Old meets new at the Addis mercato

In Addis Ababa the urban landscape is changing. Skyscrapers and new roads are going up quickly, and the streets are filled with the hum of construction. The new 50,000 square-metre African Union headquarters, a gift courtesy of China, is just the tip of the building boom in Ethiopia’s capital.

Besides being a political hub, Addis has been labeled the ‘Dubai of Africa.’ Its mercato, considered the largest open market in Africa, since it receives up to 200,000 visitors daily, is a meeting place for the traditional and the modern. A perfect example of one of Addis’ sites of urban change.

Located in the district of Ketema (or New Town), the market meanders next to the concrete walls of buildings that appear to have been put together haphazardly. Most constructions remain empty and are like soulless skeletons. Others, the malls, are crowded with slippers, pants, spices, buna (Ethiopian coffee), religious figures, or jewelry. These shops compete with small street traders who sell virtually the same products. On these streets life is colored by the mattresses, bags of spices, and hundreds of fabric prints that are for sale.

Visitors like myself find it difficult to navigate through the 114-hectare market. “Caution!” is heard on one side. “You, Farangi” (stranger in Amharic) shouts a young man at the few foreigners who walk through the crowded streets of the Mercato, seemingly frightened by the somewhat exaggerated alarm. “You must look forward,” an older man warns me, while porters, carrying heavy bags or electrical wiring, circumvent the human tide.

“False guides” also try to take advantage of tourists and sell them ‘tours.’

“Would you like radio?” Estifanos, one of the dozens of ‘guides’ looking to make some money by showing visitors the most picturesque corners of the place, asks me. “For that you have to go to the bottom right,” he says, pulling me toward the Somali stalls, responsible for almost all electronic products.

Photo: Sebastián Ruiz Cabrera.

Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, despite enjoying one of the highest growth rates in Africa over the past decade. It ranks 173 on the UNDP’s Human Development Index and, according to the UNDP, just under 40 percent of the population live in poverty: on less than $1.25 a day.

At the market, beggars try to get charity from passersby, coughing in the dusty environment generated by trucks, taxis, mini-buses, tractors and workhorse traffic.

From the outside, the mercato may look chaotic but it functions with its own rhythm.

“This market is experiencing a renaissance of a full swing generation,” Ahmed, a trader and 63-year-old veteran of the mercato tells me. “See? Do you see the water coming out of the [burst pipe] of that construction work? People do not care that they have to have to walk through this muddy street. We know that these inconveniences are part of the price you pay for the market to continue to grow,” he says, before closing a deal by phone.

Photo: Sebastián Ruiz Cabrera.


Headline photo: Sebastián Ruiz Cabrera.

Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.



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