A Travel Diary: Observation of Addis Ababa’s Facelift

November 28, 2007

By Addisu T

November 2007

This is my third travel to Ethiopia in the last 6 years. Like most Ethiopians do, I go home to visit families and friends. My last trip in November/ 07 was a bit different and impressive than the previous two. It is this pleasant surprise that triggered me to write about my observation of the country – and the changes it is going through. The subject I want to cover is wide and I would like to address the social, political and economic issues in serious of articles but on this short article, I would like to present my impression of Addis Ababa.

Addis Ababa: Having a Facelift

To give a relative view of Addis Ababa, let me start with my first return to Ethiopia in 2001. I must confess, on my first trip, I was shocked and disturbed by everything I saw that I indivertibly had forgotten about. The shock was probably a combination of two things:- First, my eyes were accustomed to Western Cities and the contrast was striking. Second, partly it was my own making. Due to my active interest in everything of Ethiopian, I was singing “Lemelemitua Hagere” type of songs quite regularly which lead me to keeping only rosy pictures of “the mother land” in my mind.

But whatever the reasons, I was immediately knocked down by the depth of poverty, dusty roads, rusty corrugated roofs and rubbish scattered all over the places as if I had never been there. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I was landing in the same airport that I left a decade ago. From scattered rusted metals inside the airport premises, to corrugated tin security guard houses by the runway – to the arrival lounge that was begging for paint and cleaning made me feel that I was landing in the wrong provincial town. One thing that kept the smile on my face was a joke that I heard a decade ago. As the saying goes, a fool laughs three times. First without understanding, second when he understands and the third at himself for laughing in the first instant without understanding the joke.

In 2001 I laughed when I understood the remark made by a singer. Upon returning from “People-to-People” concert in Europe and USA, Yerga Dubale, a singer from Gonder, reported of saying that he felt like he is landing in Kola-Deba when the plane ascends over Addis Ababa. Though I never been to Kola-Deba of Gonder, the contrast with Addis must be significant.

No doubt my shock was a result of my conditioning to the Western cities and selective memories that I held about my country but there was no denying that the Capital City in 2001 was totally neglected. Then electricity was on ration, water was scarce and the buildings were decaying and deteriorating. It appears that it was marching backwards at alarming speed.

Surprisingly after going through initial shock, I began to see some positive image of the private sector. In fact I noticed a clear divide between private compounds and communal areas such as public roads and squares, which appears as no man’s land.

As soon as the iron gates of privet properties open, one thinks that he or she is landing in to a different world. The transition was big enough to be like walking from dusty desert road to green grassland. In private properties you see properly maintained gardens, flower beds, watered and properly trimmed green grasses. Whether it is small house or a villa, you notice everyone trying his best to keep up appearance by looking after what belongs to them. But soon the shock returns as soon as the gate opens to let you out to the no-man’s land. If I throw out political correct expression, the no-man’s land of the city was totally neglected to become a communal rubbish tip. This significant difference between the two worlds made me realise that the city is deteriorating not because of lack of intention to tidy up but it is a lack of ownership.

Possibly it is this shock that provoked “Gash Abera Molla” to pick up a shovel and take ownership of the no-man’s land of the capital to clear it up. At the time there were some signs of hope in selected public squares and green areas. Some of the places were cleared and green areas were properly fenced to protect newly plated flowers. .

I am sure it is this action of Gash Abera Molla that embarrassed the city council to take responsibility and clean up the capital in sustainable ways. When I went in 2004, there were already lots of changes. Many young and old unemployed boys were collecting rubbish from each home using wheel barrows at a cost of 10 birr a month to load it on municipality lorries. The pot-holes in the street were being repaired and there were activities to repair fences of green areas and plant grasses. Particularly on the Bole road there was intensive digging, repairing and clearing for some sort of African Union meeting. When I left Addis for the second time, the new airport terminal wasn’t fully ready for service.


Bole International Airport

November 2007

It is now in 2007 that I landed in to totally different Addis Ababa. The new Airport terminal is very spacious, clean and well looked after. As I stepped out of the terminal, I felt like pausing for a picture with pride. Well, I admit, I did pause for picture putting my sun glass and holding my jacket on my shoulder as if I were landing on some holiday resortJ. It was a kind of pleasant surprise that the grasses are watered and trimmed, the plants are looked after and the parking lot is clean and well managed. And of course the market type of noise and haggling between taxi drivers and disorientated passenger is no more there. .

