What is Addis Ababa (henceforth Addis) to you? Just answer the question before you proceed to read. And I do not mean to stimulate answers such as: Addis is the capital city of Ethiopia; Addis is home to nearly all the ethnic groups of Ethiopia; it is also the political capital of Africa; it has a population of around five million; Addis has an average temperature of 22-26 degree Celsius. These are yes objective facts that are not hidden from an average person. My question requires answers that are probably unique to you and are value laden.
This post is stimulated by two different sources that I read about Addis. One is published at Ethiomedia by Samuel Gebru under the title “Is Addis on the right track?” Samuel interestingly narrated his own observation of the city and outlined several challenges. “Unless Ethiopia begins to enquire about these young citizens and their future (youngsters who were about to leave for the Middle East), no big buildings or mega constructions will compensate for the skewed ‘development’ that is being felt all over the country. Also, at a minimum, public washrooms and green spaces should be the norm of Addis Ababa. If not, the advancement of our city, as well as country, will continue to be minimal”, concludes Samuel. Samuel seems to be impressed by several of the mega buildings of Addis and is worried by the lack of sanitation and green spots among other challenges. This is yes the reality.
While I was regurgitating Samuel’s paper, I received another update from Solomon Anteneh. Solomon shared with me and others the plans to erect several sky scrapers in Addis, including the one named Meles Zenawi International Center. The picture, which is included at a later part of this paper, is so awesome that Addis would look the Beijing of Africa in just few years. I then decided to reflect on my own and others’ observations and experiences of Addis.
In this post, I try to outline several conceptions people hold about Addis with a goal of inviting people to 1) understand and respect differences in views, and 2) judge their own views of Addis against objective reality. Although the focus is on Ethiopians and Ethiopian-origin nationals’ view, effort is also made to outline how other nationals perceive of the city. It should be noted that an individual may at a given point in time hold two or more of the following views about Addis.
A development hub
To many people, Addis is an expression of the enhanced socio-economic development and growth Ethiopia has been and is enjoying. These folks would talk to you with confidence and a great sense of accomplishment. They would explicitly and with no reservation narrate to you how and to what extent the government there was and is planning and executing mega projects to bring such changes. Their measures of growth and development are related to the number of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure built. If you demonstrate to them that you are not satisfied with their discourses, they would resort to the double-digit economic growth Ethiopia enjoys and they would tell you that even the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Union acknowledge such advancement. Their conclusion is that Addis is open for anybody who wants to invest and prosper. These people are EPRDF members, sympathizers, and some business people.
Source: From Solomon Anteneh
A festival city
To a great many other people, Addis is a perfect spot where to experience a mosaic of cultures and religious performances. These people would mention to you how soul touching and educative Epiphany, Mesqel, and Easter holidays are. They are also surprised by the fact that Christian and Muslim religious institutions are only a fence away from each other. And they are amazed by the fact that both churches and mosques conduct their respective services simultaneously and with no conflict. This group of people would definitely make your day and you would walk tall and proud. These are tourists, pilgrims, and human rights advocates.
Epiphany celebrations. Source: Mine
A dream city
To the many, Addis is more of a dream city. This group of people holds a special place for the capital for various reasons. The man who fought and demolished the apartheid structure in South Africa, Nelson Mandela, has, for instance, this kind of view of Addis. In his autobiography, Mandela explained how and why Ethiopia/Addis occupied a special place in his imagination and life. In his protracted struggle for freedom, he was inspired by his experiences of Addis. He dreamt that South Africa could be as independent, proud, and unique as Addis:
Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. Meeting His Highness, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, would be like shaking hands with history… We then changed flight to an Ethiopian Airways to Addis. Here I experienced a rather strange sensation. As I was boarding the plane, I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before…I only hoped it was a vision of what lay in the future for my own country.
It is true that for many Ethiopian Diaspora, visiting Addis/Ethiopia is much more edifying and profitable (in terms of satisfaction and fulfillment) than visiting the mega cities of Europe and North America. Several take their vacations in Ethiopia. Several others try to contribute to the socio-economic and political development of Ethiopia while residing abroad. The average Ethiopian Diaspora holds several Ethiopian artifacts in her/his house abroad. Their kids born to foreign cultures are being inducted to Ethiopian culture and society. Generally speaking, Addis/Ethiopia transcends geography and is living with its citizens worldwide. It is in a way a dream land to the Ethiopian Diaspora. If conditions settle well, at least the majority would flock to Addis proudly and assume residence there.
The flag carrier Ethiopian Airlines, taken from the Web
Addis could also be said to follow the hedonistic principle- the pursuit of immediate gratification and pleasure at the expense of future integrity and development. Try to have walks in different parts of the city. Many of the new constructions are hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and café’s. Again walk around the city at any point in time. You would be surprised to see that nearly all café’s and hotels and restaurants are packed with customers. If you intend to have dinner around five pm at a restaurant, you get a problem securing a place. On the other hand, go to the few available libraries and museums; you would be surprised by the absence of readers and visitors. In sum, Addis is more of a pleasure city than a working and thinking one.
