To Market to Market

One of the coolest things about Ethiopia are the markets. By “cool” I also mean overwhelming and fascinating and frustrating. I love to go, but I saturate fast. The dirt lanes are full of garbage, donkey carts rattle through, the market is divided into sections so that there is stall after stall of metal working things, then stall after stall of plastic flip flops, then stall after stall of spices and coffee beans. A man walks around with a yoke over his shoulder, live chickens dangling from each side. I wish I could hover above the market and observe for hours, with camera in hand, safely out of the way. But that is impossible. To visit such a market is to be consumed by said market.

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So in a nutshell, here are some rules from Travis that I’ve adapted and absorbed:

  • Don’t stop moving for long. You (assuming you, like me, are a ferenji (foreigner)) will attract a crowd.
  • Don’t stop paying attention to your money and your passport for a second.
  • Don’t accept help from a “helper”, someone who goes around the market offering help to ferenji just because you don’t want to be rude. They will expect a tip, or they will negotiate higher prices at some of the stalls in return for a commission from the stall owners. If you don’t mind paying the higher price this actually is not a bad way to go as they speak English and know their way around the market, but make sure you take charge – be clear about what you want and don’t want, about what you will pay and will not pay and decide in advance how much to tip them.
  • Don’t be surprised to pay 2-10x the price if you do not want to haggle. Assume the offered price is at least twice as much as the habasha (Ethiopian) price.
  • Don’t renege on an offered price. If you counter-offer and the seller eventually comes down to your price, you should buy it even if you have changed your mind.
  • And most of all, decide how much you want to pay in advance. To put things in perspective, 100 birr is $5. In developing countries there are people living on $1/day. To an American, just about anything you can find at the market is very very affordable. If, like Travis, you enjoy haggling then find your joy in getting something down from 400 birr to 200 birr (odds are the 200 birr price is still a touch overpriced, you aren’t ripping off anyone). But remember, that is only a $10.00 price difference. If you really want something and are uncomfortable haggling, just go for it. You’ll make their day. After all, which of us is more likely to have a bit to spare?

Even when these rules are followed the market is really more enjoyable with someone along who is not a novice. Travis is great fun to market with. Adina, our home help here in Bahir Dar, is also fun. And since the market is divided into different areas, Adina can be more useful than Travis because she knows where everything is and walks unerringly there rather than wandering. Inevitably, chasing a red-haired man and toting two blonde and blue-eyed kids along, I draw a crowd. On occasion, it’s a bit more like a parade. This is frequently frustrating but is best borne with grace and dignity (the occasional four letter word muttered under one’s breath is also useful here).

Travis is always drawn to the tools and implements. There are gorgeous cast-iron tools that you can buy and then make your own wooden handles for.

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Travis actually got into trouble with this on his first trip to Ethiopia as a grad student – some sharp metal garden tools showed up on a security scan as he was boarding the flight back to the US, and he was pulled off the plane to have a one-on-one chat with security. Everything was fine, and security had a good laugh about the ferengi gardener. When Travis got back on the plane his fellow grad students asked what the problem had been, and he replied (shouting over the sound of the plane engine) that he’d just had some trouble with some Ethiopian hoes. Imagine the long pause that followed that comment.

I find myself drawn to the ceramic kitchen pieces, baskets, and blankets. James, of course, homes in on the toys and also has to be aggressively stopped from grabbing the gum that young boys walk around the market selling. And many markets have other touristy items such as gorgeous banana-paper wall hangings, woolen animals and rugs, and embroidered scarves and bedding that all make great gifts.

But even more interesting are the parts of the market that cater to daily life… the plastic wastebaskets and kitchen supplies, the shoes and clothing, the bags and luggage. The electronics and plug-in kitchen gadgets. The service stalls with irons and loaded up sewing machines ready for alterations and mending. And then there is the food! Sacks and sacks upon sacks of green coffee beans, lentils, rice, spices, etc.

