By Dandew Serbello - November 15, 2001
My two previous letters dealt with terrorism which is as it should be. Today I want to give you a break. Please relax and enjoy the jumble market of salvaged food in Mercato, the largest, is it the biggest(?) open market in Africa.
The grandeur of the open market in Africa, is not only an expression reflecting the size and volume of the transaction place. It is my conviction that there is much more to it judging by what one can see and experience things happening right on site like I did recently. Mercato at present couldnít be better than Shanghai of yesteryears. Whether one knew the most densely populated capital or not, however, makes little difference. I mean there canít be anything more, in terms of density of population, than walking at snail pace as a bundle without even being able to see what is ahead of you a meter away. You just see an oncoming face or the back of a man or better still the bottom of a woman, whether you like the view or not, all you can manage is to plod with difficulty forward as you approach the center of Mercato. I used to entertain my high school classmates by mimicking Mr. P.C. Kourian, our Math teacher, who used to tease students by making gestures and movements like a dog wagging its tails. He was telling us that in his place (the place where he comes from, perhaps Madras) almost every body was literate that if someone threw a stone to the air, that pebble will sure fall to rest on the head of a man holding at least a masters degree! I canít say that again for my people in Mercato but take it from me that if a flying object were to plummet from the air in Mercato, (May God forbid evils surge into the ears of Bin Laden and Co.) I am sure it will rest on the head of a human being or a pack animal even if it may not plunge onto the head of a masters holder like we were told it was the case in India.
I have a demographer friend who tries to console me by telling me that Thomas Malthus, born in 1774, is still going strong! His humor is not wasted on me. Nature or man or both, I am not sure which, is canceling out population growth by the deadly virus needless to mention its ID here, not to speak of the no less deadly virus of terrorism and its effects on population reduction if not poverty reduction.
All sorts of people converge into and diverge from Mercato every working day particularly on Saturdays and Wednesdays. I think another attribute for the grandeur of Mercato is the simple fact that almost anything, except perhaps fish, (and who cares for the dead fish in Mercato?) is available for sale. You may add the exception is the human soul and flesh. The renowned Laureate Poetís ďAy MercatoĒ [Tesgaye G/Medhin], best describes Mercato with all its impressions. (Gash Tsegaye, do you read me? I feel ashamed and torture myself because of what you know. I hope some one would bring this site to your attention if you could spare me your forgiveness and compromise with yourself to care for a visit.)
Millions and millions of birr circulates in transaction in Mercato. And millions of people live off Mercato. You canít starve in Mercato. Except for a few physically incapacitated ones, people never beg in Mercato. They donít have to. All a starving but healthy young man has to do is walk the streets of Addis towards the market and stay put until a hurried bloc drags him to his delivery van to load him with a bundle and hand him a few birr.
Having money in oneís pocket, I fail to see any reason why one should beg or starve. One can feed himself to his hearts content if only one knows where to find the recycle bin. I canít tell you the direction in terms of blocks turns to the right or to the left like they do it in England or anywhere in the western world. We just donít have blocks and straight lines to take as terms of references to make turns left or right in Addis leave alone Mercato. Sorry, this is not a matter of ideology where you take left or right sides. Give a warm and broad smile to a shopkeeper nearby and ask. Thatís all you need to do to find it. You wonít miss it.
Assuming to have found the right place, one has to queue for a while until oneís turn comes. Payment is made in advance advisedly perhaps, and the price ranges from the smallest denomination of our currency and goes up to 50 Ethiopian cents. This one fetches you two bigger morsels or mouthfuls of salvaged food left over from meaty stew tastes and odors. If you are lucky you may even feel some barren and thorny bones inside the morsel. Lesser payment gets you lesser roll in quantity and more riff raff in quality. Incidentally, you can be served your hands in pocket if only you opened your mouth as wide as you needed to.
Where the retailers get the merchandise, you may ask. The transaction takes place in two or three ranks depending on the case. The first importers or wholesalers, shall we say, are the guardsmen of big hotels. The receivers are usually their girlfriends or kinsmen who take the load and distribute it to retailers with a stall and stand to give the service of rolling balls of mouthful morsels and putting them in between the thirty or so pearls of clients that can manage to keep their body and soul together this way and walk tall in Mercato instead of stooping down to the business of begging. Poverty reduction in a miniscule scale you may joke. Let me reduce my letter to a period here.
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