It’s recently become fashionable to be “positive” when writing or speaking about Africa. We’re told that there’s been too much negative media about the continent in modern times. I suppose journalists were supposed to simply ignore the deluge of wars, genocides, tyrants, famines, coups, and failed states because they don’t always show Africa as a “happy” place.
“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams. Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves […] I swore that I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming “Sinners!” – and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more […] Perhaps that was why I liked rural Africa so much and avoided towns, because in villages I saw self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture. In the towns and cities, not the villages, I felt the full weight of all the broken promises and thwarted hope and cynicism.”
- Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
“Throughout the world, urbanization, with all of its promises, has drawn people by the millions into squalor.”
- Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
“Cities that barely deserve the name have spawned plagues of poverty on a scale never known in earlier times, or even dreamed of.”
- Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State
“We live in the age of the city. The city is everything to us – it consumes us, and for that reason we glorify it.”
- Onookome Okome, Under Seize: Four African Cities – Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos
Curse the African city! Curse these rank monsters, shrines to everything obscene about “modernity.” Curse the crime, corruption, consumerism, elitism, inequality, ostentation, rapacity, ruthlessness, xenophobia, and Westernization. Curse the homophobic bible-pounders, murderous drivers, incompetent bureaucrats, and overpaid foreign “advisors.” Curse the traffic jams, gaudy architecture, low wages, high rents, and never-ending power cuts. Curse the complete destruction of traditional nomadic and pastoral lifestyles. Curse these graveyards of culture.
A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
Addis Ababa is many different cities to many different people – the rich, the poor, men, women, locals, foreigners, the diaspora, those born in the city, and those from the provinces. Fickle Addis defies generalization. It is reliably inconsistent. One sees too many luxury amenities to call it poor, too many wretched beggars to call it wealthy; too many easy smiles to call it mean, too many menacing glares to call it friendly; too many courtly bows to call it impolite, too much street boorishness to call it respectful; too much public affection to call it cold, too much impunity and indifference to call it compassionate; too much hope and joy to call it miserable, too much despair to call it happy; too much fraternity and piety to call it selfish, too much opportunism and greed to call it generous. Xenophobia and hospitality live side by side. There is a justifiable feeling of deep pride in Ethiopia’s rich culture and glorious history, but also a bitter resentment and shame in the poverty and wars that have ravaged the country.
“So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t — that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decision to make?”
It’s Tuesday evening in Addis Ababa’s garish central Bole neighbourhood. Wealthy, Westernized, and dodgy, Bole is a favourite spot for Addis’s expat population, and my most hated part of the city. Outside the rainy season is chilly and grey. The sun sets into a funereal sky stained with diesel smoke. Droves of begging children aggressively harass anyone who looks like they have money. Shoe shiners use their bare hands to polish muck-covered loafers. Bratty rich kids (‘Bole Kids’) lacing their Amharic with American English sneer at the beggars and snicker at the bug-bitten, sunburned foreigners who are running to the hideous architecture and isolated bubble worlds of their luxury hotels.