A visit to an African market

African market, market
One of Africa’s best attractions are its markets. Full of vibrant life and color, an African market always makes for a fascinating visit.

Harar has one big and several smaller markets. There used to be one at each of its five gates, but some have dwindled to barely half a dozen women selling tomatoes and potatoes. The only big gate markets now are at Assum Gate, where there’s a busy market for qat, Africa’s favorite narcotic leaf, and at Asmaddin Gate, which has a huge market–Harar’s biggest and some say the second biggest in Ethiopia, with only Addis Ababa’s famous Merkato being bigger. Merkato is unfair competition since it’s the biggest African market of all!

The markets are dominated by the Oromo, a different ethnic group than the Hararis. The Hararis live in town and the Oromo farm the surrounding countryside. Most sell fresh produce and you’ll see piles of fresh vegetables as well as sacks of grain. People also sell manufactured goods, mostly cheap Chinese imports such as shoes, blankets, radios, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The Oromo have a strict segregation of the sexes at the market. Only women sell food, while men will often sell manufactured items. Men never sell qat. In his Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby tells a story of an Oromo man whose wife had died. Needing money, he went to the market with a bundle of qat. He was laughed out of town and even years later he was known as “the man who tried to sell qat.” Nobody could explain to me why this division of labor exists; it’s just the way it is.

%Gallery-119721%The markets start at daybreak and Oromo from the more distant villages set off from home well before dawn, sometimes carrying their produce for miles. The women balance amazingly heavy loads on their heads, keeping their backs perfectly straight and walking in neat lines along Harar’s narrow alleyways.

Prices for food are pretty much set, although you can always haggle a little bit. For manufactured goods expect a long struggle as you and the vendor clash over the price. It’s not a frantic as Arab markets but it’s still an amusing battle of wits.

Inside the walls of the old city are a few major streets lined with shops and one open-air market called Gidir Magala. It used to be the largest in town but now it’s only a few dozen covered stalls selling produce. Next to it is a firewood market and a meat market. Oromo women lead donkeys loaded with wood from this market to deliver to private homes. Women who can’t afford a donkey carry giant bundles of wood on their head. There’s also a huge blue water tank where people fill twenty-liter yellow plastic jugs. With Harar’s water shortage, porters are busy carting piles of these jugs on wheelbarrows to people’s houses.

Women also sit by the sides of the major streets and squares selling food. One cooks up delicious samosas. Several more sit behind piles of peanuts, selling packets of them for one birr (six cents) each. Others sell bananas. You don’t have to go far to find a snack.

Besides the markets, there are wandering vendors selling everything from posters to perfume. It’s a hard life, walking around all day trying to sell things people generally don’t want. These folks don’t make many sales but they manage to contribute a little to the family income. One guy who is a common sight in the Old City carrying the same three bottles of perfume should get an award for persistence. Every day for the past couple of weeks I’ve asked him if he’s made a sale, and every day he shakes his head sadly. Yesterday, though, he strode up to me, looking a foot taller, and announced that he had sold a bottle.

One item that does sell well are lottery tickets. I guess I’m not eligible to win because the lottery guys are the only street vendors who don’t try to sell to me. Everyone else keeps trying, even the perfume seller After a month in town, the shoeshine boys in front of my favorite café are still trying to shine my Gore-Tex hiking boots.

I hate shopping at home, but shopping is never dull in Africa!

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization!