Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Gondar’s Piazza
Fifty years ago Gondar was a very different town. We understood that it had a population of a little over 10,000 and was compact enough so almost everyone, ourselves included, could easily walk on most errands.
There were the Italian occupation buildings centered on the hill near and above the Piazza and many ancient castles and churches. Weeks after arriving there in September 1962, several of my students agreed to take me on a walking tour to some of the businesses in the town. Early one Saturday morning we met on the Piazza in front of the Foto Prince Makonnen Shop across from the Cinema Bar so I could buy a roll of high speed black and white film. As I look at the photos I took that day, I can recall memories of my interactions with the shop owners and the bustling of daily life around Gondar.
The Foto shop where I bought my film was owned by a marketing genius whose technique made him the paparazzi of Gondar; there was not an event in Gondar at which he wouldn’t materialize and take candid shots of all the participants. He would then race back to his shop and print the photos as post cards and hang them in his shop window. In the early evening following the event we would often see numerous students laughing as they stood in front of the window. There would be our images, sometimes looking silly, so of course, we would have to buy all of our post cards.
Our first stop on the tour was Ato Mesfin’s shoe shop. It was across from Giles store on the Asmara road which led up the hill to the right of the post office. For two years Ato Mesfin repaired my shoes and even made for me a pair of leather sandals with toes that curled up like something out of the Arabian Nights. I remember when he drew an outline of my foot, he was amazed by the size, saying, it was “the largest in Gondar.” I knew there were several others in Gondar with big feet, but they—unfortunately–suffered from elephantiasis. Ato Mesfin was a very likable guy and quite worldly, having served on merchant ships during the war.
Deep in the market area of Gondar was a small factory that pressed neug seeds in order to extract the oil for cooking purposes. I never saw neug growing near the town; it was often grown in the lowlands off towards the Sudan. Occasionally I would see heavily loaded old Bedford trucks with many quintal (100 kilo) sacks of neug seeds. The factory consisted of a few barrels and an ancient machine which pressed the seeds. His press was able to extract about a third of that weight in oil and the leftover residue was called “neug cake.” I was interested in the neug cake, which I guessed was equivalent to soybean meal as an animal feed. I planned to mix it with grain as feed for chickens whenever we had them at the school. The man running the plant told me that he paid between 18 -21 Eth. dollars per quintal for the seeds, but because there was very little demand for the neug cake, he sold it for only 7 Eth. /100 kilograms.
Tucked away in the market area were weavers who, using homemade looms, wove large shammas. Shammas were a universal item of clothing– a blanket-like cloth about eight feet long and about three to four feet wide, made using homespun cotton. There was great ritual associated with its wearing and how it was wrapped around a person. For example, if one used it to cover their head during a cold Gondar night, and was approached by a person of rank, the shamma would be removed from the head. It was not unlike a Victorian gentleman doffing his hat. The weaver’s room had a dirt floor in which a pit was dug to accommodate the foot controls of the loom. I commissioned him to weave a shamma for me, giving him a small deposit for the materials. He was to deliver a shamma within a month, but a few months went by, and he did not appear with my commission. I revisited him and reminded him of my order, telling him that I had his picture and would be willing to share it with Col. Assis, the local police chief.
In the market area was a small factory with two milling machines where women would bring small quantities of teff and wheat to be ground into flour. Each batch was done separately. Teff is a tiny, extremely fine black seed that is a staple grain used to make the flat spongy ingera eaten with every meal. (Ingera is somewhat sour-tasting which complements the spicy watts (sauces) eaten with it.) Teff is the perfect ingredient to keep ingera’s flat shape because it contains no gluten, so as the teff flour is mixed with water, the fermentation process causes it to bubble instead of sticking together and rising like our wheat breads. In the picture you can see the workers, customers and a few of my students posing with the two teff-grinding machines. An important part of the milling ritual was for the customer to stand at the front of the machine as her flour was coming out the bottom of the mill and slap the machine to assure that all her flour came loose. Over the years, those thousands of hand slaps had removed the paint from the mill.
Next, we visited the bakery, which produced crusty five inch bread loaves that were pointed at each end. Those loaves with some butter and marmalade paired with a cup of hot sweet tea were a breakfast staple. The bakery owner was very kind and allowed some of my students who were living far from their homes to sleep in the warm bakery at night.
Our final stop was at one of the two silversmiths in Gondar. The silversmith proudly posed with a large silver processional cross he had just completed for one of Gondar’s churches. He sat behind a tall counter under which he had a wonderful small wooden box where he kept old silver pieces that were waiting to be recycled. Next to him, seated on the dirt floor were his two young sons who were compressing bellows made from sheep bladders. The bellows fanned the intense charcoal fire which was under the small crucible of molten silver. In my two years in Gondar I visited this shop probably only three times. Each time the silversmith permitted me to rummage through his recycling bin to find and buy discarded silver treasures. I kept in mind that I had been sent to Ethiopia by the Peace Corps to teach, and not be an acquirer of artifacts.
Some men wore a small silver ear picker on a string around their necks. After thousands of usages the little silver cup would wear away or the circular clasp would almost wear through from bouncing on the string. They would then trade the item into the silversmith for a new one. I’ve always wished I knew a metallurgist who could estimate for me how many years of hanging on a cotton string it takes to wear away the silver. While I never asked the silversmith where the silver came from, my assumption is that most of the pieces were made from the old Maria Theresa Thalers which at one time circulated in North Africa and the Middle East.
Many Christian women wore a small silver cross on a string around their necks. As with the ear picks, the clasp on silver crosses would wear away as it rubbed against the soft string. In time, women would recycle their old crosses for new ones made by the silversmith. Other pieces in the recycling bin were unique. On one visit, I found the brass cane top of a nun who died. Orthodox masses lasted many hours and there were no chairs or benches, so participants had a pole fitted with a cross top that would fit under the armpit for resting.
The item I most treasure from the recycling bin is the silver signet of an important official who had died. It says “Dejazmatch Alemayahu Bitew.” I have never been able to find out anything about him. My interpretation of the images which surround his name may not be correct, however, it would appear that there is an angel on either side of his name. Above his name is a happy face which I assume is God. Below his name is a sad angry face which could well represent the devil.
Gondar of fifty years ago was small enough so that in a few hours we were able to explore these important little businesses which helped make it the trading center for the whole province. But there was much more to Gondar than what I was able to visit in just this one day. There were numerous traders and merchants from Asmara and several elderly Italians and Greeks who had stayed on after the occupation to run businesses. During out time in Gondar the foreigners were for the most part leaving for their homelands. In future posts, I hope to share stories of other interesting residents and visitors to Gondar.