Street commerce

posted in: Life in Ethiopia | 2

It is obvious that Ethiopia is suffering from economic woes.  There may be tall glittering skyscrapers and other fancy modern buildings, but at their base are often tin-shack shanty towns.  There are thousands more buildings under construction, but the vast majority show idle building sites, the country unable to afford the steel, cement, marble to complete them.

One response to this is that just about everywhere is overstaffed.  Every shop, every restaurant has far more workers than there is work for them to do, which leaves many standing around with little or nothing to do.  Security is one area which occupies a huge number of people; just about every business seems to have two or three people stationed on the door.  Even the small slightly more well-stocked mini-market that I sometimes frequent has either one or two people stationed on the door, a couple of metres away from the checkout.  And their major function is to take the receipt I have just been issued with, and scrawl a line across it in biro before I can exit.

Even so, there are simply not enough jobs to go round.  On the corner of the street by the Arat Kilo roundabout is a long noticeboard, entirely filled with closely printed notices (in Amaric script of course, so I cannot guarantee what they say), but it always has a crowd of people scanning it avidly, making notes on their phones.  It seems that the challenge for many of those who cannot find jobs is to make a living on the street.  At its most basic level, this means selling things.  There are displays of various items laid out on the street; books, kitchen implements, hair grooming products, small tables with a range of sweets, tissues and the like.  And for those without what are presumably more or less permanent pitches, there are masses of people selling single items: plastic storage boxes, ear-buds, shirts, whatever.  I only have a partial view, but I have yet to see a sale being made.  The ones I have most sympathy for are the people carrying a pile of some twenty or so books.  They do tend to make a beeline for me when I am spotted drinking juice outside a café, somehow extricating from the pile without losing the lot, the titles they think I will be most interested in: Amaric for Visitors, and the more inspirational From A Shepherd to a Surgeon.  I fear that neither tempt me.

One of the groups of pavement tradesmen that are most numerous are the shoe-shine boys (and men, and – yesterday I spotted – two young women.) I had supposed this to be a dying art, now that the majority of shoes worn are not leather, but actually they have seized the opportunity to demonstrate their versatility, taking on trainers, cloth shoes, white pumps…  There are too many of them, of course – there must be thirty that I pass on my daily walk – but actually they do seem to do pretty brisk business.  Middle-class Ethiopians take a real pride in their appearance, and this includes their shoes.  And with the state of the pavements in Addis, this must mean regular cleaning. I decided to have my own trainers cleaned, and was very much impressed by the care and attention they received.  First the laces were removed, (quite an achievement in itself, seeing as there was a long-standing and tightly pulled knot in one of them, which my man took little time to deal with), then they were washed and scrubbed, then brushed.  The laces themselves were then washed and squeezed dry, before being laced back again, and my shoes re-tied.  It was clear that there was some pride taken in doing a good job.  I thanked him, paid the standard 20 Birre fee, and then gave him a few more coins before taking his picture, already at work on the next customer.

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