When I was told that Africa’s largest open-air market was only a few buses from the African Union HQ, I couldn’t really believe it. It’s probably not fair, I thought, that this country hosts the African Union, has a history of no colonization and still gets to have the largest market in the continent!
So I had to take a look.
Descending the bus, there was not much I expected. Not because there were no expectations to be placed on the market, but because I had no idea of the parameters I’d be using to derive said expectations from. Did I expect an extremely overcrowded space with limited oxygen and missing belongings? Not really.
Ethiopians have proven themselves to have a profound respect for the spaces they occupy, and, above all, the spaces they share, so though roughly 13,000 work in the market daily, with over 7,100 running enterprises, you will find yourself walking with ease.
The architecture behind the market was to conveniently marginalize local traders by placing them in an ad hoc area, in which operations would run away from the of the city. Addis Mercato, then Merkato Indigino – market of the indigenous –, operated at a distance of the city centre, Piazza, as is still known today.
Contrary to Italian intentions, the market grew to accommodate a long-standing culture of local trading not only in Addis, but in the entire continent, so much so that travellers and traders visit the market daily to obtain supplies in bulk, most notably agricultural products and, as predicted, coffee.
Through the veils of improvised stores, you can see the thousands of traditional clothes being sold stall after stall, with variations in colour, quality and design. Should we feast with our eyes, the sight of a sunny day in Merkato would be enough to feed you for a lifetime.
What, at first, feels like a cruel and never ending labyrinth, quickly unveils into an organized and fragmented experience in the middle of all the chaos that surrounds you.
See, not only are there things for sale, but there is also a Mosque, and a Church.
Vagabonding through the zig-zaging walkers of Merkato, you will find yourself falling over Al-Anwar Mosque, or indulging in observation of Ethiopians paying respect to the Cathedral of the Holy Family.
It is a strange thing, to be mad and consume with rush, and to, almost simultaneously, stop to situate yourself in what is, after all, holy ground.
At a moment of introspection, and believe me, those come to you more often than you’d think, the heavy scents of pungent spices evaporate to leave only a sense of contentment, knowing that you are in Africa, in Ethiopia, in a place where lives are made daily.
Producers and consumers meet and trade away their fruits in hope of not only better days, but better opportunities.
Each word is accompanied by implied bargains that, though rude at first, always end up in amicable smiles and, if lucky, complementary gifts that simple “cannot be sold”.
Definitely, and undoubtedly most certainly, Addis Merkato is not an experience to be lived in only 10 minutes of running around for the picture. A simple stroll through the stalls might take you for the whole ride, because, well, Africa’s largest open-air market is, after all, not that huge.
It is special.