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.
The city is an exhibition of contrasts. Herds of goats are shuffled past glass skyscrapers. Businessmen in Armani suits brush shoulders with Orthodox priests in long robes, while walking past deformed beggars lying like crabs on thin, flea-infested mats on the sidewalk. Mere metres outside of luxury hotels, small packs of beggar children swarm the moneyed sliver of society – aloof United Nations and aid workers from abroad living in their comfortable bubbles; gobsmacked Westerners here to adopt Ethiopian children; suited diplomats with their obedient Ethiopian drivers; members of the much venerated and begrudged Ethiopian diaspora, patricians leftover from the Selassie years, and the young entrepreneurs of Ethiopia’s newly emerging middle class.
I love the mornings in Addis. As elsewhere on the continent, the days start early, urged on by the superlative Equatorial sun. The warm beams arouse us, invite us to the day, and lighten everyone’s mood.
Addis is carried on the rickety backs of 9,000 derelict taxi vans, taken by 1.4 million people. The truest picture of the city, at its most beautiful and foul, can best be seen from the creaking, frayed seats of these ubiquitous blue and white jalopies.
The grinning, hoody-wearing *weyala, taxi attendant, shouts as he sees me approach, flailing his arms in encouragement while he hangs precariously out the sliding door. He’s just a boy, perhaps 12. The young driver has long dreadlocks with frosted tips under an Ethiopian One Love cap, patterned with the faded red, yellow, and green of the nation’s flag. Orthodox icon stickers adorn the interior of the taxi, and dirty colourful curtains flap in the wind. Often the passengers are acquainted, and they exchange warm pleasantries over the blaring Amharic, English, or “African” Kiswahili music. There are seats for 12, but it often fills to 19.
This is the first of my minimum five daily taxis. Sometimes there’s one already waiting, and occasionally I wait for over an hour, depending on location, time of day, weather, construction, and a legion of other factors mostly beyond my control. To acclimatize to Addis one must first learn to give up control. Failure to do so may result in a total loss of sanity.
At the busier stops during rush hour there ensues a friendly but very physical skirmish to enter the scant transportation, and prospective passengers are often greeted with the wagging finger of a weyala with an already overflowing minibus. Addis is not the place for hesitancy or timidity. The meek are left behind. Forming lines is a newly emerging practice only seen at a few major transportation hubs.
Often I simply can’t wrangle a taxi and opt for one of the buses instead, though they too are frequently scarce. If the word “crowded” best describes taxi-vans, then a much stronger word is needed for the buses. In taxi-vans, personal space doesn’t exist; in buses, air itself can be hard to catch, and passengers have even been suffocated, though pickpocketing and fondling are the more common risks.
The two chief options are a few hundred locally procured large red and yellow Anbessa buses proudly displaying the Lion of Judah along with the confusing route numbers, though no destination information, and a few hundred more medium-sized cream and green Chinese Higer buses, designed for 37 passengers, but often carrying 50 or more.
When I enter I’m sometimes met with looks of amused astonishment; foreigners very rarely venture into these deathtraps. “Kaf!” the attendant yells. Move up. The only other alternative is the old blue and white Lada taxi, slightly out of the daily price range of most people, including myself.
Peer through the taxi van’s sliding windows and interspersed between the drab, cubic, Communist-style government ministries and office buildings, the bright yellow alcohol-licensed restaurants, and the eucalyptus frames straddling the legions of construction projects, you will see the street vignettes that bear the city’s spirit – cantankerous screaming matches, loving salutations, belligerents wielding bricks, parents doting on their children, and impatient motorists frowning as pedestrians, bowing in gratitude, cross in front of them. All share the burden and pleasure of living in Addis Ababa. Everywhere passersby exchange greetings. Women kiss three times on the cheek, men shake hands, pressing their right shoulders together. Everyone is part of a kind of family on the street. Strangers chat with each other and loudly offer their observations and unsolicited advice to people walking by. It is a culture of constant public commentary.
“Did you iron that shirt today?”
“Wow, you’ve really put on weight.”
“Put on a sweater, it’s cold out.”
Yet at the same time people can be incredibly secretive. Parents aren’t introduced to boyfriends or girlfriends until they’re engaged. People surreptitiously smoke or chew ch’at. Sex is discussed by women in hushed tones behind closed doors.
* * *
One day I happen upon a woman screaming at a terrified looking young man, demanding he be arrested. She has tracked down a young weyala, the father of the baby tightly bound to her back, who has evidently shirked his patrimonial duties and refused to support the child. The man dares an attempt to kick her, and is instantly impeded by a throng of good Samaritans who gently hold him back. Soon a policeman arrives to take him away. “I’m proud of her,” my girlfriend Mahi says as our taxi driver procures a new weyala, shaking his head and muttering about how he had advised the feckless man to support his child.
