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Out of Africa (Part 1/7) - Ethiopia - Addis Ababa: Coffee and Chat

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Akaki, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Silhouettes on a rock. Akaki, outskirts of Addis

New Flower

Addis Ababa. 'New Flower'. Makes one visualise expansive green parks, shrubbery, lush grass, leafy sidewalks and a profusion of colours and scents. A romantic, quixotic name which appeals to the imagination. As is often the case, the reality is somewhat different. Addis is in fact a smoke-filled, traffic-choked, sprawling, non-descript grey twentieth century city which sadly lacks basic sanitation and is in the process of a building boom. Roads half-laid, buildings half-built, a half-baked city which doesn't ever feel like being the finished article. Has a city ever been more inappropriately named? It is hard to reconcile the emotions you first feel for Addis on arrival, with those you feel when you leave, having travelled around the shires and seen how sadly undeveloped the rest of the country actually is in comparison. Addis Ababa is, first and foremost, an African capital city. There are very few exceptional capital cities on the African continent, especially in the sub-Saharan part, and unlike European cities, the main purpose they serve is administrative and functional, not touristic. In Ethiopia, the capital city has moved around the country countless times, at the whim and behest of various kings and dynasties; from Aksum to Lalibela to Gondar and many other, less significant or interesting places which are best forgotten. Addis is just the latest in a long line, and this impermanence is reflected in the shanty town, shoddy feel that buildings slightly out of the centre have. It's hard even to find anything very regal or impressive in the centre itself. If you can define a centre to the city that is. While I don't try to present Addis as a viable tourist destination in itself, it is the jumping-off point for almost all travellers in Ethiopia, and if you plan to travel there you will spend some time there. It is certainly worth two or three days of exploration. Bear in mind that I spent over a month living there as a teacher and was forced to try and make the most of it; most tourists arrive here, take a quick look round and make for the northern historical loop posthaste.

The Orthodox Tevahedo Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The Orthodox Tevahedo Church, Addis

Walking cash machine

On arriving in Addis, for your first few days, as in many other third world countries where grinding poverty is an everyday reality and not just something you see on TV, you are forced to confront this new reality head-on and develop strategies to defend yourself against it. The streets of Addis are full of people - mainly youngsters - looking for money, very often with sob stories for foreigners, 'faranjees' as they are known here. Most common is 'no mother, no father, please give me money'; almost as common is the more direct 'you, faranjee! one birr!' or simply 'give money'. There are numerous polio/leprosy victims on the streets, limbless and helpless; countless others begging, pick-pocketing or generally trying to part foreigners from their money. Whilst this is clearly upsetting, the 'walking cash machine' cliche here is sadly true. And though this may sound daunting, in reality the begging never gets too persistent, and you can deal with it without too much trouble. I never had any serious problem with anyone on the streets, and rather than be aggressive, most beggars adopt the 'make the foreigner feel guilty' approach. If you can develop a thick skin against such tactics, you shouldn't have any real problems in Addis. Though your heart goes out to them, it's a bad idea to give money to kids on the streets; better to donate to a charity. Money often goes straight to an adult who organizes the kids into gangs, so it's a business in many cases. I met other travellers who had been to Somaliland, Sudan, Eritrea, Tanzania, Kenya - all countries bordering Ethiopia and no less poor in many cases - but who had not experienced the level of begging one is forced to endure in Ethiopia (and indeed in one or two of those countries begging is actually against the law). I can only speculate that the cumulative affect of years of foreign aid and western attention (particularly in the wake of the 1984 famine) has given the people the idea that money simply grows on trees in the west and that 'faranjees' are desperate to part with cash they couldn't possibly need to help the helpless. There may be truly hard circumstances for the vast majority of Ethiopians, but just throwing money at them cannot possibly help them in the long run. Micro-financing is one example of a solution that bears fruit and is sustainable in the long run, but while Ethiopia and countries like it continue to be badly governed and corrupt, the future seems bleak.

