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An afternoon in the merkato

by on August 13, 2013

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By Allison Hess

On the third day, the group met for our daily morning meeting at the Bus Cafe. This cafe, where far too many croissants and coffees were consumed throughout the trip, was where we all met with our reporting partners each day.

I was talking with my fixer, Haimanot, telling him that I wanted to photograph coffee merchants in the Merkato that afternoon. The Merkato, Italian for market, is not only the largest open-air market in Ethiopia, but in Africa as well. It consists of seven square miles of closet-sized vendors, carrying everything from coffee and spices to clothing and gifts.

His eyes became shifty after I expressed interest in visiting this area of Addis Ababa.

“Oh you want to go to Merkato…” he said. “That is a very popular part of the city, but also a very dangerous area.”

I put the precaution in the back of my mind and met him and Professor Bruce Thorson at the Addis Ababa University front gate a few hours later.

We hopped into a two-toned, blue-and-white taxi and set off for the Merkato. With the hum of the engine and the smell of exhaust seeping through the back window, I sat and attempted to prepare myself. Our taxi screeched to a halt. I realized that nothing could have prepared me for what I was thrown into once my foot exited the taxi and stepped onto the gravel road. The incessant sound of car horns amidst the fast-paced language of Amharic entranced me.

The shutter of Bruce’s camera quickly broke my daze as he began to photograph a small boy posing with a ball on top of his head. I smiled at the child and he returned the greeting, but the moment was cut short when a woman swiftly wagged her index finger at me and my camera and then pointed toward the ground. I am still unsure what she meant by that.

Haimanot then grabbed my forearm and motioned for us to move on.

“Do you know where the coffee area is?” I asked him, still mesmerized with my surroundings.

He assured me that he did, but we wandered around for what seemed to be an hour, denying countless outstretched arms of merchants wanting us to buy any and everything that they were selling.

“Remember, your camera,” Haimanot reiterated at one point, warning me again of the danger of the Merkato. “The children can sometimes be the worst.”

Bruce began to smile at a small group of children that became fearful of his hook. He teased them for a minute, but Haimanot again gestured us to follow him down an alley off of one of the main roads.

It is then that I saw what I had traveled almost 8,000 miles to find. We traversed through a narrow path, lined with enormous bags of coffee beans. As I walked, I was bombarded with children. I thought of Haimanot’s warning, that children thieves were prominent in Ethiopia. However, as they swarmed me, they stopped and smiled. I realized that they had no intention of stealing from me, but simply wanted me to take their picture.

We meandered until we reached the end of the alleyway. As I turned my head right, another row of merchants emerged. The sun broke through the cracks in the tin roofs and onto women of all ages, blocking the path, sorting coffee beans.

The women continued to pick through an unfathomable number of smooth, brown coffee beans. Men standing above them implied that we should pay them for pictures, but the women, using bags of coffee to lean on, objected to the idea and simply laughed, as if to put me at ease. While photographing them,  the women occasionally buried their faces in their ornate scarves. Ultimately, they continued their work, selecting and sifting through each individual coffee bean. However, because the area was crowded, we had began to effect their business. After a sufficient amount of time, we exited the walkway and made our way back to the university.

It was on the taxi ride back when what I had witnessed that afternoon began to sink in. These people were the backbone of Addis Ababa. The merchants, women and children work in this back alley day in and day out, doing most likely the same thing everyday. Yet they were the happiest people I had seen in the months before the trip. They could have quickly dismissed me, but they did not.

For me, that afternoon symbolized the city Addis Ababa. Sure, the Merkato, like the city, was packed full of people that are constantly moving every which way, but this alley of coffee merchants, hidden off the beaten path, served as a refuge of silence, occupied with hospitable people.

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