27 July 2008

Notes from Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa is not what I expected. I'm not sure what it is that I expected, but this is not it. The city is large, and sprawls for miles in all directions, hugging the slopes of a number of hills, and is surprisingly lush and green. Addis sits at over 2,500 meters and experiences only two seasons, wet and dry, and we have come at the start of the rainy season. The sky is grey and overcast, clouds sitting low and rolling in over the hilltops that peak out from the outskirts of the city. The rain and the altitude cool the city, it barely hits 18C during the day and at night coats and jumpers are needed as it drops to 11C. The guidebooks say the population is about 2.5 million, but Ermias, our taxi driver, says its closer to 4. There isn't the same sense though of multitudes that you get travelling through urban centres in other majority world countries, like India.

Ethiopia itself is home to 78 Million, predominantly rural, and over 50% of the population under 18. It is a very ethnically diverse nation, with the Oromo and Amara making up about 60% of the population, and about a dozen other groups making up the remaining 40%. The population is also religiously diverse, with about 50% being Ethiopian Orthodox, Muslim 30%, other Christians a further 10%, and other religions including animism and traditional belief systems accounting for the remaining 10%. While the Orthodox church is suspicious of the Muslim population, which they believe is rising faster due to the Muslim practice of husbands taking multiple wives (legal in Ethiopia for Muslims, but not for other religions) and is seen as a challenge to the Church's traditional dominance, I have seen no signs of tension between any of the diverse ethnic groups in Addis Ababa, despite the oil and food prices rises and increased poverty gap that has triggered such violence in other countries.

In fact the first impression upon travelling through Addis is that money is everywhere, in the fashionable clothes of the middle classes, the coffee shops and restaurants that line the streets, the giant satellite dishes that adorn every apartment, the construction sites that dot the city promising a new life of luxury for a new millennium. Addis is the headquarters of the African Union, and the UN in Africa. Many nations have two diplomatic missions in the city, one for Ethiopia and one for the AU, and white land cruisers adorned with the livery of the UN or various NGOs are ubiquitous. The diplomats and expats live in gated compounds and five-star hotels with metal detectors and security guards; rooms at the Sheraton climb as high as $2,600/night (plus 15% Sales tax and 10% service charge) and only the finest Johnny Walker Blue is served.

Outside the Sheraton the streets are as often rubble and dirt as they are paved and pockmarked, lined simultaneously with modern office blocks and shopping malls and the corrugated iron sheets that form both home and market stall for many of Addis' poorest residents. There is no division here between rich and poor neighbourhoods as in most Western cities; Colourful newly constructed condominiums that house both the resettled poor whose shanty towns were demolished to make way for office blocks and hotels, and the newly mobile middle class helped onto the property ladder by a price-controlling government, thrust upward throughout the sprawl and haze that is Addis. Doctors and businessmen live side-by-side with sex workers and wood gatherers, sometimes the only way to tell their residences apart from the outside is the presence of barbed wire on the walls.

With the roads and construction comes China. Chinese businessmen are everywhere, viewing Ethiopia, as with rest of Africa, as one giant resource. China is here to build much needed infrastructure, road networks, telecommunications and hospitals. But this is not aid, it is investment that is tied to mining and other access rights to natural resources. Similar deals are being done throughout Africa, for governments it is a quick win with rapid upgrades of road and rail infrastructure, schools and hospitals and direct investment in the economy, providing much needed jobs. But many question the bargain price at which China secures Africa natural resources, and worry that nations are swapping one set of colonial masters for another. But after being here even for a few days it is obvious that as the 19th Century belonged to England, and the 20th was the American Century, the 21st Century belongs to China, and everyone here knows it.

Urban Ethiopians are experiencing rapid socio-economic and technological advances, though political freedom remains elusive. Recent elections were disputed, and while everyone has access to foreign satellite TV channels, the state run TV, radio and newspapers carry the official government line and little else, so there is few outlets for the opposition to air their voices. Internet access is widely available in urban areas, though slow, and with substantial and sometimes baffling censorship - I can access blogger.com while in Addis and tinker around with my blog settings, but all .blogspot.com urls are blocked, so I can't actually read my blog. Opposition websites are blocked, as are some news sites that have published critical articles. This does not stop people talking openly and willingly in the bars and cafes, and so far does not seem to dampen people's enthusiasm for the ballot box. To be fair though the government does not seem actually oppressive, just slow, monopolistic and corrupt.

The biggest sense the comes for Ethiopians in general, and Addis Ababa in particular, is a sense of national pride. Ethiopia calls itself the cradle of humanity, with the remains of some of the earliest known hominids being found here (Australopithecus afarensis, of whom 'Lucy' is the most famous example, and whose remains are exhibited in Addis Ababa's National Museum of Ethiopia); its current civilisation traces its roots back over 3,000 years, with a lineage of kings that traces itself unbroken from the biblical Solomon to the last Emperor, Haile Selassie I (deposed in 1974, and worshipped to this day, somewhat to the embarrassment of most Ethiopians, as God Incarnate by the rastafarian movement, whose name is taken from his name prior to his coronation, Ras (meaning 'prince') Tafari Makonnen) and has a history almost entirely free of colonisation. Ethiopia is proud of this independence from colonial powers, its membership of the League of Nations (joining in 1923, the same year as Ireland) and its status as a founding member of the United Nations. It regards itself paternally within Africa, adjudicating and settling disputes between other African nations as a father does with his children, and yet if you ask an Ethiopian if they are African, they reply, "No, I am Ethiopian".

But as the discovery of Lucy showed in 1974, perhaps we are all Ethiopian.


At 7:49 pm, Blogger Simon Mace said...

If you read the HRW report , you will find out, the $2 billion /yr economic boom is originating from
US,UK,and EU in return for the shameful and bloody proxy war with Somalia.



At 8:31 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Pretty good report all right, thanks for posting!

It is important to make a distinction between the acts of the Ethiopian government (pretty disgraceful in Eritrea, seriously questionable in the Somali region of Ethiopia and Somalia itself) and those of the Ethiopian people themselves who have little say in the actions of their current government. Access to information about these incidents is seriously restricted within Ethiopia, so the majority of citizens have no idea what their army is doing in their name.


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