It is then that I realised I have a lot of catching up to do in my short stay. Driving from Airport to Meskel Square I was wondering why the Christmas lights are on in early November. But I was quickly reminded by the Beyonce’s posters that the millennium celebration is still going on. And that is why the roads are decorated with Christmas type colourful sparkling lights.

Since my last trip, I must confess, Addis Ababa has gone through a dramatic facelift. The roads are well built, the pavements are clean, new glass buildings are everywhere and still amazing number of buildings are getting built all over the capital. The shopping centres, the giant commercial billboards displaying beautiful models to advertise cosmetic, cloth, beer and other product radiates a sense of regeneration. All these things got me in to “Wow” factor.

Along the Bole road the Starbucks look alike Coffee houses, impressive restaurants, and shopping centres are inviting with some sense of confidence, optimism and elegance. Unless this confidence and optimism is disrupted, there is no doubt that the capital would develop its own identity to join the league of its own class in the coming 3-5 years.

Before I conclude my praise of the new development, I would like to highlight some of the things that is missing to make Addis Ababa a comfortable place to live. That is lack of imagination of town planners to sit and visualise Addis Ababa in 20 years time.

Imagination: A vital things that is missing in the re-development.

Even though the capital has shown a dramatic growth, I am also saddened by the town planner’s lack of imagination. When one looks down from Piazza to Churchill road, walk on Meskel Square or Bole Road, one would clearly think that the 1950’s town planners of the Emperor time had more imagination than contemporary ones.

These streets are still by far impressive part of the capital than recently built one. Unless some adjustments are made quickly, the capital may also grow to become a very uncomfortable place to live.

Despite amazing expansion of the capital which I am impressed, contemporary planners and authorities of the capital have sold every corner of land for multi story building with no provision for parking and green areas. The level of building is very good for economic activity of the capital but a capital city like Addis Ababa can not be beautiful and hospitable only by number of skyscrapers. It needs parks, green areas to take kids for a walk or playgrounds to bounce balls or ride a bike. It needs parking spaces to drive to the centre and do business. In fact it needs some thing like artificial ponds and fountains to give it some sense of tropical features. The air is too dry and there is no humidity. In the absence of green areas and trees, Addis is going to remain a big dusty city than a tropical retreat.

Particularly lack of place to play football and other activity is going to paralyse the generation to come. Now football in Ethiopia is a virtual activity not a physical one. Manchester United and Arsenal supporters, who never had a chance of kicking a ball spend their time talking about Ronaldo, Tevez. Adebayor, Theo and Beckham. It is not to say that the capital city can afford to do all these things but it can reserve areas for future development.

Even new real estate developments like Ayat and others suffer from similar trap of poverty consciousness by not leaving areas for walkways and communal playgrounds. . This lack of imagination or you may say a state of mind that there isn’t enough land (poverty consciousness) is going to make the capital very unfriendly to growing kids who have to run around, young adults who want to play footballs and elders who want to take afternoon walk.

So, the town planners must not get obsessed with the value of land to sell every inch for tower buildings to turn the capital in to a concrete jungle. This direction is going to make the capital very unfriendly area to live. Even small and highly populated countries like London, Paris, and Geneva have parks, ponds and green areas that may amount half of Addis Ababa itself. Ethiopia is four times bigger than United Kingdom. It is not lack of land that is leading the capital in the wrong direction but a poverty consciousness that to blame.

Apart from these long term problems, the development of the capital through government and private sector is very impressive. This intensive construction activity is not only improving the status of the capital but also providing a job opportunity for many thousands. Women working in domestic cooking and cleaning would now command at least 250 birr per month with a threat of working for construction sites. When I left Ethiopia, 250 birr was twice a salary of a solider or equal to a salary of a Diploma graduate after tax and Yenate-Hager Tire contribution.

In conclusion Addis Ababa is changing for better and at the current moment the capital may grow beyond recognition. In my next article, I would try to address the economic and social life of the capital and the countryside. Despite frantic economic development and re-generation, the divide between the have and have not is growing fast. Inflation is above 15% and Birr has gone through significant devaluation to lose its purchasing power.

Till then stay tuned.