One Africa, Many Stories – Mekena Story

Culture Literacy
Time 15 minutes
Age 5-7
Group Size 4 or more
Tags Ethiopia, Galimoto

Who is the greatest Mekena builder ever?

Providing a context to an activity can help to give it significantly more meaning for children. Before doing the Mekena engineering activity, read this story to children and learn about a real Mekena builder from Ethiopia.


Read the story ahead of time so that you are familiar with it.

One Africa, Many Stories – Mekena Story

Suggested Materials

  • The story below, “Mengistu Lemma – The Master Mekena Builder”

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Ask your students if they know where Ethiopia is. Can they find it on a map? Tell them that in Ethiopia, many children love to play with toys, just like they do. They often play with toy cars and trucks too…also like your students do. Sometimes, if they don’t have a toy car or truck, some children in Ethiopia get really creative…and create their own out of whatever they can find around! They call these small vehicles “Mekenas”, and they proudly wheel them around as they play. Read the story below told by Brook Abdu, about the greatest Mekena builder ever!


Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

Brook Abdu shared this story about his experience in Ethiopia as a child:

Mengistu Lemma – the Master Mekena Builder, by Brook Abdu

Growing up in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), we used to listen with awe to stories about the Legendary Mengistu Lemma—Master Mekena builder. Mengistu lived in the eastern city of Harar in Ethiopia during the 1930s. Legend has it that he was the first to assemble a group of kids to create miniature replicas of the flashy Italian army cars on the streets of Harar.

Mengistu and his team would first collect all the wires, cans, plastic and shiny things they could get their hands on. Mengistu would then draw his design on paper (and sometimes map it out on the ground) and assign each kid a different task—one would twist the wires into particular shapes, another would flatten the cans, one would make the wheel, others would drill holes on plastic containers. Under his supervision, they would then build the central frame, cover it with cardboard, install the wheel and tires, and then steer it in turns. 

One day, Mengistu decided to go a step further and build a Mekena he could actually sit in and steer! It required weeks of preparation and collection of materials, but they finally were ready to build it. Using his detailed design plan, they built a strong frame out of wood, made doors, constructed the wheels out of recycled wheelbarrows, and even put up side mirrors and plates for the car. Once all this was done, they plastered the frame with mud and it was all ready for a test drive. That day, Mengistu proudly sat in this life-size Mekena and paraded the streets of Harar—with his loyal troop of friends pushing the Mekena behind him of course! See figure 1.


Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

After your students have heard or read the story, have a quick discussion with them. What kinds of things did Mengistu and the children make their Mekenas out of? How long do they think it took to build the giant Mekena that Mengistu rode in? If they were going to make their own small Mekenas, what materials might they find around them to use?


Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

Try the Mekena activity with your students!


  • For a literacy connection, find the book “Galimoto” by Karen Lynn Williams. It tells the story of a young boy gathering enough wire to make his own galimoto/mekena.

For books about and from Ethiopia, check out the following resources:

  • Ambatchew, Michael. Adey’s Pigeons. Addis Ababa: Artistic Printing Enterprise, 2003.
  • Araya, Genet, Senayt Worku (illus.). The Fig Tree. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Children’s Book Publishing Project / Education Foundation (EBCEF), 2007.
  • Bellward, Stacy, Erlend Berge (illus.). Ethiopian Voices : Tsion’s Life. Brooklyn Park, Minnesota: Amharic Kids, 2008.
  • Dubois, Muriel. Ethiopia (Countries of the World). Mankato, Minn: Bridgestone Books, 2001.
  • Kessler, Cristina, Leonard Jenkins (illus.) The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela. New York: Holiday House, 2006.
  • Kurtz, Jane. Faraway Home. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
  • For more, visit Africa Access Review
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