Yalem now lives in my hometown of Boston. She was visiting Ethiopia on business and needed to buy children's clothing and gifts. She invited me to join her.

The morning of our outing, I put 300 birr (about US$35) in my pocket and strapped sturdy sandals onto my feet. Yalem met me and we hopped on a bus. The closer we got to the market, the wider my eyes grew. Instead of a spacious and colorful plaza, it occupied a series of dirt streets threading between mud-and-straw structures and shacks made of tin. The rickety shanties shaded people selling everything from woven rugs to plastic toys. I was unprepared for the dusty, jerry-built structures, the masses of people, and the dozens of burros and goats moseying along the streets.

We hopped out of the bus near the spice aisles. The sweet scent of chilies and the rancid odor of homemade butter overwhelmed me. Vendors squatted in shacks while women sat on the dirt in front of their stalls, selling dried chilies or hair products spread out on plastic bags.

Turmeric, cracked wheat, cardamom, and other ground spices and seeds filled large baskets and bags. Fine powders (yellow, beige, rust-colored) were heaped into tall cone shapes that towered high above their containers, creating two-foot-tall towers of curry.

Yalem and I picked up handfuls of seeds and powders as she asked in Amharic (the local language) what they were, what they were used for, and how much they cost. Not only was everything presented in bulk, but it was also well-sampled. Many shoppers took a handful of seeds or powder to test it, running it through their fingers before deciding whether to buy. Many spice vendors also sold butter piled in dirty, foot-tall heaps. Like me, the yellow pyramids were sweating in the intense sun.