Jozi City Feature

An Ethiopian mall is born

Exotic colours, smells, clothes and crafts have transformed what used to be a medical centre in the CBD into a traditional Ethiopian shopping centre. Sithandiwe Mchunu explores the 15-storey building in which the culture, traditions and stories of these newcomers exist beside those of longer-standing Jo’burg citizens – making it the vibrant African city that it is.

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The old Medical Arts building has become the centre of Ethiopian life in Jo'burg.

In one of the busiest streets in downtown Johannesburg, the tall Medical Arts building is painted in green, yellow and red. Approaching it, you hear distinctive music and smell spices, coffee and incense. The food being sold is unfamiliar – colourful with a sour and spicy smell.

The colours painted on the building are those of the Ethiopian flag. It is in this building, on Jeppe Street towards Troye Street, that Ethiopian culture, customs, traditions and stories are housed. Entering the building that used to house doctors, one loses the sense of being in South Africa.

The first five floors have been transformed by Ethiopian entrepreneurs who have brought diversity to this country with their culture and style centred in this space.

The building has been nicknamed Aka Majesty, perhaps originally “also known as” Majesty, but over time becoming the name it is known by. No one can say for sure though.

For locals this is a space where you can travel to a new country without leaving Jo’burg, but to Ethiopians it is a money-making space where futures are built.

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The ground floor lobby leads you up the stairs...and into a different world

It is not easy to find this place. There are no signs. Most first-time visitors probably stumble upon it, thinking they are entering a shop – suitcases and shoes are on display against the walls of the lobby – only to discover a staircase that leads into what could be called an Ethiopian mall.

Traditional shops sell music, magazines and books in a foreign language. Among many things sold in the building that define Ethiopian culture are clothes: white and black T-shirts decorated with the Ethiopian flag colours, also associated with Rastafarianism. Also on display are cultural garments worn on holidays and special occasions, such as New Year, Christmas or weddings. They are cotton, colourful, shiny and delicate.

Traditional dresses attract buyers with their delicacy and vibrant colours

Sweets and snacks made in Ethiopia are available at the counter. Various distinctive Ethiopian spices – such as corisha, used to make cheese – are widely available and dominate most shops.

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Ethiopian sweets range from mint to peanut flavour

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Cooking spices and incense add exotic aromas to the air

These items, shop owners and workers say, are brought by people who work for Ethiopian airlines or family members and other visitors who trade with them to buy the South African goods they will sell back home.

The building has been the centre of this activity for eight years. “If we can sell merchandise made from China, what would stop us from selling Ethiopian indigenous items?” asks a salon owner in the building.

The 15-floor Medical Arts building houses the Ethiopian mall from the ground to the fifth floor and storerooms where people who trade in town rent space to store their goods.

Shop owner Abush Tadese says people from all over the continent, from Zimbabweans to Eritreans, come to trade in the building. “The CBD is a centre that accommodates small businesses.”

Even though at first it wasn’t a conscious decision to invest in the space, Tadese says being together brings safety. “Even though people think we are up to no good, we are able to watch over each other’s backs and protect one another because Johannesburg is not safe.”

One of the Ethiopian women who works in the mall, Pretty Alem, says she has been mugged three times in the CBD but working in the building is safe because of all “her brothers” who protect her.

A building changes its identity to suit people inhabiting the space

Twenty years ago Jo’burgers brought their sick children to see the family doctor in the Medical Arts building. Today people come to drink coffee, eat Ethiopian food, buy cultural items and have their hair cut.

In the mid-1990s, the building lost the doctors and other professionals who were its major tenants and its identity started changing.

“White and Indian doctors left when black-empowered people started moving into the building and around town,” says building manager Marcko Kayiwa. “They left because of being insecure and not feeling safe in the CBD.”

Describing himself as the one of the first Ethiopians to come to the CBD and own a shop in the Medical Arts building, Degu, who would only give his first name, says: “When we slowly but surely moved in, they disappeared.”

Degu believes the reason the doctors left was because their patients were coming to the building to shop rather than to seek medical attention. “Their customers were attracted to us and what we were selling.”

It appears there is a dispute about the name of the first Ethiopian-owned restaurant. Tadese, who has been in the country for 10 years, says it was a restaurant named Senite, while Degu says it was Hana. Both say the restaurant was located on the first floor of the building.

Tadese remembers the restaurant as “a communication-based centre where Ethiopians staying in South Africa and coming from home met and talked about survival mechanisms in the country”.

Business meetings and social gatherings were held in this space while Ethiopians enjoyed “home” food. The restaurant became popular and brought a lot of Ethiopians to the building. They started renting available space.

This space later became a shop, owned by an Ethiopian, which sold non-Ethiopian clothes, says Degu. But as more Ethiopians moved into the building, they started to sell goods imported from home.

 

EXPORTED TRADITIONS AND FOOD:

A traditional coffee ceremony lives on in a new space

Every time you speak to someone in the Medical Arts building, you are invited to a coffee ceremony. It costs R5 and is one of the traditions Ethiopians have brought to central Jo’burg.

