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Culture & Religion

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: The Gondar Saturday Market

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: The Gondar Saturday Market

During our Peace Corps stay Gondar was an important market town for much of Begemedir Province.

A salt seller with blocks and bulk salt from the Danikel region of Ethiopia. He is wearing his grey coat from the Second World War

The overwhelming majority of residents of the town and countryside met their daily needs by participating in the weekly Saturday market. The market was attended by thousands of people and took place on a large stony field about two miles from our house.

On Saturdays when I wasn’t busy supervising students tending their gardens at the school I would enjoy visiting the market. I was there often enough so vendors knew me and were comfortable with my photographing them at work. Early each Saturday morning farmers and their families from the south and west of Gondar would pass our house with donkeys laden with grain sacks made from sheep skins. One photograph is of a group of farmers passing the tomb of Zobel, the favorite horse of Emperor Fasilides the Great (1632-1667). This monument, located only a few hundred yards from our house, was my favorite of all the historic buildings of Gondar.

Another photo shows a woman on her way to market balancing an empty sheepskin sack on her head (she probably intended to fill it with gesho leaves which she would use to make talla beer). On her back is a baby in a carrier. In her left hand is a colorful chicken which she was selling and in her right hand was the ever present black umbrella.

(Photos: Scenes from the Gondar Market)

On March 30, 1963 I wrote the following after visiting the market:

One of the most unusual items for sale in the market is the Ankalaba, a large tanned leather sheet which women use to carry children on their backs. Men always buy one for the child’s mother. However, they wait a few weeks after the child’s birth to determine if the child will live. The price for an ankalaba is 4 shillings or $2 Eth.

Many sheepskin bags full of gesho leaves for talla making were on sale. Gesho is the dried green leaf which acts as would hops in beer making. A large leather sack full of gesho (about a bushel) cost $1 Eth.

On a high place in the market under the worku tree were hobbled hundreds of donkeys. Some had open sores on their backs. With the mother donkeys were their young who had followed along on the market journey.

John Stockton was with me as we worked our way through the market buying limes and eggs. We’ve always felt very comfortable and safe in the market. As we were standing near the berberi (pepper) saleswomen a young man tried to pick John’s pocket. John punched him hard enough to knock him to the ground. The young man jumped up and took off running. All around us we heard the Ethiopian startled response of “aarah, aarah” followed by shouts of approval of John’s bold action.

In the afternoon several of us borrowed some of the school’s new American baseball equipment and had a pick-up game of baseball on the sports field next to the Zobel monument. Soon there was a crowd of about 100 watching, including two priests sitting out in left field near the monument. Every once in a while we had to stop the game to let a train of donkeys pass on their way home from the market.

Very late in the afternoon Mr. Ooman (Assistant Headmaster) asked Marty Benjamin and me to join him and go to Azozo (the army base a few miles south of Gondar). The purpose of the trip was to measure the heights of students in preparation for the upcoming sports competition. We were chosen to help because we had no vested interest in the outcome of the sports competition. It would be impossible to group students according to age because their birth date in often unknown. In the Azozo school yard were several hundred little squirming students we had to stand up against a wall and group according to height. The Azozo school is quite good as most of the parents are with the army. We’ve heard that about half of the Azozo troops are now serving with the U.N. in the Congo.

On April 27, 1963 Andrea Wright invited all of the other eleven Peace Corps Volunteers to her birthday party. The twelve of us lived in three separate houses. John and Peggy Davis had their own house next to the school. Martin Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I shared a house across from the school. Jack Prebis, Charlie Callahan, Frank Mason, Andrea Wright, Trish Martin-Jenkins and Madelyn Engvall had a compound about a half mile away from the school:

Andrea served anchovies, cream cheese, shrimp hors d’oeuvres and Scotch, teg (honey mead) and soda. For dinner we had hamburgers, salad, zucchini and cake with ice cream. After dinner we all sat around and talked for the first time in many months. The three women have a mini farm behind their house with a chicken house full of multi-colored chickens, a pig, a baby donkey, a ewe with a lamb, two horses and a cat. The best story of the evening was about the acquisition of the donkey. Andrea and her housemates asked several students to go to the Saturday market to buy a baby donkey. At the market the students were confronted by very suspicious farmers who did not understand why foreigners would want to buy a baby donkey. The creative students improvised a story that these women were part of the Peace Corps (Salaam Guad) and were trying to show that all these animals are able to live in peace and thus so should people. The students were very convincing because the returned with a donkey.

Of the twelve of us Dallas Smith was the only one who had inherited the “bargaining gene”. If I ever needed to buy something important in one of the shops near the market I would enlist Dallas’ help and then stand back and watch his performance with awe. Dallas would approach the merchant with all the proper friendly greetings and respect. After asking the price of the object, which was always too high, Dallas would begin to flap his arms and shout “Leba! Leba!” (thief, thief) and threaten to leave.

Within minutes the merchant and Dallas would have agreed on a price and Dallas would be found seated with the merchant behind the counter drinking tiny cups of very strong black coffee. Dallas’ bargaining skills were on display in other ways. At 6:00 P.M. on the days the airplane landed in Gondar, the mail sacks would be opened on the Post Office counter. Across the counter from the clerks sorting the mail, noisy rude foreigners would clamor for their mail.

Dallas had cultivated the postal clerks and treated them with respect, even, at times, bringing them coffee, so they would take special care with our mail. That even carried over to sending packages home. If Dallas mailed our packages the cost was always reasonable.

During the Orthodox Easter fast of 1964 there was no meat available in Gondar for six weeks. Cattle were not for sale and no animals were slaughtered. Somehow, Dallas arranged for a cow to be killed in his yard in the approved Orthodox manner and had the meat divided among seven households.

Dallas captured the whole bloody event with his movie camera. Because he always sent his film home for his mother to develop and show to her friends he could imagine the scene in Winslow, Illinois when the ladies were innocently shown the movie.

At the end of the Saturday market day the farmers would pass my house on their journey home. I enjoyed sitting on my porch watching the parade. Sometimes the young men would sing bawdy songs as they walked along and if they had had a very good day at the market and maybe enjoyed too much talla in a talla bet (beer house) they would playfully foot race their donkeys past Zobel’s monument.