In Praise of Addis Ababa – A Rising City Full of Contradictions

Addis Ababa Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

AFRICANGLOBE – I had the opportunity to visit Addis Abeba for about five weeks between June 21st and July 27. What follows is a report to those who read my occasional essays on Ethiopian affairs. In writing this essay, I make no charges that can’t be substantiated, no opinions are expressed that may be considered slanderous, and no praise is heaped that is either out of place or undeserved.

For those who do not know me, I am a professor by occupation but consider my self a romanticist by philosophy and inclination. As a result, I write these essays with the belief that while they may provide an insight into the potential for loss and/or difficulty; they may at the same time point out the path for potential gain to all.

What Is In A Name?

Call it ‘Finfine’, ‘Sheger’ or just simply and affectionately ‘Addis’, Addis Ababa is a city with hubris, faith, hope, chaos, vibrancy, order, and a great deal of skepticism. It resembles a giant construction site, dug up everywhere, with no one eager to clean up the mess. Yet, no one in their right mind is willing to abandon or disclaim it, no matter their troubles, so they embrace it—warts and all! Addis is like a magnificently written poem transforming its meaning with each line—one line an expression of joy and ecstasy, the next of anguish and frustration, the next of hope and progress, the next of achievement and success, the next of failure and decay, and the next of hopeful exuberance and joyful embrace. In short, Addis is a city of a mixture of brilliance, belligerence, plight as well as some wild excess.

Tangible Progress

To be sure, there are tangible signs of progress everywhere—in every Kebele, hamlet or district. The hustle and bustle of city life is maddening and ever present. Astonishingly, the serenity of low expectations is also evident everywhere, and is repeatedly captured in the phrase “chigir yelem” (no problem). It is ‘chigir yelem’ everywhere.

Addis is a city where ordinary citizens show a propensity for tolerating and enjoying each other while the culture of accountability among the charges of City Hall doesn’t seem to be evident. Like all big cities, Addis has also become a place where a brand new mediocrity is thought more of than accustomed excellence.

In the movie titled The Story of a Stage Coach, circa 1959, actress Debra Padget says, “our languages are different. I have learned yours. We are nonetheless the same. The same sun warms us, we look up at the same stars; we breathe the same air, but we claim separate identities; we all laugh and anguish; and we live on this earth and die to be buried in the same dust. And when one of us loses his will, we all lose our freedoms”.

Addis seems to have successfully taught its citizens that for every way of living, there is something to be given up. And their faith in their city is what helps them make a quantum leap between the unbelievable and the utterly ridiculous.

Why This Short Essay?

But then, why write this essay? It is very simple: because a person needs a purpose to make it through the day in this rising city of endless contradictions!

Imagine a beautiful Ethiopian woman walking down the street. She is wearing her most beautiful dress and very expensive shoes matched by an equally expensive purse. She is chatting on her cell phone (a sign of some degree of independence and sophistication here!) as she minds her way. Except that this fine picture is on a muddy street with puddles of mud and dirty water all over. Along comes some one in a vehicle splashing the whole ugly mess onto the pedestrians—including our hapless woman—who seem to regard this as simply a slight inconvenience!

This illustrative example is repeated daily, many times over, in the numerous neighborhoods of Addis Ababa. In an area of the city known as ‘Errer Goro’, we observed in December 2011, an excavator digging up huge craters on the left side of the unpaved road, going north breaking off from the main asphalted road. I also observed an excavator digging up more craters on the right side of the same unpaved road during this trip. With both sides of the road out of service because of the gaping crater-like holes, men, women and school children have to share the narrow space available in the middle with cars and animals.

I witnessed a middle-aged woman slip and fall as she dogged an errant driver. Surely, you would think that there is a project management team within the charges of City Hall if not within the Kebele itself! What is even more baffling about these stories is the endless alibis provided by officials for nonperformance. You hear contractors blaming city officials, who in turn blame government officials, who in turn blame every one else and everything else.

In December 2011. I observed a sizeable hole in the middle of the main paved road near the first exchange on the way out of town to ‘Akaki’. That sizeable hole has gotten even bigger today, and no one seems to mind that there is a major incident waiting to happen at that spot. Oh, yes, I know. The official line is that they are busy with other development priorities!

It would be silly to comment on the nature of driving and drivers in Addis. Suffice it to say that there is absolute disregard for traffic laws and regulations. From the errant drivers (referred to derisively by the locals as ‘listro-drivers’ who have allegedly purchased their driving documents) to the road-unworthy and excessively ridden things on four wheels, driving in Addis is very unhealthy, unsafe, and not worth it for any one visiting from outside of the country. Interestingly and amazingly, aside from the usual big city fender-benders, there are relatively few major accidents in the city itself.

There are tangible, unmistakable and clear signs that Addis is changing and has changed into a major modern metropolis. There are many new and modern buildings all over the city with the Bole Road area and the area behind the ECA facilities as the most built up sections of town. As a matter of fact, these two areas look like any modern and big city in Europe or America. There are numerous roads and arteries that have been built in the city.

The most visible of these is the ring road (a misnomer, in my opinion, as it really is not a ring road in the ordinary sense, and as the city has outgrown it already). Some of the roads have buckled under the weight of heavy traffic, and the rest, as a result of poor construction and design. Most of the new roads do not even have drainage, and when it rains, some city roads become impassable or extremely dangerous.

Part Two