As I walked through the old neighborhood around Shala Park, I noticed the amount of garbage in the street had not changed. Other things too, like stray cats, scruffy dogs and goats are still here and there. The people sitting around on little wooden stools guarding doorways and gates are all still in the same place. There are still random holes in the sidewalks and people using the street as a urinal. All those things that are specifically Addis, remain so.
Meanwhile, other obvious changes have taken place over the last two years, but you gotta lift your eyes above the street level to see what’s going on. If you can see through all the dust in the air, you’ll wonder if you’re still in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian urban planning is at full hilt. Before any large construction project is finished, the next five are already underway. Developers had just started to raise towers on Bole Tele back in 2012. Houses were quickly demolished and pits dug for support. I watched eucalyptus scaffolding climbed the cement pillars and rainwater filled the gigantic holes. Today, none of the buildings are completely finished, but sunshine filters through in the late afternoon, warming the bodies of pedestrians with rays of progress.
When I arrived back in 2010, there were few functioning street lights. Now they are everywhere, and some will count down the red light. Traffic in Addis has come a long way in four years. Light rail tracks run from Meganegna through Meskel Square to Mexico Square and beyond. Two-lane roads side up next to the rails. If you thought the four-lane Urael intersection was crowded at rush hour, imagine two lanes and a light railway! The great Meskel Square is now shackled with concrete bridges. The city’s famous square, so iconic and central to the September 26th celebration of fire and cleansing, is now the intersection of the two railways, the intersection of tradition and modernity. The capital city is burying the old version of itself under thousands of tons of the Entoto mountain rock.
If you arrive at night, there is no dust, and the neon palm trees still light the way down Bole Tele. Scores of Ababans mill around the steel and glass, eating burgers and drinking Ambo Cola. Roomi Burger is packed. New buildings shine, others are on their way, bringing more cafes, more handbags, more Ambassador Suits and more photo bets to the populace. With each building come more jobs, more opportunities and at least one more rich building owner.
My house was turned into a ‘massage bet’ a trend that was just underway back in 2010. Habtu couldn’t cough up the 17,000 birr rent or compete with massage queens who can. Funny how the house ended up in the business of a pretend spa. It means that any triumphant return to my old room—the one I called the sinkhole—is just a 100 birr massage away.
The neighborhood is buzzing with bars and nightclubs. Chechenya seems much the same, still holding on to all that prime real estate with the grip of a desperate prostitute. From Chechenya, the side streets leading to Haya Hulet road are miniature havens of bars with bright signs, big windows and Teddy Afro sounds. And these too have evolved, now a mutant of what they once were. Instead of the basic ‘grocery’ measuring out droplets of local gin and Georgis beers, they now dub themselves ‘liquor bars’ or ‘sexy liquor bars’ and offer exotic mixed drinks like Mojitos, Sex on the Beech, and Ladis Kiler. The people who frequent Bole have a richer taste for the good life, and the good life is an intricate cocktail.
All in all the Addis Ababa experience is much the same. Power cuts (mebrat yellem), water cuts (wuha yellem) and there is shitty cell phone service (network yellem). There seem to be either fewer taxis or more people. A loud ‘waraj alleh’ will still get you out of the blue donkey, and taxi fares are paid in 1.50 birr increments. A cup of bunna by jebena costs the same 5 birr, and a jambo beer is 15 -20 birr, still just a dollar or so.
The eucalyptus trees continue to grow high on the mountains surrounding the city, and grass and weeds push through the cracks of the walls. Addis Ababa is alive, but like a pubescent teen, growing fast in one direction. Development hormones are charged and everything is off balance. The one dimensional progress of roads and buildings blows you away, but when you’re in the dark without a drop to drink, questions arise.Photos by Antonio Orria