Addis Ababa is a vibrant African city with many issues of interest - but very stressful

Five years after his first visit to Addis Ababa Neil Fraser finds many changes - some good, like the renovations and construction of buildings near the airport, and some for the worse, like the degradation of the environment.
12 June 2006
By Neil Fraser
ADDIS Ababa is the capital of what today is known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, previously Abyssinia. Before giving you my impressions of the city here are some facts about the country.

  • Is a landlocked country bordered by Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and the Sudan.
    Has population of about 80 million.
  • Has 72 languages (not dialects), of which the largest, Amharic, is spoken by about a quarter of the population.
  • Has mainly agricultural resources (89 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, mainly subsistence farming).
  • Coffee is its most important commodity - the word coffee having evidently come from Kaffa, the region where it was first grown.
  • 93 percent of total energy consumption is by firewood that has led to large-scale deforestation and desertification.
  • Adult literacy is 45 percent.
  • The incidence of HIV/Aids is 12 percent.
  • Is one of the world's poorest and least developed nations, with a GNP of US$6 355, giving a per capita income of only US$90.
  • In 2003 the country had six telephones per 1 000 people.
  • The country was invaded by Italy in 1935, which remained in control until 1941.
  • In 1974 the country changed to a state-controlled socialist economy. In 1984 it officially became a communist state, the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s weakened the government, which was subsequently overthrown by rebel groups leading to a democratic government in 1991.
  • Conflict with both neighbouring Eritrea and Sudan has weakened the country's economy considerably.

Addis Ababa is a sprawling metropolis of huge contrasts and a population of four million. It has no city centre but consists of a number of centres or sub-cities. An article in the Ethiopian Airlines magazine states that "with no colonial impact on its architecture, Addis Ababa's skyline has grown haphazardly as a result of initiatives taken by state and private developers with strong indigenous roots" - I don't quite understand that. However, there is very little evidence of indigenous architecture and the new developments, which certainly can be described as occurring "haphazardly", are generally awful.
This is actually my second visit to Addis Ababa - the first was in 2001 - and I was particularly interested to see what the past five years has meant for the city.
The first is that the mayor and council, who were in power when I last visited the city, are now in jail. They were evidently re-elected in the country's last election but refused to take up office, as they believed the rest of the country's elections were rigged. So there is a new administration in place.
The airport's international terminal building, under construction on my last visit, is complete and is certainly up to international standards of accommodation. Not up to international standards is the exit from its public parking area - our taxi fought with hundreds of cars to get out of a single pay-exit.
CondominiumsAlso now complete is the elevated ring road around the city. The many buildings under construction on both sides of the ring road were, we were told, "condominiums" and part of the present administration's efforts to address the housing problem in the city.
All land belongs to the state and one has to enter long-term (99-year) leases to develop anything. If the land is clear then the city can go ahead with its developments. However, if it is occupied then it is not so easy.
What developers appear to do is to get slum-dwellers, who have right of occupation, to sign over their rights in exchange for guaranteed occupation in the new development. Possibly half-a-dozen contiguous dwellers do this and the developer then builds say 30 "condominiums" and is able to let out the balance. For the very poor, the condominium accommodation appears to be rooms with communal toilet facilities. Interestingly, there is a great concern amongst social workers that "condominium" living will lead to social problems and, particularly, to an increase in crime.
I was impressed with the area we drove through immediately from the airport.
Although an old sub-city, Bole sports some newly renovated roads and proper pavements with many new multi-storey buildings or buildings under construction. This is probably because the area houses a significant portion of Addis Ababa's considerable embassy establishment, as well as the city's elite. It boasts the new Commission of the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and a number of modern shopping centres. It also has a massive Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral that was under construction on my last trip.
But once through Bole, we were back in the Addis I remembered. In fact, in Citichat 23/2001 I wrote "the worst roads imaginable …… more potholes than driving surface so that every vehicle, in both directions, navigates from one side of the road to the other. Add wandering cows and goats and laden donkeys and this is one place where you don't want to be behind the wheel! The city appears to be an amalgam of numerous settlements with high rise modern buildings of indeterminate architectural style randomly rising out of extensive high density shackland".
That hasn't changed, if anything the environment has worsened.
What hit me more on this visit were the ubiquitous poverty, dirt and pollution. Every vehicle seems to spout huge volumes of black exhaust fumes into the atmosphere, which is noticeably hard on the lungs.
Pavements are home to countless homeless of all ages, with many, many beggars surrounding your car at each intersection. Not with our usual "No work, no money" signs, but young women with babies, children of all ages and sizes and those maimed by nature or by war.
The poverty is overwhelming - I tried to get unemployment statistics and the only one quoted was "somewhere over 60 percent".
The pavements are incredibly dirty. Each day for the six days I was there, I walked down a hill that led to one of the major streets in the city. My walk took me past two large skips permanently parked on the pavement into which refuse collectors empty refuse and in which dogs and the poor, including small children, pick through for anything still edible. For the whole period I was there, a corner pavement I had to walk around was littered with large animal bones and human and animal faeces - only the latter disappearing after a particularly heavy downpour washed it into the street gutter on my last day. But then one sees children drinking water out of tin cans collected from the same gutters.
MerkatoStreets are chaotic with thousands of hooting taxis - the combi variety and others including bakkies, all painted blue - but the traffic moves fairly well, only clogging when there are occasional traffic lights or policemen on point duty. I saw many more police than on my previous visit and although the word is that crime remains low, when I went to the huge market - Merkato - I was told to leave wallet, watch and camera behind, unlike my previous visit.
The origins of Merkato date back to the short occupation of Ethiopia by Italy in World War II, the Italians having designated this area of some 200 hectares for commercial activities of "indigenous peoples". It has a population of between 95 and 100 000 people and is a dense retail area, with residential accounting for less than nine percent. It is a major trading centre accommodating 14 000 businesses. It is the focal point for receiving all the country's produce in bulk then redistributing it in a large variety of smaller quantities. It is also clearly the focal point for the "dumping" of every variety of counterfeit designer goods.
Merkato's commercial area is sub-divided into trading sectors so that one has all clothing related shops concentrated in one area, building materials in another, spices in another, and so on.
The alleys that criss-cross Merkato are jammed, and I mean jammed, with cars, combi-taxis, trucks, donkeys, goats and streams of pedestrians brushing cheek by jowl with or dodging between the traffic. Many "shops" of less than 20m² are sublet to eight to 10 traders, all selling the same goods. Cheek by jowl will forever have an entirely different connotation for me.
My last visit was as part of a team looking, not to formalise Merkato, but to "regularise" it to some extent. Its recommendations have not been implemented.
On my previous visit I spent all of my time in the city. On this occasion I was able to get out of Addis for one day and visited a country area that is a real retreat from the city.
It centres on a volcanic lake and is very beautiful, with wonderful greenery and amazing birdlife.
However, the hour drive to get there and the return, was nothing short of hair-raising even for one with as little hair as myself.
I gather that it is classified as one of the most dangerous roads in Addis and experiencing the driving I can understand why. Yet this is clearly where economic development is taking place and the road is lined with new industrial projects. It reminded me of the development taking place along the Joburg - Pretoria corridor.
Addis Ababa is a vibrant African city with many issues of interest - but very stressful. I'm glad to be home.
Cheers, Neil

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