Ethiopia: In Praise of Addis – A Rising City full of Contradictions
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 Abeba 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.
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 Abeba. 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.
What is truly noteworthy and of practical significance, however, is the behavior and manner of interaction of homeowners of the city with one another. The official line regarding the ownership of land is that all land belongs to the government. The ruling party came to this conclusion, in part, after having observed that there was excessive speculation on property in the form of real estate. What is truly fascinating, however, is the behavior of property owners in the Kebeles (neighborhoods). People are agitating, fighting and causing a ruckus with their neighbors over inches of land. It is fascinating to note that people still consider ownership of land as the most prized possession in spite of the decree that made all land the property of the state.
The City of Addis has been aggressive in resettling those who have been asked to move out of their dwellings so that the city can move forward with its ambitious plan to modernize. There have been countless condominiums of varying qualities and scope that have been built all over the city. People have to register, and there are long waiting lists to acquire any of the 10/90%, 20/80% or 40/60% condominiums. The ever-expanding need for housing will continue to challenge the city for years to come as there are large numbers of people moving from the rural areas into the city. These are people who used to make their living from the land (with some degree of strength, fortitude and some amount of pride), but now have to cope with the challenges of city living where one lives by one’s wits, not by chance. The primary employment of the mostly youth who migrate into the city is as day laborers (now, as cobble stone workers). This obviates the enormous challenges that the city will have to face in future years.
Challenges and Opportunities
As the capital of Africa, Addis faces many challenges and should anticipate clear opportunities. Of the obvious challenges is the failure to faithfully and honestly implement its own master plan. Having had mixed success with its past master plan, the city has embarked on another master planning process which is expected to culminate in an agreed upon plan for the city within the next eight months. A master plan for a major city like Addis should be viewed like a constitution of a country. A constitution gets tested and challenged by the citizens but must always be true to both the spirit as well as the letter of its intent. A master plan that gets amended or ignored when a powerful person makes a phone call, or successfully lobbies a government official in a position to alter it, is not a master plan—it is only a statement of intent or just simply a gesture. Master plans don’t get pushed around with a little bit of the right kind of wind. There appears to be a disconnect between planning and implementation. In all matters of substance, there is a point where you either grow or rot, and I believe that Addis has decided to grow into the modern city that it deserves to be, and that, undoubtedly, requires first-rate leadership at every level.
Of the opportunities available to the city include the enormous potential for conference tourism. As I pointed out in an earlier essay titled “Factors of Change and Transformation in Ethiopia”,
Addis Ababa is emerging as the conference capital for Africans, and many international organizations. This is partly due to the fact that there are some highly respected international organizations located in Addis, such as the Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union, the IGAD Secretariat and others like it, many embassies and associated staff as well as country representatives to the African Union, just to name a few. Cursory evidence shows that there have been several international meetings that have been held in Addis or are to be held there in the near future. This augurs well for the city and the country. It speaks highly of the confidence conference planners have in the security and comfort the city can provide; it speaks highly of the ever-hospitable residents of Addis; it speaks highly of the appeal of the city; the improving transport system; and even more importantly, it speaks very highly of the ever-changing Ethiopian Air Lines and the services it offers.
Despite the fact that Ethiopia has not been able to ramp up its abilities to attract tourists similar to Kenya and Tanzania or even South Africa, the opportunity to market Addis as an international conference center provides immense opportunities to develop both types of tourism in the near future. Those in positions of authority, both at the city as well as the federal level, ought to formulate a plan as well as a sustained drive to make this a reality. There are comparative advantages Addis may enjoy in this regard relative to other cities in Africa.
Let me then end this essay exactly where I began. As a freshman in high school, I used my Saturdays to teach prisoners at ‘Kerchele’ prison (‘Alem Bekagne’). A Peace Corp teacher of mine would pick me up near what was then 5th police station ‘Amestegna’, and drop me off at the gates of the prison so that I could do my volunteer work. Today, where ‘Alem Bekagne’ used to be stands a magnificent edifice – a gift of the Chinese government to the people of Africa—the African Union building. It is a testament to the faith of the citizens and a witness to the renewal that is underway. No other building in the entire city displays the architectural authenticity befitting a rising metropolis. Addis has always been a city of a mixture of the appealing and then the untidy. A city of contradictions, joyfully embraced by its resilient and hopeful citizens!
Dr. Teshome Abebe is Professor of Economics, and resides in the United States. He may be reached at email@example.com.