The soul of Addis, unmistakably African but with a sharp distinction, can be seen in the faces of those who call it home. The old men and women draped in gabis and netelas, traditional white blankets of cotton, during the cool nights, and carrying umbrellas to ward off the unrelenting sun during the days. The impossibly beautiful young women wearing sharps, vibrant diaphanous headscarves. The pitiful beggars chanting their melodic plea to taxi-van passengers for a few pennies. The regal old men in baseball caps and blazers nodding solemnly to passersby. The poor women lugging crushing loads of eucalyptus firewood on their backs for a few dollars a day. The priggish foreign aid workers peering through the windows of their air-conditioned Japanese sport utility vehicles, long black exhaust snorkels arching upwards like periscopes. The young boys larking about with their arms slung around each other. The peddlers tapping their mefakia, fibrous twig toothbrushes, against the box in which they’re held. The sinewy, inky-skinned walking statues from Gambela region. “They’re so beautiful,” Mahi whispers to me as they pass.
I help an old woman cross the street, and learn she has nine children and a husband, all dead, “But that’s all in the past now.” A friendly young waiter in a burger joint earning a dollar a day for his family half jokingly asks me to take him to Canada, lamenting, “We don’t have freedom. We don’t have money. Life is hard here.” An unshod, wide-eyed boy, clothed in rags and not more than eight years old, cleans and shines my shoes with his bare hands for 20 cents, not even attempting to overcharge the white man chatting on his IPhone. A brawny young soccer player bows and brings his open palms together in gratitude after I pass him a wayward ball. A provincial woman with a traditional face tattoo bordering her features crosses herself as she cautiously traverses the street in front of an Orthodox church. A matronly woman helps a stranger on the street remove a speck of dust from her eye. A handsome young Chinese foreman wearing expensive sunglasses and a stylish leather jacket stands up to his waist in a gaping hole in the road, surveying the work of his Ethiopian labourers. Two young girls in their green school uniforms giggle and shyly say “Hi!” A Somali woman talks on her cell phone through the thin cotton of her niqab, only her eyes visible. A surly young man emanating machismo empties his nasal passages onto the sidewalk. Two teenagers in skinny jeans and designer shirts speak in half Amharic, half English, while posting photos on Facebook using their Samsung Galaxy smart phones. An adolescent vagabond peers out from his little nest inside a concrete tube lying on the street.
I arrive at work and the grandfatherly security guards with their twinkling eyes bow, lift their hats, and offer their convivial greetings. My colleagues greet each other with handshakes, hugs, and kisses. At lunchtime they gather in a circle for injera, laughing, gossiping, swapping stories about their ghastly work conditions, and always sharing their food.
Life is hard here. The workdays start at 8:00 a.m. and last until at least 6:00 p.m. The workweek is Monday to Saturday, and my colleagues and I sleep there on weekends, though there are no beds. Salaries are low, not commensurate to the rent, imported food costs, and staggering inflation. Corrupt, rude, untrained, and underpaid public servants often make life miserable for anyone forced to deal with their rigmaroles. Bureaucrats know nothing about their own departments, doctors misdiagnose, nurses haphazardly stab their patients with needles, often causing permanent damage. The noisy, dirty, stressful daily commute can take hours. Power and water cuts are constant, and can last for days on end. Thousands of young children work, often without pay. Misogyny runs rampant. Sixty thousand of Addis’s children live on the streets. A quarter of people are unemployed in the city, more than half live in slums, and almost every day someone dies in a traffic accident. Destitution breeds thieves, and as wealth grows, so does inequality.
At the same time, Addis is safer and less corrupt than many other large African capitals. Growth rates remain sky-high, and the country is incredibly stable for the region. Close personal connections provide a soft barrier to the daily hardships and offer solutions to the many problems. The food is wonderful, the coffee unrivalled.
Sunday is a day of solace, a day of weddings, a day when insouciant families and lovers relax with each other, allowing themselves to free their minds of the stress of the coming week.
None of these characters can tell Addis’s story by themselves, but together with almost four million others, they weave the tale of an empress’s solitary house that sprouted into a giant village still dreaming of becoming a modern city, whose streets have felt the hard rubber of soldiers’ boots and tasted the blood of thousands of its fallen children.
*“Weyala” is colloquial and is now considered a rude term by many who opt instead to use the more politically correct “radat.”