Addis Ababa, which translates into “new flower”, was named by the wife of Emperor Menelik II in 1886 when she saw it looking down from Mount Entoto, the Emperor’s military base. Today, Africa’s highest capital at 7,546 feet (2,300 metres) is a chaotic, bustling city of around 3 million people.
Known as the political capital of Africa, housing the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and numerous other African and international organizations, Addis is in the midst of change. Everywhere you turn, there are buildings going up and new roads being built thanks to the Chinese and other foreign investors. A pell mell of slums, notoriously rundown, dirty and overcrowded weave in and out the city even up against some of the newest luxury hotels, buildings and homes.
Addis is a grimy city lacking real sidewalks yet fascinating all the same for it appears that all levels of humanity inhabit its streets. You can see businessmen dressed in suits sitting alongside the dirt sidewalks on chairs while having their shoes shined. Destitute mothers and babies begging for food at your car windows. Beautiful, tall elegant Ethiopian woman walking under colorful parasols. Food vendors trying to earn a dime at a busy street corner selling maize. Children unattended to walking about the town, shoeless and in torn and haggard clothing. Muslims and Christians going to and from one of the many mosques or churches peppered throughout the town. All this mixture of life against a city in the heart of modernization.
I imagine that ten years from now, Addis Ababa will be unrecognizable as the inner city slums are driven out and the newer, modern high-rises, office buildings and apartments structures modernize the city. New, freshly paved roads will replace the jagged, bumpy dirt roads that wind throughout the city.
Probably the best way to get a taste of Addis is to see it for yourself. A lot can be told about a city is through its streets.
Ethiopian cuisine is also something that must be experienced while in Addis. Given the Italian occupation during World War II, many Italian cafes and restaurants have remained around town and of course there is as much injera and wat as your heart and soul desires with lots of spice. I learned that injera, a spongy sour tasting pancake-like bread made out of teff is relatively healthy. The various wats, which are either vegetarian or meat-based spicy stews are served on top the injera and foreigners must adjust to eating the Ethiopian way: With only the right hand.
Coffee is also a huge specialty in Ethiopia as this nation is the proud creator of the famous bean. Legend says that the coffee bean was discovered by a herder who noticed his goats’ excited behavior after eating it. Ethiopian coffee is the best I’ve ever had anywhere in the world.
Housing in Addis Ababa is a huge mixture of good and bad. Newly built villas and mansions are rising amidst the slums. Most city dwellers live inside compounds behind large walls. There are also many sad looking slums throughout the city. I was horrified to see a large, corrugated tin roofed slum outside my beautiful hotel room at the Radisson Blu. It was hard to reconcile and made me feel very sad.
I heard one of the drivers say, “How can the rich live inside these enormous homes, some with indoor basketball courts and gyms while they look outside and see people eating trash”. I couldn’t agree more.
There isn’t a whole lot to see in Addis however the National Museum is a must as it contains the prized remains of 3.2 million year old Lucy. The art inside the museum is lovely too. Other favorites include St. George’s Cathedral which I am devoting an entire post to next.
What shocks me most about Addis Ababa is how the new and the old simultaneously walk side by side. You can see a herder walking his mules or goats to pasture after a day at the mercato. You can dance until your legs ache at a late-night disco. The old and new never cease to exist and perhaps that is what makes Addis so magical.
This post is based on my reporting trip to Ethiopia with the International Reporting Project.
Excellent post….educative, enticing, and great photographs!
Thank you very much! 🙂
Nicole of all of your posts perhaps this is the most shocking. Taking us walking with you to see the poverty grabs at one’s heart right through the screen.
Yes Sue the poverty in Addis is rather shocking indeed. I was prepared after seeing Delhi as it was similar in that regard. Yet it is still hard to take what you see out the windows. One day while my friend and I were in a cab at a stop light a young boy about my sons age came up to the window asking for food and his entire face was burnt with acid. It was too much to take.
It makes me want to sob at the thought let alone the experience Nicole. It must be difficult to let these things go on returning home.
Yes it is especially when it is hard to explain without seeing it firsthand for yourself.
Oh Nicole, that tailor’s shot …pleeease, no other one; my goodness!!!!
