A visit to the Merkato in Arbaminch in the early to middle seventies was a important moment for my brother and me. We more often accompanied Keffne, the grade eleventh student who stayed in the out-house of the house in which we lived. The main items we bought from the market were, eggs, chickens, goats, and local butter. Forget about having a lot of vegetables because Ethiopians preferred meat. The moment we reached close to the market, the distinct, rather strong rancid scent of the local butter wafted through the air. These lumps of butter were wrapped in dried banana tree bark. We often put a couple of Cloves to the butter while heating it to make butter oil so that we could get rid of the rancid smell! The Ethiopian women often applied this butter to their hair which they then proceeded to cover with a, “Shash” or scarf in Amharic.
The excited buzz of the market resonated with people calling out their prices, and the voices of those extolling the virtues of their products could be heard clearly. My dad, whenever he accompanied us bargained very hard, often bringing down the price drastically. My brother and I could only watch with horror as he always drove a tough bargain, but then we later realised that it was never low enough to harm the sellers! On such occasions I’d say to Dad, “It’s O.K. Dad, I think the price is good enough!” and he’d answer, “No, son, he is still asking so much for the Rooster.” Saying this, he would walk away only to be called by the seller who’d finally agreed to the price. Both my brother and I would look at each other and breathe a sigh of relief.
We would often thread through the stalls selling an assortment of stuff, lumps of sulphur, shiny crystals which they ground to make dark Kohl which the women applied to their eyes. Vegetable, few in variety included potato, Sweet potato, Tapioca, carrot, the local spinach leaves termed, “Kosta”. The Kosta when cooked turned into thick leaves with a distended texture, and of course the arm thick sugar cane stalks. Spices and lentils were also sold. The shacks were basically plastic sheets stretched on four sticks driven into the beaten earth platforms slightly raised from the ground as a preventive measure from flooding when it rained. My brother and I would often plead with father to buy some sugar cane stems to carry back home which we then proceeded to strip off the thick covering prior to chewing it. Corn was sold in two forms, corn which was removed from the corn cobs and the corn cobs with the corn still attached. Both forms could be boiled or roasted. Bananas came in two different varieties, the local variety had a very slick and oily looking skin, while the second variety had powdery textured light yellow skin. This was the variety we preferred at home. Papayas were sold in basketfuls. Funnily enough, the sheep with thick tails were favoured over goats because the goat meat had an overpoweringly strange smell about it. So, in Rural Ethiopia mutton preferably consists of Sheep Meat unlike the case in India! Eggs were sold by the dozen and the sellers had a bowl of water in which to submerse the eggs. We had learned that eggs that had gone bad float while those that were good would sink. Some sellers also sold “Injera” the local pancake which was made of the “Teff” grain. The local black bread known as “Ambasha” was also available. This black bread had a unique taste somewhat sour in tone and seemed to have been fermented. But then “Ambasha” was made out of dough that had been left a little too long so that fermentation set in. This helped it stay good for long periods of time. Another variety of unleavened bread sold in the Merkato was the thick bread made of cornflower. This was cooked for a long period of time on a slow-burning wood fire. We found it hard to cook it at home so we always got this rather tasty bread from the Merkato.
Another rather strange sight was that of dried Pemmican, or dried fish being sold in the market. “Quanta” or dried pemmican was in the form of dried beef or dried fish. Fresh fish was often dried in the blazing sun till it was stiff. The lack of moisture would help prevent the meat from going bad over a long period of time. Some of the dried pemmican was often strung from strings more as a display of the wares being sold.
In the market, I would excitedly exclaim to my brother, “Look at those sheep with the thick tails!” and he would in turn say, “Look at that Red Rood Cock!” and sure enough, he had sharp claws and a regal crown! Not everything that we saw in the market was however good, as for example the beggars suffering from leprosy, missing limbs, and then there were those suffering from Elephantiasis! Being children we were naturally frightened of such sights and avoided them at all cost!
When we returned from the Merkato, each one of us would be holding our trophies. One of us brothers would be balancing a long sugar-cane stem, while the other would be holding on to a bag of vegetables. Keffne would on the other hand be dangling the red rooster by the legs! Often we were so badly overloaded with stuff that we had to book the services of a porter, “coolie” as he was called rather disparagingly. The porter would carry part of the stuff balanced on his head. Sometimes one of us would be leading a sheep home.
The Merkato was close to our house so we would always walk down to the Market. Taking the car to the market was foolhardy enough. We always went to the market in Arbaminch in the mornings so that we could return home by twelve in the afternoon as lunch would have to be prepared from the provisions we had bought. The Chicken took a lot of time to cook, unlike the broilers which cook in an instant!