So here I am. I arrived an hour late at about ten past seven this morning, for once being the first person through the plane door after a long and sleepless night crammed in Row 13. Just like usual when you arrive somewhere new, there is a huge amount to take in. Richard met me at the airport and we went back to his house, where after some tea and toast (there is a corner of a foreign field…), I started to flag and went for a lie down that turned into a longish nap. Richard lives in an area called Bole, which is pretty central. He’s been pointing out landmarks – towers, churches, and so on – because it seems that very few roads in Addis have actual names, let alone signs telling you those names. Areas of the city take their names from some strange things – there is a district called ‘Mexico’, another called ‘Chichinya’, and another called ‘Haya Hulet’ (meaning ‘Twenty-Two’, because a now-defunct bus service of that number passed through the area). ‘Bole’ means ‘black earth’ in Oromiya. I asked what ‘Bole Tele’ (where Richard and Katie live) meant; it is literally the bit of Bole that is near the Telecommunications building. Simples! But confusingly, the name doesn’t refer to one street, but also the side streets and alleys that criss-cross it and link it to other thoroughfares. So a street name is actually a district name, and refers to dozens of separate roads. Postmen must have a nightmare, I was thinking. But no: there are no deliveries to specific addresses – everything is done through PO boxes.
We went for a walk to find some lunch and so I could (slightly) get my bearings. It seems easy to misunderstand the place. Like Accra and other developing world cities I have been to before, there is plenty of evidence of poverty and iffy infrastructure: hawkers, dirt pavements, beggars, and so on. Yet there’s a feel of a city where money is being spent and the economy is growing, at least if construction is anything to go by. I’ve not been here long enough to know who’s benefiting from it all. The number of buildings going up is really striking; all around there is rickety wood or bamboo scaffolding, looking as gnarled and organic as the Nimmis sculpture in Sweden, with ricketier-looking concrete boxes within. They have no walls yet, meaning the unfinished rooms look like gaps in enormous rows of grey teeth. The buildings closer to completion are clad in tiles, stone, or glass, and everywhere is the evidence of construction: excavation, cement, dust, rubble, cranes and lorries. The dust particularly, combined with the filthy exhausts of passing vehicles, gives Addis a really foul smog, though it has been better this afternoon, presumably because the rain washed it all out of the air and deposited it on the ground. The traffic flows according to the age-old rule of ‘who has the sharpest elbows has priority’, and occasionally you go past a junction where a traffic policeman in white gloves conducts the chaos. I have not yet seen one traffic light in this city of four million. The other feature that sticks in my mind is the massive number of signs around for embassies and NGOs. Addis is the headquarters of the African Union, and so an important diplomatic centre, as well as being one of the giant cities of the Horn of Africa, meaning that there are a great number of foreign organisations here. Even as you walk around it has a very cosmopolitan, liberal feel. I have seen embassies for Portugal, Kuwait, North Korea, the EU, and intriguing signs for the Danish Refugee Council (though as yet no Danish refugees) and the New Start Technocrat Support Organisation, among many others.
Lunch was a massive folded pancake of injera that must have been fully three feet in diameter if laid out flat, served with one of the many variations on red mushy spiced stews for which Ethiopian cuisine is famous. You tear off a piece of floppy injera, try as best you can to enclose it around a sopping piece of meat and/or lentilly mush, and then spill no more than a fifth of it on your shirt. My clean shirt and I both agreed that it was delicious. We ate in a café called the Elephant Walk, under the shade of a large canopy, drinking ‘Spreace’ juice, which consisted of thick, gloopy measures of what tasted like pulped mango, guava and something unidentified, poured carefully so they layered on top of one another. Then off to a local hotel, where for the price of a cup of coffee you can sit and use their wireless internet. Like the restaurant, this seemed to be a hangout for a smattering of Westerners situated all along the spectrum from hippy to businesslike, as well as young (in fact mainly teenaged), fashionable, middle-class Ethiopians, sharing a laptop and tapping their statuses into Facebook while giggling at their mobile phones. You can travel halfway around the world and find things that are just the same as at home. Richard and I sat down to work, him on a report and me on consolidating the contacts that I am going to try and tap in the next few days.