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This part is becoming increasingly interesting for me because I never really bought any before – getting non-packaged food through customs is challenging at best, especially food from a developing country. But now that we are here long enough, I’m starting to buy food and I’m viewing the markets here not just as a tourist shopping destination, but as a part of our home shopping routine.

So here we go. New rules for shopping for our home!

  • Certain things can only be purchased at these markets. Green coffee beans for roasting at home, for example. Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee we of course decided anything less than this was a cop out… so now Adina, our home help, also helps us make coffee “from scratch.”
  • Ordering food by the kilo (and a kilo is 2.2 pounds) is usually the easiest way to go.
  • Always ask the price first before asking someone to bag up a kilo. Sentono….?
  • Buying things as close to the source as possible can be really fun – certain purchases you will likely never find at home in the States, like this honey that still has all the wax in it. Travis and James bought 10 kilos and are trying to separate the wax from the honey to make their own candles.

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  • Many many things can be purchased at the small stalls along the main road near our house so always check road stalls first before considering buying at the market. For example, essentials such as bottled water, matches, toilet paper, sugar, dabo (white bread), injeera (sour teff-flour “pancake”) and salt can all be purchased at road stalls. This is so much more convenient than the bigger markets, and supporting the neighborhood is incredibly satisfying.
  • Especially at the road stalls, don’t get hung up on the nickels and dimes. I don’t usually haggle at these places. Here’s what I’ve been buying lately (and the Ethiopian words are my own chicken-scratch spelling!):- tomatin (tomatoes), 1 kilo = 14 birr ($0.75)

    dinitch (potatoes), 1 kilo = 6 birr ($0.30)

    musser (lentils), 1 kilo = 31 birr ($1.50)

    carrote (carrots), 1 kilo = 12 birr ($0.60)

    gomen (cabbage head), 1 head/1 kilo = 7 birr ($0.40)

    injeera (um, injeera), 1 large “pancake” = 3 birr ($0.10)

    costa (chard), 1 bunch = 3 birr ($0.10)

    banana (banana), 1 kilo = 15 birr ($0.75)

I’m looking forward to marketing becoming something I do regularly and get better at. So far, the only thing I’ve successfully haggled over was something I didn’t intend to haggle over. Travis wanted a large stovetop coffeepot but they wanted 450 birr, which is $23. This is a lot of money at the market! He said no and made his own offer, they counter-offered, and eventually Travis asked my opinion and I said don’t get it. You like to get coffee out and about three or four times a day anyways, we have a small stovetop one already, yadda yadda. Rather than haggle with the stall owner I was actually trying to talk my husband out of a non-necessary purchase. And somehow I won. Or lost? Cause, go back to the rules at the beginning, she went down to the price Travis originally asked for ($10) so he felt obligated to get it even though I had presented very compelling reasons to not buy it at all. So he congratulated me on my first successful haggle, and I just made a snorting noise through my nose. Travis has actually used the pot regularly, even while continuing to support the coffee vendors, so I guess it’s fair to call it my first win!

Aside from the obvious sensory impacts, from the urge to buy cheap and fun tourist gifts, and from the joy of the successful haggle, the market feels vibrant and central to life here in Bahir Dar. There are locals, expats, tourists, everyone. People come to the market, or at least to road stalls, every day to purchase food and necessities. This is sort of true even in rural areas where Saturdays are the market days and people come to a central point from villages all around to lay out tarps and spread out their wares.

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And while I appreciate the comfort and ease of the big American car and the vast, well-stocked American grocery store I find myself not missing those luxuries at all. Here when I shop I see people leaving the market with mattresses or baskets perched precariously on their heads, I dodge donkey carts and chickens, I am assaulted by smells and sounds. And closer to home the road stall gal asks me if I plan to use these tomatoes tonight or tomorrow, as if shopping more than one day in advance is inconceivable. Although the market itself will never feel easy or familiar, what it represents resonates deeply. To market to market!

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One comment

  1. Mary McGrath

    Riva, this is wonderfully written, and so informative! You give such an in-depth look at a central part of your lives now. Sounds like all is well.

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