I knew I was lost when I found myself surrounded by dozens of newly made coffins. They were piled against the walls: adult size, child size, baby size and all smelling of freshly sawn timber. Addis Ababa’s merkato is a huge sprawling city within a city; a market so vast that no one seems to be sure where it exactly begins or ends and I had been wandering around it for hours. I’d heard from a local that you could buy absolutely anything here and so for fun I thought I’d go shopping – for a Kalashnikov.
Finding what you want is a mammoth task in a market commonly thought to be the largest in Africa. There is street after street of endless – well – stuff. I found the street where old cardboard boxes come to die, the street where used ‘US AID’ containers and cans are resold as kitchen sieves and pans. There’s a timber street, tupperware street, belt street, tyre street and of course the coffin street where I finally realised I had no idea where I was. Wafts of spice and incense, leather and sawn wood mingled in the air as I watched an old man methodically sand a timber panel to fit on to a tiny coffin.
If there’s one place in the world where you could buy a gun along with your weekly groceries it would be here in the merkato. Its winding crowded alleyways are home to thousands of stalls selling everything from the mediocre, to the strange, to the downright bizarre. And in a nation which spent much of the last half of the 20th Century wracked by civil war, under the vice-like grip of a bloody dictatorship, a Kalashnikov stall doesn’t seem that weird. The trouble is finding it among the mishmash of the market roads.
The incoherent jumble of the market is a mirror of the city itself. From its humble beginnings as a tented settlement at the start of last century, Addis has grown and sprawled outwards in every direction becoming a massive shambles of a city. The main inner-city districts are connected by the uphill thoroughfare of Churchill Avenue where, at its southern base, the shoe-shine boys listlessly lounge awaiting customers. Earlier that day a long walk to the top of Churchill Avenue had brought me to Piazza; once the prestigious centre of Italian Addis Ababa and now a bustling hub which pulsates with the beat of a hundred sound systems all competing for prominence.
From a pavement table I had watched a gleaming NGO 4-wheel-drive sound its horn impatiently as a young boy herded a flock of goats across the street. I’d skirted the afro-headed hipsters selling fake-name sunglasses on the pavement, and hopped aboard one of the minibuses that buzz around the city’s spaghetti bowl of streets. That’s what had deposited me in the effervescent soul of the capital, the merkato, where all Addis’ inhabitants come to shop, to trade, to sell. Locals seem to know instinctively where everything is in this vast hive of commerce, but I’m not a local and the warren of alleyways had me beat.
I had asked every local I met for directions. Been pointed down side streets, drawn maps in the dust and taken by my wrist to the end of alleyways by helpful shopkeepers amused by this faranji attempting to search out the Kalashnikov stall. In a litter-strewn lane a man who looked like he’d walked out of a 1940s gangster movie – all sharp pinstripes and shiny pointed shoes – had given me vague directions that sent me deeper into the market’s depths. Outside a shack, held together with string and hope, a prune-faced grandmother had told me to turn left. I wandered around yet another corner and found myself caught up in a curtain of polka-dot patterned ties. The shopkeeper grinned as I clumsily untangled myself from his display. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly when I asked him directions so I continued to weave my way into the belly of the market; this maze of skinny streets and dead ends that seemed to go on forever.
Ethiopia remains one of the cheapest countries in the world in which to buy a Kalashnikov. It was the weapon of choice for the rebel-forces during the long and painful civil war that plunged the nation into chaos from the late 1970s to 1991. Today life continues to be cheap in Ethiopia and a Kalashnikov can sell for as little as £20. With on-going outbreaks of inter-tribal violence and a high incidence of banditry in rural regions of the country the popularity of this weapon continues unabated – if you can find one of course.
The old man finished sanding down the coffin and wiped his brow with a dirty rag. I wandered through an alley crammed with gaudy plastic flowers and wreaths where a tiny wrinkled Amhara woman, with an intricate cross tattooed on her forehead, smiled up at me as she added some dazzling pink carnations to a display. Old ladies bargained for bright plastic bowls as I passed by while a young man sorted through piles of rip-off football premiership t-shirts. Music blared from a beaten-up tape-player that perched precariously on a wall. I was hot, tired and thirsty and I still hadn’t found my gun.
I turned down yet another corner and found myself amid the mayhem of the main road. A minibus screeched to a halt in front of me and the driver beckoned me into his already crammed van. I paused, longingly looking back at the maze of streets. I’d found the fruit street, the herb street, the spice street and the tie street but the Kalashnikov street had evaded me completely. I sighed and squeezed myself into the mass of sweaty bodies already in the bus. It’s probably a blessing I never found it. I can’t imagine how I’d have explained that purchase to Customs.