The ceremony is a social gathering that shows hospitality, always offered by a person you are visiting. It can take place at any time and many times in a day. The coffee is strong and black and complemented by popcorn.

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Coffee is traditionally served with popcorn, in a traditional container

The coffee is made from coffee beans called makhaskesha. During the ceremony the seeds are roasted, ground and boiled in water. The important part of the ceremony is the burning of incense. They burn pieces of a tree stem called etani.

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While the beans are roasted in a pan, tiny Ethiopian coffee cups called Ciene stand ready to hold the strong coffee

Preparing injera

Injera is very thin, flat bread eaten with different types of stew. It is served as a base with every meal. Injera is made of rice flour exported from Ethiopia.

In one of the restaurants in the building, called Netsie’s, they invited me inside the kitchen to see the preparation. The injera is prepared by a South African woman who says it takes three days to prepare. She mixes rice and cake flour, leaves it for two days, adds porridge and baking powder and mixes. She flattens the dough in a big silver pan while cooking it.

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Injera takes two days to prepare and serves as a base for every meal"

Degu’s 18 years in South Africa

While South Africans were celebrating the new democracy in 1994, an Ethiopian man was standing in front of the Union Buildings with 16 of his countrymen, protesting their status in South Africa.

Degu says they were tired of sleeping on the floor of the office of the South African Council of Churches in Marshall Street.

“We wanted to be granted a permit to work in South Africa and we were responding to home affairs’ decision of making us book an appointment for an interview in two years’ time.

“Seven days after being appointed president, Nelson Mandela responded to our demonstration. He wrote a letter on our behalf to home affairs and they gave us temporary, two-year status as asylum seekers. We were then allowed to stay in South Africa to work and study.”

They had no money but that didn’t stop them. “We started selling on the streets of the CBD. Because we didn’t have capital we developed a relationship with Indians and Chinese to buy stock on credit.”

Selling items such as cassettes, earphones, gloves and hats, all for less than R20, they managed to save money and in the late 1990s they started renting space in the Medical Arts building. Sharing shops in twos and threes, they stocked various local items.

Individuals eventually opened their own stores in the same building. Degu now has a driving school and a consulting business but he did not want to give details.

A story of survival

Abeselom Kberkidn spent a year walking from Ethiopia to South Africa. Without money to pay for a bus or plane ticket, it was his only hope of supporting his family and starting what he hoped would be a new life.

The 31-year-old says he decided to come in 2007 after the death of his stepfather, who died resisting forced removal from his house by the new government of the time. His mother was working piece jobs and didn’t make enough to support him and two siblings. As the eldest son, he felt he had to be the breadwinner.

When he had almost reached his goal, he jumped the border into the Kruger National Park – only to be arrested and jailed for three months.

Kberkidn was standing beside the door of his barber shop in the Medical Arts building when I first saw him. He smiled and invited me in to join him and a group of his friends for a coffee ceremony.

The barber shop appears to be a hangout for Ethiopian men. They watch Ethiopian television transmitted via satellite and talk in their own language. This is where I met Degu.

More than a space for cutting hair: Abesalom Kberkidn (sitting on the sofa) runs a barbershop which has become a gathering place for men to chat, read newspapers and watch Ethiopian television channels

Kberkidn started selling traditional clothes in 2003. He stopped when too many other people were starting similar businesses and opened the barber shop.

Now that his business is doing well, his long-term goal is to open what he calls “an African school”. “Who will teach an African child about Shaka Zulu if in schools they learn about white leadership?” he asks.

Kberkidn can’t stop talking. He has a lot to say and share about his philosophy of life as a black person.

“I hope God can give me power to change the world. I want to be a revolutionary, not a money-chaser. We must control money, not chase money because it will make you crazy.”

Asked if he misses home and would want to go back, he says: “My home is here, I grow here, my understanding is built here.

“I believe it all starts in the south. Unity starts from the south, it’s written in the Bible.”

Another person in the barber shop is Daniel Teferi. He says he left his country because “our government is selfish and doesn’t care about people. That is why many young men run away”.

“South Africa is better because people are equal. The only problem in South Africa is getting citizenship.” Degu, Kberkidn and Teferi are still waiting for their citizenship to be approved.

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Abesalom Kberkidn has been waiting for his citizenship to be approved for 13 years. This is a major complaint of many of the Ethiopians in the building"

Another Ethiopian who hasn’t been able to get her papers is 24-year-old Pretty Alem. She was 18 when she packed her bags, left her mother and headed to South Africa because her sisters lived here.

Alem is homesick. She has been here six years and can’t go home because of her lack of official status. She shows her desperation when asked for an interview. She says she will only speak to me if I can organise her papers that will allow her to go home for a visit.

When I buy the R5 coffee she sells, she prepares a ceremony and tells me how much she misses her mother and boyfriend, who are back home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Stha Mchunu

Sithandiwe Mchunu’s passion for media earned her a bachelor of arts degree in media studies and drama and film from the University of the Witwatersrand. Completing her journalism honours at Wits, she has fallen in love with investigative journalism, camera operation and editing visual content. She hopes to use her inquisitive side and writing skills in print media and broadcasting.

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