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.