Arriving in Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
So, what do you expect when you first arrive in Ethiopia? Rain?
Well that’s what I got, poking my nose out the door of the airport terminal at five in the morning. Not the tropical downpour of an Asian monsoon, but a light, misty, typically Irish shower. And the air, not the heavily humid blanket of heat and fumes normally associated with a large city only a few degrees north of the equator, cool instead, chilly even.
Maybe just as well to have preconceptions dispelled as early as possible.
And so much for the Amharic phrasebook, everyone from the immigration officials (all four of them: one to take your passport, one to prepare your visa, one to accept payment, one to give change; though in fairness to them they showed admirable good humour considering the hour, and gave me an extended multi-entry visa without any problems, before going back to sleep) to the tea-lady seem not only willing but positively eager to practice their already impressive English. I won’t throw it away yet though; things may prove very different down the country.
Loading my gear into the back of the taxi, we set off into the night through dimly lit streets towards the city centre (5 kms). Shadowy figures peer from roadside fires and from behind fences separating the road from smoky, unlit shanty towns. Businesses advertise their produce in Amharic and English. Other drivers appear unwilling to expend car battery on headlights. The seatbelt is, of course, out of order. The taxi speeds along broad and elegant but pockmarked boulevards with evocative names: Churchill Avenue, General Wingate Street, Cunningham Road, Mahatma Gandhi Road towards De Gaulle Square, the heart of the Piazza district.
My hotel is located just off the Piazza, one legacy of the brief Italian occupation (1936-41). It’s not a square as such, more a traffic interchange enclosed on one side by a shopping mall, and overshadowed by the steep hill leading to St. George’s Cathedral. The Piazza area is home to many of the budget hotels, restaurants and livelier bars. It is also perhaps the best area in town to savour the coffee for which Addis Ababa is rightly renowned. Espresso machines churn out endless cups of delicious coffee: “makiato” (macchiato) and “meelk” (latte). These are taken at breakfast time with a wide array of iced pastries, donuts, croissants and sticky buns of all types. Lunch in Addis often consists of spaghetti (meat or tomato sauce), pizza, kebab, sandwich or burger. For dinner, I have been trying to stick to Ethiopian food (“national food”), which generally consists of a spicy stew with vegetables (cabbage and carrots) with a hunk of sinewy mutton, goat, ox or chicken, all served on the Ethiopian staple of injera, a type of large round pancake made from fermented grain, with a spongy texture and distinctive bitter taste. Last night for a change I tried some fish, served with chips, which was delicious. A wide variety of local beers are available: Harar, Meta, St.George and Dashen, as well as draught. (Try saying amu-se-ganalu – thank you – after a few of those). The currency in Ethiopia is the birr (pronounced brrr). There are 10 birr to a euro. A draught beer costs 1.5 birr. A meal in an Ethiopian restaurant costs 10-20 birr. And you can buy any cigarettes you like in Addis… as long as they’re Rothmans.
Italy/Italian is a byword for chic; therefore there are Italian shoes, restaurants, cafes furniture and…Italian internet (???) Another Italian legacy is the custom of large groups of students standing in the middle of the footpath talking loudly.
The streets in Addis do not suffer from the level of congestion and pollution of other immense cities, although you still feel as though you are taking your life in your hands when crossing the road. Taxis (blue), buses (orange), 4-wheel drives, Mercedes, ancient Volkswagens and Citroens jostle alongside herds of goats, donkeys and carts. Blue minibuses shuttle between the Piazza and the Merkato (market) said to be Africa’s largest. The sounds of street hawkers compete with the Islamic call to prayer and the ubiquitous rock-steady beat and undulating melody of Amharic pop music. The clatter of metal-workers and the scent of coffee grinders and charcoal braziers confirm the impression of functioning chaos.
Among the myriad social problems facing Ethiopian society, perhaps the most baffling is the preponderance of Arsenal fans in this city. It must be admitted, despite many positive features, Addis is unquestionably Gunner Territory. On inquiring, I was twice told that this was “because of Henry” (???) A more likely explanation is the fact that in Ethiopia the year is 1998, because the country uses the Gregorian calendar. Apparently, bookies here have stopped taking bets on a Man United treble next year.
