Shopping in Ethiopia

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From traveling, to gathering water, to shopping, life is an adventure in Ethiopia. But more importantly, life in Ethiopia is relational. You see these relationships everywhere.  In the villages way out in the countryside, they depend on one another for help, much like our grandparents depended on their neighbors 80 years ago. You also see these relationships throughout the towns and cities. Nowhere is this more evident than when shopping in Ethiopia.  First, you need to know that everyone in Ethiopia is an entrepreneur. You see this in the hundreds of small store fronts that line the streets of every town and every city. These “shops” can range from a blanket thrown on the ground with goods displayed for sale, to youth carrying bunches of bananas, pineapples or mango and simply walking the edge of the road selling to anyone driving or walking. Of course, you also have the more traditional shops that vary from the size of your bathroom to the size of 7-eleven convenience store. Most shops would compare to the size of a small flea market booth (about 10×10).

As we rode down these streets, I was almost overwhelmed by the number of these shops. Interestingly enough, each area seems to specialize in a commodity of their own. One street you might see a hundred fruit stands, two streets over and it might be clothing. There are small villages and towns that have their own specialty. We stopped in the area that is home to stone masons. Elizabeth had a small stone specially cut and carved so she could video the craftsman. Her intention was to present this stone to our son Sam for a center piece in his future home’s fireplace. However, security at the airport had their own idea. They rejected her plea that the stone was a finished piece of artwork and confiscated it under the pretense that no raw material could be removed from the country.  Other areas specialized in basket making, wood poles for home building, iron gates, etc.

As we drove these streets to shop after shop, I struggled to understand how they could all stay in business. How is it possible that a street of 100 fruit stands can survive? Then it occurred to me that if you take one of our Walmart’s, open it up, and spread it out, it would equal 1000 of these shops. When I think that we have 2 Walmart supercenters and a grocery store, not to mention Target, Kohls, 6 or so other grocery stores, and countless other stores, I can’t imagine what our area would look like without them. When I consider that Harrisonburg’s population with Rockingham County is roughly 130,000 compared to over 300,000 in Hawassa city, I realize how few shops they do have.

However, shopping in Ethiopia is much more than simply finding what you need and making a purchase. It is really all about relationships. Early one morning we made a trip to the market to get fresh fruit for the 60 sponsored families we were meeting later that day. When we turned onto the street with literally 100+ seemingly identical fruit stands, Teshi (the in country director of Hawassa Hope and our guide), was there to meet us. With him leading on motorbike we navigated the street until he found the exact shop he was looking for. It quickly became clear it wasn’t the fruit, it was the seller. While we were being handed whole oranges to sample, Teshi and the shopkeeper were catching up on life. Overtime Teshi had formed a relationship with this shop owner and knew he was honest and trustworthy. He knew that he would receive a fair price for a good product all the while supporting a good family.

From the fish market to the weekly outdoor market, shopping in Ethiopia is fun and exciting. Everyone works hard to make their stores (or blankets), as attractive as possible. They value repeat customers and always seem to have time to talk and share a laugh. It doesn’t seem to matter how much or how little you spend with them, everyone is treated like a brother or sister. Some folks who live way out might only make it to market every couple months. Even then they tend to want to trade their surplus goods for whatever they can’t grow themselves. On the other hand someone who lives in town might stop at the same fruit stand 3 or 4 time a week. No matter the frequency, you can be sure that relationships are being formed.

We are fortunate to still have farmer’s markets, and a variety of produce stands sprinkled throughout our region to remind us of our heritage. I can remember going to the old Mick or Mack grocery store with my grandma when I was 7 or 8 years old. Only 2 memories come to mind from those trips.  First, I remember being allowed to pick my choice of any box of cereal. I would search for the brand that promised the best prize while still providing plenty of sugary delight. The second thing that comes to mind when I think back to those trips is how grandma knew everyone working in the store. From the produce man, to the gentleman in the meat department, grandma knew more than a name, she knew the person. When it was time to check-out, she had her favorite cashier and bag boy (who talked non-stop all the while pushing her cart and unloading it in the car for her). Grandma had formed relationships with pretty near everyone on her shopping list.

Today I’m saddened when I see people push a cart through a store and once it’s full they proceed to the self-checkout line. If they are experienced, they can successfully complete their shopping trip without ever speaking to a soul. Not to mention, the countless faces that I won’t see on my shopping trip because they do all of their shopping online with delivery to their door. Several years ago, we had an estate auction that really drove home the loneliness of Americas shopping habits. A widow without kids chose to become home bound. Shopping became entertainment and the daily deliveries from the UPS man almost became her only human interaction. Sadly enough, it was this UPS man that notified the police that something must be wrong when she failed to open her door two days in a row.

It’s all too easy to hide behind the computer and shop at home all alone, or to quietly slip through the self-checkout with only a machine to talk to you. God made us for relationships. The ultimate relationship of course is with Him, but He also intended for us to be in relationships with one another. From close intimate relationships to friendships formed over a checkout counter, when we stop forming relationships with one another we all suffer. That is one of the primary reasons we continue to have old fashioned live auctions, just like my parents did when they held their first auction on the old barn 51 years ago. Every year or so I’m approached by a software company, or questioned by another auctioneer, “when are you going to go to online only auctions?” Every answer starts with the relationships that are formed and cherished. When we stop by to see Norwood Berry or talk to Ray Davis (both were at the first auctions 51 years ago), I’m reminded that stuff only last for a while, but relationships last forever.

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