Addis has that voracious appetite for expansion. It is only the Entoto chain of mountains that checked its advance. Addis sends its tentacles to the West, East, and South, oftentimes engulfing farm lands and communities. The poor farmers must relinquish their pieces of lands to the landlord- Addis- for marginal compensations. Those who are persecuted ended up entering into the city and turning themselves into beggars and daily laborers. Cultures and assets transferred from one generation to the other are being interrupted by the advancing Addis. Instead, those who could afford the skyrocketing house/land prices become the new residents.
A police city
Addis is under constant surveillance. Major streets have cameras mounted on poles. You may have confused them for traffic lights. And the police and sometimes military people are here and there, armed to their noses. If you sort of un/consciously gaze at them, they would reply with anger and if you fail to retreat soon, you would have a good chance of being buttoned down. If you walk close to the parliament or to the presidential palace, the guard would shout at you and would order you to take the other side of the road. If you wait for a moment to make sure the road is safe to cross, you may be surprised by the fact that an AK47 is pointed against your forehead. You have to run as soon as you hear the order regardless of traffic.
The Police armed with AK47's, taken from the Web
Addis is also a lot other times unforgiving. You could not be meaningfully confident about your plans not because you lack the competence or the resources to execute but because water, light, and the Internet could go offline anytime. Everytime you type a word, make sure you save it- power may go away. And you may be surprised to find yourself socked with shampoos or shower jells but the water is gone. And you are replying to an important email only to find it that the Internet is already down. After experiencing these and other challenges, you would hesitate to challenge the value of planning and dreaming.
To other people, Addis is just much like a shantytown where millions live under impoverished conditions. To justify their view, they provide us with pictures carefully taken from certain parts of the city which display extremely old buildings and houses. Part of their evidence is pictures of people who live under hard-to-believe circumstances. They use these pictures to beg for resources to help them and sometimes to tell us that we are that downtrodden. International media such as the BBC and CNN usually hold and display this view of Addis.
Addis the shantytown, taken from the Web
A sex city
To others, Addis is a hot spot that supports their insatiable sexual appetites. Using their positions and wealth, they persuade young Ethiopian girls to be their sexual slaves. African diplomats, NGO workers, and Arab millionaires are the major actors in this realm. Talk to an African diplomat about Addis. The first most important thing he would talk about is related to how beautiful and cheap are young ladies in Addis. In fact, these kinds of diplomats fight hard to make sure that as many conferences as possible take place in Addis simply for the sake of this awful and amoral act.
A symbol of night life in Addis, taken from the Web
A begging city
To Europeans and Americans, Addis is both the political and beggar capital of Ethiopia. They out of frustration talk about how street kids were making their visits unbearable and how they were forced to make their stays there as short as possible because of that. Some even would tell you that they adopt a kid or two who were begging on the streets of Addis. And some go to the extent of labeling the entire country as a beggar. If you get mad on them, they would remind you the amount of dollars Ethiopia is getting from international financial institutions and several countries in the form of loan and grant. That time, you have no option but to resort to the every- country- does- that argument.
The poor expecting handouts, taken from the Web
A microcosm of inequality
Many other people consider Addis as a good example of the structural inequality that exists in Ethiopia. These folks argue that nearly all the buildings and mega businesses are owned by a select few elites from a single ethnic group, Tigre. If you sort of feel uncomfortable about ethnic-based generalizations, they would give you a long list of businesses and buildings owned by a couple of individuals and groups from the same ethnic group. That time, if you are ashamed of (for them) seeing this fact, you have no option but to sort of resort to history- that nearly all leaderships and affiliates in Ethiopia used to have owned key businesses. And if the counterargument gets real tough, you have no option but to capitalize the need to differentiate the wealthy or business tycoons from the equally disadvantaged Tigre people. And that would make quite a lot sense.
The gap between the poor & the rich, taken from Facebook- Funny Pictures
Addis is indeed a place that never falls under a given category- it is everywhere. During day time and at the surface, Addis is a decent city having the majority of its inhabitants belonging to Christianity and Islam. You never expect strange and bizarre behaviors if you believe in the power of religion to dictate daily life. But that does not hold water. Addis is home to some of the most alarming social evils. In Addis, you could get networks of drug traffickers who make their fortunes in the good millions. Addis is also home to people and groups who systematically turn the young generation into accomplished zombies- usually by exposing the youth to addiction of various kinds. There are interest groups and individuals who are busy disseminating and popularizing gay and lesbian cultures and practices. Addis generally is a place that side-by-side rewards holiest and feloniest practices.
A symbol of the underworld, taken from the Web