The enigma of Addis Ababa

It’s both reassuring and frustrating that after so much traveling and living in different places, I can still encounter a city that seems so entirely foreign to me as Addis Ababa.

Last year, by the end of the nine months I spent traveling, I was starting to feel like in some ways, the world is becoming so similar everywhere that it took some of the fun out of traveling. The ubiquity of English and American music, a general quality of life that you can purchase anywhere with enough money, the similarity of goods sold in different places (and the realization that global trade has brought a lot of those goods to my home town), the availability of western food in so many places… all these things made me kind of sad, thinking there was some global homogenizing going on. Were we slowly erasing all the differences between different places in the world? Were we heading towards one global society that would be all the same?

I came to Addis after reading that it was a place only “for the experienced traveler” and I can attest that this is definitely the case. It is not an easy place to live, though it is fascinating and alluring in some ways. And surprisingly, so many of the skills and techniques that I learned and used in other places don’t translate here. It’s a new place for me, quite different from anything I’ve experienced.

IMG_7983It’s surprisingly cold in Addis…hence the sweater and the scarf

Addis is a place where the push of modernity clashes brashly with the pull of the way things have always been. The city feels to me like it is constantly fighting itself. It’s turbulent, the process of growing and changing, and it pervades everything.

A lot of the city is comprised by modest neighborhoods, in which small houses with rusting corrugated iron roofs cluster together on wide swaths of hillsides, with narrow paths snaking between them. At first glance these appear slum-like, but look closer and you see that many of the homes have satellite dishes perched on the corrugated iron roofs. From afar, it looks like a collection of giant white mushrooms growing on rusty metal.

IMG_7797Fancy mall in Bole neighborhood of Addis

There is new money and all the things that people with money anywhere like – upscale restaurants, bars with imported liquors, posh shopping malls, fancy cars and places to live where security guards keep watch day and night. Men in suits wait in line for ATMs and walk away counting wads of bills.

But there are also a multitude of beggars, street children, and disabled people. At night, one notices that certain sidewalks or stairs of large churches are lumpy, moving slightly, an odd color; and then suddenly the eyes adjust and the forms of dozens of humans sleeping manifest. During the day, they patrol parts of the city in tattered clothing with their hands outstretched, or sit on thin pieces of fabric while people drop coins in front of them.

img_7971.jpgFuture banks being erected in our neighborhood

The neighborhood we live in is aiming to be the new financial district of Addis Ababa, with at least half a dozen shiny new bank buildings going up around us. But on the ground, literally in the shadows of these new skyscraper-style buildings, there are informal housing settlements where families live in lean-tos covered with tarps, which flood in the rain, and children wearing old tattered clothing play games with old tires and sticks.

One of the biggest markets in Africa, Merkato, lies in the center of Addis. Enter there, and you get swept into a maze of vendors lining muddy streets, hawking traditional spices, fermented butter, live chickens (which can be slaughtered on the spot for a small sum), and much, much more. But the young, middle class people we meet tell us “don’t go to Merkato.” They do all their shopping in the supermarkets or small stores that are less hassle and more convenient, leaving the market for the older and more traditional generation.


In a lot of places, you can buy yourself a certain quality of life if you have enough money. Addis does not seem to be that kind of a place. Some of the basic things like electricity, power, internet, and the ability to move around are just not able to be purchased. The power and water both disappear from time to time. Nice hotels have generators that kick in when the power is out, but I’m not sure even they can account for the periodic cutting off of water. The internet and mobile data are shut down periodically by the government (which owns the only mobile phone company in Ethiopia), and the traffic is so bad at some times of the day that even paying for a private taxi doesn’t get you to your destination any faster than using public transit.

It’s a fascinating place, built into rolling hills, at high altitude and quite beautiful in some ways. Some days, living here feels like such a fun challenge. Other days, I’m just so confused by it that I don’t know what to do. Three months is such a short amount of time to spend a place like this – I suspect that as soon as I start to figure this city out, it will be time to leave it.

For now, I am stumbling around in a state that feels familiar from the early days of Peace Corps– it’s the feeling of being totally lacking in all grace due to unfamiliarity with culture and language and perpetually doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Such is life when you fling yourself unprepared into a new place that is so totally different.

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