(On the subject of Ethiopian time, the day here is divided into two twelve hour periods starting at 6 a.m., so here 7 a.m. is one o’clock; 8 a.m. is two o’clock and so on. So while in Ireland it’s now 1 p.m. (I think), here it’s +3 hours. But as anyone here will tell you, it’s really 10 o’clock. Got it?)
Arsenal shirts are a common sight, as are Bob Marley, Tupac, 50 Cent and Craig David (???).The mobile phone has hit Addis with a vengeance: flashing lights and trilling are inescapable.
Women in Addis are extremely fashionable: the afro hairstyle appears all the rage, alongside every conceivable indigenous and western-inspired style. Women seem quite liberated, often running small business like cafes and restaurants.
Many Ethiopians bear recognizable names such as Tomas, Johannes, Maryam, Georgius, Petrus and Solomon, reflecting the country’s ancient Christian heritage, dating to the time of the Apostles. Everywhere in Addis, the people display boisterous good-humour typical of any city-dwellers, but also disarming concern and kindness. Ethiopians appear to be walking encyclopedias of jokes, none of which work in English. However, a few of my old standbys, given a local twist (“A horse walks into a pub…the barman says 200 birr!” “A man finds a monkey on Churchill Avenue…”) went down very well.
St. George’s Cathedral
Sunday I made the mistake of “catching Mass” at St. George’s Cathedral up the hill from the Piazza. The Ethiopian Orthodox ceremony and the piety of the worshippers was profoundly moving, but also profoundly long. Everyone stood throughout the service, men to the left and women to the right. Outside a legion of beggars displayed an eye-watering array of disabilities and illnesses (amputees, spino-bifada, orphans, the elderly ie. more than 45 years old, leprosy, blindness).
I returned yesterday to take the tour from the Archdeacon. The cathedral itself is surprisingly small, in Ireland it would be a very small chapel, octagonal in shape. It was built around the turn of the century in thanks to St. George, whose relic was carried into battle against invading colonialists at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, the only time an African army defeated Europeans in a major encounter. This victory is attributed to the presence of the Holy Relic, however the warlord garb on display in the museum seems a more likely reason for the victory: huge helmets made from lion’s heads, terrifying curved swords and tridents (guns were for wimps), the poor colonialists never stood a chance.
Inside, the cathedral is tiny, seating maybe 200. Shoes are removed at the door. It was here took place the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie (focus of Rastafarian devotion, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah etc.) in 1930. The Archdeacon was, however, far more interested in discussing the Chelseaâ€“Liverpool match, culminating in a discussion of the merits of 4-4-2 over 4-2-3-1 in front of the former Emperor’s coronation throne (surreal).
This morning, I went back to Merkato to register for the Great Ethiopian Run, a 10 km road race around Addis. Haile Gebreselassie has been encouraging everyone to enter. Everyone in the crowd thought it was pretty funny to see a faranji (foreigner) enter the race, until I told them I was going to enter, and I was going to win. The smiles evaporated. They started asking me my name and nationality, assuming I was a serious contender. Fortunately for me, the race is on November 28, when I’ll be home, so I’m safe. And I have my cool t-shirt.
Unfortunately, life in the city continues under the threat of political violence. The opposition dispute the results of elections held in May, and violence marred the traditional “Finding of the True Cross” ceremony last week. A mass rally and general strike were scheduled for Sunday, but were cancelled at the last minute. The atmosphere in the downtown area was quite tense, with businesses boarded up, and telecommunications interfered with. At the moment, it’s only possible to place an international call through the internet, and apparently it is impossible to call a mobile this way, maybe because the internet connection is incredibly slow (I have been typing away waiting for the dial-up). I don’t know what the situation will be up country for telephone or internet access, it is very difficult to get a straight answer about this, so I’ll have to wait and see).