Thanks Jaime! I LOVED the little tailor shop with their old fashioned sewing machines. I was in a cab so the photo didn’t turn out as well as I’d liked but it still captures perfectly the mix of modern and old in Ethiopia.
As ever I so enjoyed this post and the juxtaposition of the culture. The word “grimy” seldom used but accurate based on your gallery. Also the Injera with wat looks really good but the vegetarian masterpiece maybe better. Such a wonderful life you have Nicole.
Thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed the post. Are you still in Europe now? I am trying to catch up on everyone’s blogs these days and realized I didn’t know what you are up to!
Yes I have just arrived back in the NL. Was in Belgium today. Just want to be a goat farmer !
Your advocacy must be the key to keeping your morale up in the face of such opposite living conditions.
Yes it is hard to see these things. The worst was what I saw in Addis outside the cab. A man walking on his hands and feet like an animal due to a handicap, a child my son’s age with an acid-burnt face asking for food at our car window, dirty children barefoot with ripped clothing. It was hard yet for the most part I was also surprised and inspired to see how much people smiled and how kind they were given their lot in life. A good life lesson.
Thank you so much for sharing. Wonderful post and photos.
Thanks! So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂
I love your perspectives. What I can understand of Addis reminds me of the transitions I have seen Indian cities undergo in the few decades since I was born. The pressures of modernisation are very hard on the urban poor. Worse, we (by we, I mean India and many other nations in the Global South) still don’t have a clear view of how we want our cities to be, in terms of looks, the way they are organised, how inclusive they are, etc. We aren;t even thinking about these things while we blindly ape the most superficial trappings of western urbanisation- tall towers, glass facades, western suits in the searing heat. I can go on and on, but the gist is that each nation and perhaps each city, needs to find its own reality and its own unique vision for the future, preferably one that is inclusive.
Thank you so much of your comment. I’ve been to Delhi twice but not much else in India (I would love to someday!). Delhi is interesting to see how much has even changed by the two times I’d been there. I bet Addis will be completely different in the next decade or two. The hardest part is to figure out how to help the urban poor and not just continue moving the slums outside of the city where the jobs are. It will be interesting to see what happens. What part of India do you live in?
I live in Gurgaon, it’s a suburb of Delhi. I am an urban planner and work with the urban poor and I agree, it’s important find acceptable and lasting solutions.
Wow that sounds like a great job. It is wonderful that you can help others this way.
Distressing to see what passes as normal in this city, Nicole. As you say, the slums will be pushed aside but where will these poor people end up? Not in a smart villa, for sure. The sewing machines stopped me in my tracks too 🙂 Ever resourceful, human nature!
Thanks for the comment Jo. Yes I often wonder where all the poor will go when the big businesses keep buying their slum land and building new fancy buildings. I realized in Ethiopia it would be much better to be rural poor than urban poor. The rural people despite their hard work on the fields or managing the cattle, seemed happy with their place in life. They smiled often as we passed by and welcomed us. It was very different than the urban poor.
fabulous post Nicole…it will be interesting to see what happens here in the future…I hope in the rush to modernise they don’t lose the past
Thanks Jo! 🙂
What a juxtaposition of cultures, a colliding of worlds. Your posts on India and now on Ethiopia are some of the most heart-wrenching I have read but so necessary to bring light to this subject. On a lighter subject, we experienced Ethiopian coffee and injera for the first time in Madison, WI and loved both.
Thanks LuAnn. The more I see, the more I want to see. I feel so fortunate to have experienced a taste of India and Ethiopia. Two amazing places. As for Madison, I went to college there and met my hubbie! I never tried injera though until years later in Chicago. We have several restaurants here in MN as we have a fair amount of Ethiopians. Now to get my husband to try it!
So much abject poverty in Africa, Nicole. Your photos really show the massive gap between rich and poor, and it’s much the same even here in South Africa. I would love to see Lucy’s remains. Were you able to take photos inside the museum?
Yes Sylvia so true. Have you seen lots of the continent? I’ve only been now to Morocco, South Africa and Ethiopia, but going to Ethiopia made me crave to see more. The countryside was just like I imagined and there is something magical about the place. I did see quite a bit inside the National Museum but none of my photos were that great. Poor lighting and we also got mobbed by a group of Ethiopian children who loved the foreigners! 🙂