Mercato deserves a museum as a potential tourist attraction

The history of Mercato, the biggest open-air market in Africa, as it has been advertised in old tourist posters, is now shedding its old and shabby face and assuming new looks that are dubbed modern. Our concept of modernity largely depends on our individual perceptions.

If modernity means the destruction of the old or ramshackle houses and their replacement with new structures, we can consider Mercato a place that is indeed undergoing transformation and modernity. Yet, if modernity means preserving the good old things of the past in order to give meaning and continuity to the present and the future, we may think twice or have reservations, before calling Mercato a modern marketplace.

Continuity and change are important concepts. There is no modernity without the old and there is no change without continuity. If you break the links that ties these concepts, what you may get is a break between past and present, change and continuity. Without going into philosophical discourse and conceptual analysis, we may think that the change and continuity that is taking place in and around Mercato is incomplete.

The old is being totally demolished to give place to the new not on aesthetic or other grounds but because of purely economic consideration. Yet, Mercato is not built on money alone. It has anthropological, historical, aesthetical and economic components. If you ignore one component the entire edifice of modernization is threatened with crumbling.

Mercato came into being at definite period in the history of Addis Ababa. It started as a kind of small village market and assumed its present proportion thanks to the people who came from the four corners of the nation to buy and sell goods and services and make money to change their lives. The Italian fascist occupiers called it Mercato indigino which means in Italian the market for natives or indigenous market.

The fascists tried to impose a racially segregated township structure on Addis Ababa but their idea was snuffed out quickly by the march of events. A market for the white settlers around Piazza and one for the black natives around what is actually known as Mercato was the foundation of a new colonial arrangement. The fascists lost the bet and Mercato continued its existence without them and without bothering to change its original name.

In fact, Mercato is a kind of ‘little Ethiopia” as far its demographic composition is concerned. For instance, we find people of the south in what is known as the shemma terra where amazing works of arts and crafts combine to give you outstanding clothes that the local people wear. This is a process that combines skills with culture and identity. You can go to the butter and honey quarters of Mercato and find scores of people from the Gurage ethnic group.

Sidamo Terra is mostly frequented by merchants from Sidama Zone in the south. The Amahras are represented by the grain, salt, honey and butter merchants of Gojjam Berenda, a place in Mercato where people from the Amhara Region abound. There are Oromo merchants of Mercato you find around.

 In brief, every part of Mercato exhibits it evolutionary past that it carries forwards into its present and future. If you destroy the link between their past and their present and future, you may destroy the entire chain and this is what is sometimes happening when we reconstruct a place under the flagship of modernity. We should rather think about preserving the past as we build the present.

The facelift that is going on around the old Menelik Palace these days can give a good example of how to build the future without destroying the past. If you pull down the old structures and replace them with state of the arts buildings, it may sound modern but without the soul of the past. Thus there is nothing you hand down to the present and less to posterity.

Mercato, like any part of Addis Ababa needs modernity without destruction of its past. It has already lost its past when old houses were destroyed entirely and replaced by high-rising structures. In the process, its lost is flavors, smells, cultures, people and traditions. No one thought about preserving these relics while modernizing the big market. Fortunately, it is not yet too late to do so.

Mercato is no more an open market. The old terras (or parts of the market) are leaving the area to high rise buildings. The narrow alleys and footpaths are being replaced with cobblestone lane. A new modern era is certainly dawning over the old market which was once called Addis Ketema (new town). Another new town is emerging on the ruins of the old town. Yet, Mercato is also committing cultural anthropological and historical suicide by getting its past destroyed in the name of modernity.

Personally, my idea or memory of Mercato is a low-roofed houses sheltering the cultures, habits, odors and flavors of the tens of thousands of the people of all cultures that come and go to Mercato every day in a kind of collective enterprise of doing business the Ethiopian way.

My idea of Mercato largely resembles the houses, alleys and footpaths Egyptian writer, the late Naguid Mahfouz so intimately, lovingly and clinically described in his classic novel, “Middaq Alley” and used them as backdrops for the drama that was unfolding in the backyards where the book’s characters fight their daily battles and survive.

The web-like alleys and footpaths of Mercato, and those particularly around etan terra (or the incense quarter), bomb terra where they don’t sell bombs but mainly light consumer goods imported from distant lands. How are you going to preserve all these things or even memories of these things if you destroy everything in the name of modernity and profit?

The modernization of Mercato is a fact but its modernizers should think about preserving what is worth preserving from its glorious past when people came there and rose from rags to riches. The story of the rise and growth of Asfaw Wosen Hotel and the family of tycoons who built it is not a legend but a real part of Mercato’s lore. How many tycoons lived and did business in Mercato and left for better opportunities elsewhere? There were indeed many of them.

Mercato is not a one-dimensional story. It has its failures as well as its success stories. It was frequented by the insane that loiter around khat terra, where the narcotic leaves are sold and consumed, and where distributors have made themselves of famous tycoons and built so many high rises right in the heart of the capital.

The old Mercato is not totally demolished at this stage. There are still vacant plots and spaces that could perhaps be used to construct a kind of exhibition center for the old Mercato. Pictures, samples of goods, statues and statuettes (from the present artifacts quarter) could go into making the visible culture of the slowly disappearing old Mercato.

We can preserve the traditional dresses and clothing, the musical instruments and tools sold and bought in Mercato not only to preserve for posterity but also to hand them down to the coming generations of merchants who would certainly get inspiration from the achievements of their predecessors. The stories and tales of famous tycoons can be preserved in the exhibition center to be visited by local as well as foreign tourists.

We can even preserve the smell and flavor of Mercato by creating a stand for the multitudes of incenses and peppers and spices that are parts of Mercato’s specialties. Mercato’s old tej bets where the famous honey-flavored alcoholic drink is sold and where the loonies, the thieves and respected gentlemen of Mercato frequented, did business or discussed politics and daily life. These are also anthropological pieces whose worth may not be evident now but might one day become rare souvenir pieces worth making money and providing invaluable information.

My bet is that tourists might not be interested to walk into the new high rises to see what the old Mercato looked like. They would certainly ask about the old Mercato and its life, they might have read in books or seen in video clips. That is the Mercato they are going to ask you to show them in the future. A new museum for the old Mercato would not only be a feast for the eyes. It will also be the place where the memories and lives of millions of people who shaped Mercato in its old days. That would be a place worth preserving not only for its anthropological worth.

It would also be a potential money-spinner as foreign tourists might flock and see it and compare it with its new and modern face and marvel at the transformations that have taken place and the histories that had been written with the sweat of its merchants, its memorable and ordinary people that frequented it for decades and left their indelible marks.

The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition 4 August 2019


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