Aksum, Negash, Dire Dawa: Ethiopian Markets

Dire Dawa


27 April 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

“I finally feel like I am in Ethiopia”

In Aksum, after visiting the historic sites, my guide Germay took me to the weekend market.  He tried to stay close to me.  I suppose he was concerned that I would get disoriented or lost.   

In truth, from the time I started to travel alone, in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, one of my favorite activities is to wander and get lost in the local markets.  In Northern Ethiopia, we found a raucous market at Negash and a flour mill at Abraha Atsbeha.

But the first market was in Aksum.  And when Germay found me, I admitted to him, “I finally feel like I am Ethiopia.”

Markets in Ethiopia are nothing like the supermarkets or malls in the West.  Herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables, grains and grasses are laid out on the ground in small piles. Since the Lenten season is coming to an end, live chickens and goats are on display.  For transportation, donkeys and camels are “parked” nearby.

Perhaps Germay was concerned that the local people would take offence at my presence.  (I am the only white guy around.) The fact is almost no one pays any attention to me.  Everyone is concentrating on bartering, buying and selling.  Sometimes the kids gather around for a photo op.

For whatever their reason, some of the local people are annoyed that I take their photo.  Usually the men are indifferent, but if they seem disturbed, I just smile back and use body language to communicate my sincere apology.  I make it clear that I have not and will not take their photo.

The women are a different story.

In my experience, everywhere in the world, many women are reluctant to be photographed.  I don’t know why.   Maybe they think they will not look good in the photo.  In Ethiopia, as in many parts of the world, women are also shy.  So if I find a likely subject, and she is watching me, I first smile and raise my camera.  At that point I use a facial expression to “plead.”

Frequently, the women will turn away and cover their face with their scarf.  I am patient. When they turn back to me, I smile and “plead” again.  If that doesn’t work, I show them other photos on the LCD monitor.  Mostly they will “relent” and provide a broad smile back to my lens.  It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, but eventually, the girls are happy to pose.  Sometimes, ladies just need a little coaxing?

Other times, I must admit, I walk away.


 Here in Dire Dawa, “I finally feel like I am in Africa.”

East of Addis Ababa, headed toward the Somali desert, Dire Dawa attracts Afar herders, Somali pastoralists and Oromo farmers.  This area has a distinctly Muslim feel.  And in defiance of the monotony of the desert, the women dress in a multitude of outrageous colors.  And so, through the Moorish style, horseshoe arches, I delve into the narrow lanes of the chaotic Kafira Market.  

Dire Dawa is off the normal tourist route so my presence causes a bit of commotion – a mini festival.  Me and my camera seem to bring out the best in the people here.  Kids follow me around.  Men and women are kind and welcoming.  I even get one marriage proposal. (Or was it two?  I think the sisters were competing.)  

I wander and wander.  I think I could wander for hours.  I am so comfortable here in the market.   I love the colors.   I love the chaos.  I love the smiles.  I love the way this colorful chaos makes me feel.  I love the way the people make me feel.  And if I get lost?  Well, that’s the fun, isn’t it! 

The Historical Circuit of Northern Ethiopia was most certainly a worthwhile trip - a trip for the mind.  The stelae and the statues and the churches are fascinating and even unique.  And the mountain scenery is exquisite. But my heart is here, in the camel market, at the grain mill, and in the food markets, especially in Eastern Ethiopia. 

As I scroll my memory, as I type these words, as I review the photographs of the happy children, the handsome, engaging men, the beautiful, charming women, I admit that my emotions are strong.  I think the markets bring out the best in me. 

I finally feel like I am in Africa.  With Africans.

I finally feel I am somewhere different.  Somewhere special.


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