The changing faces of Merkato infuse changes within the lifestyle of Addis Abebans. It all has to do with the importance the trading hub has within the life of the city and its residents. If anything, the evolution of the largest open market inAfricasignifies the dividing line between the past and the present.
It had once made a name and fame for itself as one of the largest open markets in Africa. From the least retailer of piled vegetables spread and displayed in rows on an empty sack to massive bundles of textile, including blankets and bed sheets, from salvaged garments to modern skirts, from kitchen items to age-old souvenirs, from pastries to poultry, everything is available at Merkato, the hub of the nation’s trade. Walking through Merkato in search of goods to buy or even sell, enduring all the wave of the high pitch sound of barking sales, was a life time experience to be enjoyed.
The transaction process by itself is a fanciful mental exercise, the final goal being bringing the negotiation of bargaining to a compromise. Philosophically speaking, Merkato had to grow in size, all around, because of mistrust between trading bodies.
Officials at the inner most echelon of authority attempt to explain the problem of inflation, among other factors, the lack of systematic transaction in the country. Indeed, there could not be a better place than Merkato to prove that.
Askale Balcha, 38, makes a long trip from Yeka, in the eastern-end of the capital, to Merkato to do her monthly shopping of food and cosmetics. She takes the Number-10 Bus to over part of the travel and a taxi for the remaining part of the journey.
Shopping at Merkato was once like going to an unknown resort where she could meet unknown people and talk business. These days, however, she had lost interest. In fact, she thinks she has to go there for having no choice.
Prices of goods go on increasing with each passing day. Askale has been forced to cut down on her items and had to remain satisfied with whatever power her money could buy. The enjoyment she used to tap from the shopping at Merkato has nowadays vaporized into thin air and has been replaced by uncertainty and doubt because of the alarming price hike.
Formerly, Askale would first go to the stand where they display butter. The quantity and quality of the butter is measured by smelling. The price is communicated by word of mouth.
Sometimes, mistrust gets the better of Askale. She moves to the next seller who probably speaks with a different dialect with her neighbor, and stretches her hand with a specimen of the butter to Askale to smell and make her choice.
Time and place of origin are the two most important factors used as terms of reference with regards to evaluation of the quality of butter. Fresh butter from sheno, 780km North of Addis Abeba, is judged to be the best.
Askale is informed about that. But she still has doubts and gives a lame excuse and keeps on shifting. The same routine holds true on other items as well.
Prices are rarely tagged or revealed. The hundreds of advertisements broadcast over the radio or television cry about a “reasonable price” but how much is does it mean is uncertain.
Earlier on, it was mentioned that Merkato has increased in size to a large extent due to the mistrust existing between sellers and buyers. Traders try to compete by discretion. Buyers would like to walk away and look for goods and services they can get with a better bargain.
Prices are not fixed and measurements are guessed to be judged by the human senses. Traders try to provide another option. So they open another stand nearby. Lines and lines of shops retailing the same item are set side by side.
Thus, Merkato grew in size to be one of the largest open markets inAfrica, if not in the world. But that fame and glory has gone down the tube of history into ruins.
Merkato’s face is now changing, albeit rapidly. Those horizontally lying stalls are now replaced by vertically standing structures.
The Merkato of yester years has currently become a pile of junk and mess. Chaos reigns. Buyers and porters laden with bundles rub and shove wither and thither.
The grain store area is stocked by pack animals. The hub is filled with the sound of roaring machines of concrete mixers. Carpenters and masons beat their hammers unceasingly.
Vendors bark and scream. Heavy trucks and cross-country buses ham and fume. Fowls and herds of sheep and goats make sounds of groan and pain.
Stands leisurely placed side by side are no more there. Dozens of high-rising buildings and structures are springing like mushrooms. The little makeshift kiosks or ‘containers’, as they are commonly known, are seen sidelined to grow by the side of the multistory buildings which are still in the making.
The labyrinth and access tracks which were narrow enough to their brims and limits are now even reduced down to a one-man passage path. Porters shout, “Hurry up, make way”.
Vendors are seen hurrying too, shouting, “sales, sales”. Security guards also hurry. They want to run forward and chase away the street vendors. There is some confiscation of articles to be made.
Mini-bus taxis also hurry as they have to make another round before it is too late.
Pickpockets and thieves too rush. They have things to snatch away and run before they are caught red-handed. Merkato is fast changing its face.
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