Street kids, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Street kids, Addis

Skeleton in the cupboard

You are not only forced to side-step beggars in Addis, but also the open man-hole covers, uneven paving stones, random lumps of concrete and piping, the odd herd of goats and the ubiquitous shoe shine stands. It's quite an obstacle race trying to negotiate your way around the city of Addis. What is there to actually see and do there? Why visit? Well, that's a fair question, and I for one would not like to be working for Addis Ababa tourist board. There are a couple of museums; one (The National Museum) containing the world-famous skeleton of 'Lucy', possibly the oldest and most complete hominid ever found (5.2 million years old); impressive, or it would be if the skeleton was actually there. what you see is a plastic replica since the original has been sent to some curators in the States, with an unknown return date.The museum itself could do with better signage and English language guides for one of such relative import however. Another museum, the Ethnological Museum, is set in the University grounds and home of former emporer, Haile Selassie. Slightly more impressive and ambitious in scope, this place makes an effort to be interesting and informative, and takes the visitor on a trip through Ethiopian culture, taking in everything from food and drink to marriage ceremonies, children's toys, religion and superstition and even a section on the popular and legal drug 'chat' - a leafy plant which is chewed for a mildly intoxicating effect rather like a strong coffee rush. The most interesting aspect of the museum is however undoubtedly the section which takes in the redoubtable emporer's bedroom and bathroom - a modest enough display but which really brings home the former emporer's majesty (perhaps as I was reading Kapuscinski's excellent 'The Emporer' at this time had something to do with my interest in this small collection of personal effects, but I feel the place is well worth a visit. If only to see the bullet hole in the mirror which dated from the 1960 coup d'etat. Seeing the 'great' man's suit is also interesting; he was actually a very diminutive, slimly-proportioned man of just five feet. Fascinatingly, to Rastafarians, Selassie was a literal God, as Marcus Garvey made a prophecy which seemed to encourage belief in him as a messiah. Selassie himself was reportedly embarrassed by all of this however, and brushed off such unwanted attention from a religion he didn't recognize.

'Lucy', the world's oldest known hominid, in the National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
'Lucy', the world's oldest known hominid, in the National Museum

Italian Influence

As far as sightseeing goes, Addis's options are modest. There's Piazza, the old Italian quarter (the Italians colonized Ethiopia without officially administering it from the 1890's to the 1936 when they invaded it and ruled until 1943) which now functions as one of the main hubs of nightlife in Addis. It contains the old colonial hotel 'Itegue Taitu', a handsome building with old varnished floorboards and verandahs, and rather stiff waiters; its rooms are one of the few places in the city with real character, and its restaurant and bar were comfortable places to chill with a cool beer. The Piazza area in general, unfortunately, is no longer as classy and timeless as the hotel. Its bars, once night had fallen, loud and dark places crowded with men in the front and women prowling out back, mostly doubled as knocking shops. Nothing threatening about these places at all, no pimps trying to push the women on you or any pressure to take any of the women; just straightforward pub/brothels which are perfectly legal; seedy yes, but dangerous no. The major problem in the Piazza area is the phenomenon of the 'hanger-on'; basically a friendly local who comes up to you on the street and starts easy conversation, perhaps offering to show you round the area. Said hanger-on, successfully attached to the faranjee, aquires a posse of friends, and proceeds to follow him around for the next several hours, as unshakable as a leech. Said faranjee is sucked dry for beers, bottles of 'tej' (sickly yet potent honey wine) or plates of 'injeera' (large soggy grey pancake-looking things which are heaped with steaming piles of meat). Suffice to say, the foreigner regrets it all bitterly at the end of the night when a few cheap beers turns into a lengthy bill. Again, the best tactic you can use to avoid such an outcome is politely refuse all such approaches at the start, thereby nipping the whole routine in the bud. Nights out can be fun of course, and the locals seem to be having a good time regardless. Beer (St. George's being the most popular) is cheap and ubiquitous if hardly world-class, and bars stay open very late indeed. A colleague who braved one of the local girls, a teacher from Manchester called Phil, roused her ire by refusing to agree to a 'business' deal one day; she decided to place a curse on him for his parsimony - a curse of impotence. Phil, a Taoist and practitioner of yoga, took this threat to his karma very seriously, and was forced the next day to visit a local church in order to undergo and exorcism rite and have the curse lifted. Thankfully, after three hours of praying and chanting, the curse was lifted and Phil could go away without this terrible curse. Getting home from nights out to our campus, despite living over twenty kilometres from the centre, was never a problem, as chat-chewing, Lada-driving taxi drivers whizzed around the city at all hours looking for business in their clapped-out steeds. If you're prepared to brave the often hair-raising driving techniques (don't look if you're going on a roundabout and don't expect traffic lights anywhere), you can get around pretty cheaply and efficiently. Buses are also pretty handy but the signs on the front are all in Ethiopian and you'll need to ask for assistance.