Why I love Addis Ababa

1. Today is the 27th of the month in the Ethiopian calendar. The 27th of each of the first 12 months of the year (the 13th has only 5 days, or six in a leap year) is a religious festival. Walking down Bole Tele on my way to the British International School this morning I went past Medhane Alem Cathedral. The first sign that something unusual was going on was the enormous number of people, mostly women, wearing gabbis. These are the coarse-woven white cotton shawls that feature on many photos of religious sites like Lalibela. They are not unusual, but as I got nearer the cathedral, they were EVERYWHERE, over the heads of people streaming towards the cathedral. The second was the more than usual number of beggars, perhaps looking to benefit from the religious atmosphere, the guilt of worshippers, or the simple law of averages in a crowd. There were the usual round of genuine and bogus cases – from children bent double over walking sticks affecting terrible deformities who stand up straight and run along to their next mark when one doesn’t cough up, to wizened old mendicants with faces like leather who jangle their coins as you go past, to people with obvious, genuine and quite distressingly vivid maladies. Then there were the traders – selling corn cobs, candles, scarlet parasols with extravagant gold embroidery, chewing gum, hymn CDs, baskets, lengths of orange rope with white tassels at either end, watermelons, and anything else you can think of. Walking past the cathedral I could see a stage set up. A preacher was imprecating wildly. His voice was rasping and pained, like a tortured sinner passing on his dying warning to the world. You don’t see things like this in London.

2. Random encounters with people who love to speak to farenjis (foreigners). My contact at the B.I.S. was ill, which I only found out when I got there. Having waited 40 minutes for him, I was mildly annoyed, and was getting ready to leave when a very Ethiopian-looking lady came up, and announced in a perfect “ee-by-gum, ay-oop-lad, ecky-thump” Yorkshire accent that she was the school secretary and could show me around. She was called Sosana, was born here, lived for about 20 years in Barnsley, and then came back. The second encounter was with Olata, who introduced himself to me on Haya Hulet and asked what I was doing here. When I said I was a teacher he announced that he taught English and IT at an international school using the Virginia state curriculum, and that they were looking for a teacher in his department. What ridiculous chance in both cases, and all because I am walking around with a massive grin on my face and saying ‘hello’ or ‘selamno’ to everyone that meets my eye.

3. Amusing details and the Ethiopian sense of humour. Reading a newspaper today I found story about a loan shark sentenced to 22 years in prison and a Birr 308,000 fine for tax evasion and corruption, whose nickname in Addis was ‘IMF’ owing to the “rapacity and stringency with which he enforced his loans.”

4. Roads, transport and taxis. Mostly I have been travelling around in 1970s Lada taxis. I have a long history of loving the public transport in developing world cities, with the battered tro-tros in Ghana, and the Bombay taxis and autorickshaws sticking in my mind particularly. I sometimes feel as if I still have the bruises on my bum picked up every time the slatted seats on a tro-tro hit a pothole at 40mph. Here the taxis are blue and white and mostly either ancient Fiats (the connection with Italy, including the use of ‘Ciao’ and the high profile of Fiat cars and Iveco trucks is perhaps surprising, given the beastly treatment Ethiopians received at Italy’s hands), or better still, 1970s Ladas, a legacy of the Derg regime’s links with the Soviet Union. Mostly these sound like tractors, struggle to climb mild inclines when there is more than the driver inside, spew foul gases at both ends, and have doors with no latches or handles that can be opened simply by the application of mild force from the inside. And as for seatbelts, well clearly they were seen as a bourgeois affectation in Brezhnev’s day (and don’t even get me started on zebra ‘crossings’). Many cabbies have a Manchester United or Arsenal pennant dangling from their mirror, and the good-humoured haggling over fares makes a pleasant change from the ever-ticking meter of UK cabs.

Perhaps it’s the fact that for the last three years I have been driving the same journey to the same school teaching the same lessons to the same kids, drinking the same break-time cup of tea and eating the same lunchtime sandwiches, then going home to do the same marking and the same chores, occasionally meeting with people in the same pubs, but at the moment it is just MASSIVELY new, fun and exciting. Best of all, Katy and Richard have been here for two years and say they still feel the same way. And I haven’t even been out of Addis yet.

Until tomorrow, when I rise at 4am to set off for Tigray, in the highlands of the north. I’ll be trekking around churches hewn from solid rock, many of them literally carved out of a cliff-face. If my books are to be believed they are often accessible only by narrow paths with vertiginous drops beneath; one famous one is even only accessible by climbing the last 20m under an overhang by using a chain to haul oneself up. I shan’t be going there, but the atmosphere even in the other ones sounds magical, and Ethiopia is also one of the few places in the world where ascetic monasticism is still fairly widespread. I’m also going to visit Aksum and some of the historic sites that I blogged about last week, and possibly, if I can fit in a long road journey that apparently has no public transport and has to be done by hiring a 4×4 or paying a truck driver to give you a lift, I will take the road southwards to Lalibela.

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