The market carries the Italianized name of a time of foreign control over the country. But, with no doubt, walking along the little alleys of the place, it is Africa: from stigma to reality. Chaotic, disorganized and no planning, the market offers all kinds of merchandises. And all types of landscape as well.

In less than a twenty minute walk I was already at the center of Mercato. I didn’t go alone. I was accompanied by a local boy who, according to his story, had worked for three months in the local census. However, within a few minutes walking, several people approached him smiling and shouting “Ganja” (which I know from my previous trip to India that it means marijuana). I don’t care. I am more interested in the fact that he has access to and respect in the region, enough to take me away from the touristic beaten path and show me, more in depth, the hidden secrets of this anthropological nook.

Our path shows streets with no asphalt, with no clear definition of beginning or end and is muddy due to the rainy season. An intense movement of people, animals and merchandise. Work horses, goats, beggars, mutilated and sick people circulate with no distinction. Sometimes, lying on the ground, a corpse, either human or animal. During my conversation with my improvised guide I can see over his shoulder a gray and painful landscape. No one seems to note my presence. But my thoughts seem to be plugged to a 220v current.

In terms of businesses, the stores are more or less grouped by activity. Coffee growers on one side, iron handling on the other (exported mainly to Chinese companies for road construction). Vegetables are cut and distributed on the ground of a narrow alley; moving along is quite impossible; clothes and fabrics are manufactured at the end of the long corridor.

Wearing sandals I can feel between my toes the insalubrity of the place. And when I watch the children and the handicapped lying on the same floor that causes me so much discomfort, I feel my feet a bit heavier when I move. I ignore the fact that I saw a dead rat. I am distracted by a beggar whose skin is taken by large blisters and wounds. He exposes his body in the middle of the street and, even though, manages to have looks diverted from him. Not mine. I am no longer looking at him, but his image is etched in my brain.

No time for reflections. Then we entered a symphony of youngsters and children, almost synchronized, hammering long pieces of iron. The raw material must be exported to China. And the profits are also going to the Chinese. Huge pieces of a whitish seasoning are hastily cut and offered to the pedestrians who crowd the few centimeters between the tents.

Most of the clothes are stained in brown. Although some of the clothes and scarves originally had bright colors, wear and tear is stamped on them as a brand label: Ethiopia. There is an area for seasonings. There is an area for craftwork. And there is the “clean” part, with souvenirs and mementos from Ethiopia, inhabited by some few differentiated faces in the crowd: the farengis. Caucasians, foreigners.

Lurking around there is always a crowd of beggars. In a way, they respect the decision of passers-by to share or not their small wealth. On one corner, some officers with their wrinkled uniforms watch the crowd. I witness a theft followed by persecution by the police officer. All fake, accoridng to my young guide. Later on, both will split the profits and many times they also split the rewards for the apprehension and return of some valuable.

From the second floor of a small business I watch and, for the first time, I take pictures. There is no way to capture the energy of the place, nor its several smells. The camera’s lenses cannot see what I am watching. I go downstairs avoiding someone in a wheelchair, whose arms move a pair of pedals. He is being pushed by a young boy covered by a filthy cloth, and together they beg for help. Not to me. My presence here is barely noticed, and I can’t understand why.

The Mercato moves several industries in the city. On one hand, Chinese use the iron produced in the region to build roads, while the Indians explore the manufacturing market. All get together at the market to buy several types of goods. And many see the Mercato as a business opportunity, a place for alms or for a theft. There is room for everybody and, at the same time, everybody tries not to touch others.

A residential area surrounds the market and shelters a major part of the families that work at the Mercato. Alleys of rocks and earth, much less populated. Lying on the ground a few more bodies. It is impossible to understand the vital status of each one of them. While some seem to have chosen the place to get established, with an outstretched small plastic piece in front of them and looking for charity, others seem to have died for lack of option. The residential area is not made for visitors; therefore, I do not spend much time there.

On my way back I opt for a long walk. Several images come to my mind and I need some time to review them. The place is considered one of the largest outdoor markets in the African continent, but I am sure that the place is much more than that. I leave without buying anything, I was told not to carry anything with me. But I take as my luggage a lot of images and impressions of what goes on there.

Leave a Reply.