It’s 6pm. I sit on the deck on the 6th floor of the hotel while my camera perches on its tripod, taking time-lapse shots of the traffic on Road 22. The sun’s gone down, just a burnt smudge on the sky where its fleeing rays catch in the city smog. Sunday evening traffic rumbles, steady but not chaotic. The air is cool, refreshing. I’ve an Amber Beer on the table beside me, the latest release from the local St George brewery, just a few months old, and with its sweeter notes of burnt caramel and hops, one of the continents better brews. As I look out over the city skyline, it’s a muddled jumble of mid-rise towers, basilica domes and construction scaffolding, all backed by the lurking hills that ring the city basin.
The two weeks I’ve been here since starting my contract feel like two months. At least. I’ve stepped- finally- into a senior role in an HRI-affiliate (Coming to a Community Near You™). The mental overload of learning the ropes of a new job have been overlaid with learning a new city, a new country, and the nuances of a new culture.
To say nothing of memorizing Ethiopian names.
It’s November. The rainy season has been, and the skies are blue. All day, every day. A few clouds lurk in the evenings behind the hilltops, but that’s about it. One morning a smog so thick it recalls a winter fog in the home counties chokes the city. Rush hour traffic tumbles from the murk, darkened silhouettes dashing from the throat-burning, eye-tearing fug, until a brisk midday breeze sweeps the air clean. The wind is cool and fresh and fidgets with plastic bags and the airborne detritus of the city.
Poor is layered on rich here. There aren’t clearly deliniated quartiers split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Here, a hotel backs onto unpaved tracks and run-down alotments. There, street children gather outside an expat-frequented supermarket stocked with Malaysian imports with Arabic scrawls and stamped حلال. I join new friends and eat at a fancy French restaurant that sets us back forty bucks a head- a pricey night out here where you can buy lunch for a dollar and a dead-jarring coffee for fifty cents. Through the cracked windshield of my taxi heading back, I see the homeless lying in rows beneath the overpass fifty paces from my hotel.
I spend a morning getting my medical checks done, a part of the work permit application process. It’s a slow, bureaucratic tedium that involves drifting from one department’s waiting line to the next. When I get my ECG done, I’m one part amused, one part appauled by the contraption, all crocodile clips and vacuum-bulbs wired up to a device like the electro-shock therapy machine in Return to Oz. As the doctor smears a conductive jelly over my bare torso, I’m just impressed they have an ECG machine. Three days later I still have the bruises from the suction cups beneath my nipples.
A Kenyan, a Ugandan, a German, an American and I sound like the start to a bad joke, but we head out to dinner at Face of Addis, a restaurant perched halfway up one of the hills overlooking the city. The little blue taxi of Eastern European design fails to scramble up the angle of the crushed rock street and we get out to alleviate its weight, wherein its tinny motor wails and eventually convinces it up the ascent. A glass frontage gives a magnificent view over the blooming metropolis. We watch plane after plane land at Bole International, one of Africa’s busiest airports and a hub for European access. Ethiopian Airlines is the newest member of Star Alliance, and we watch five jets come in to land in no more than ten minutes, their starlike landing lights queued out to the horizon one behind the other.
Our conversation is banter, periodically dark. We’re mostly emergency response folk. With us is the manager for one of our refugee camp responses, and three of the staff are based in Nairobi, where tensions run high ahead of the upcoming elections. Our Kenyan colleague, half Kikuyu (infamous for their business acumen), bears the brunt of our humour. We promise to hold her a spot in our Ethiopian refugee camp when she has to flee her country next March.
“How can you tell if a Kikuyu is dead?” Jokes the Ugandan. “You take a ten cent coin…” He mimes dropping it in front of the presumedly-deceased.
Growth is constant here. As with elsewhere in Africa, the Chinese are huge investors. They can be seen throughout the city. Another night we eat at a cultural restaurant, popular here as they showcase local food, music and dancing. Over a meal of tibs and gitfo (cooked), we watch a Chinese businessman lose his inhibitions over beer and tej, the local honey wine. When one of the lithe dancers invites him to dance, he gives a performance worthy of a YouTube phenomenon, one part jitterbug and one part funky-chicken. He lurches onto the stage and after embracing a drummer who goodnaturedly surrenders his instrument, animates the drum with much flailing of the arms. The dancers subsequently adopt his movement into their routine, to much appreciation from the crowd, but our table is torn between laughing at the smooth adaptation of the performers, and the cubit-lengthed rat that has emerged from the straw roof and is now picking its way along the top of a wall at the back of the stage.
The people are understated, gracious, and quietly proud. Ethiopians speak of how they have never been colonized, quietly brushing over the brief period of occupation by Mussolini’s forces that has left pasta an almost national dish and named the Mercato, the city’s market district and a national monument. I walk a tightrope, trying to build relationship and trust, while following my own instructions of pushing through change faster than any of us are comfortable with. After some meetings I come away with my head spinning from the concentration of trying to maintain a dynamic of respect, while at the same moment having to implement an unpopular decision.
I’m shown round an apartment. It’s spacious, clean, and has a beautiful view of the city. It costs a fraction of what a similar place would cost in Australia. Afterwards I sit down with two colleagues and share a cup of tea. One explains to me how he ‘adopted’ two boys, one off the streets of Addis who used to sell him cigarettes, the other from an impoverished regional town. Both are adults now, one a teacher, the other a scientist. In his own humble way, his pride both at the boys, and the difference he has made in his own country, shines in his eyes. Apparently such an undertaking- to financially sponsor and support the less fortunate in their community- is fairly commonplace among middle-class Ethiopians.
I hurtle along in one of the little blue taxis. They’re ancient, decrepit vehicles, clearly from the Communist era. Sitting in the front seat, safety belt unavailable as we hare down an empty avenue late in the evening, I’m twitchingly sensitive to a sense of my own mortality. The time of the Derg is evident here in the charmless concrete tower-block apartments and the deep respect for government authority. Posters of the late Meles Zenawi, President and then Prime Minister since the overthrow of the communist government and the war with Eritrea, are everywhere. He passed away of natural causes a few months ago, and is revered as a saint and national treasure.
An LED screen is mounted outside Edna Mall. At night time it is garish, blasting colour and movement over the gridlocked roundabout as people hustle beneath its glow, neon-tinted music videos lending a Blade-Runner-esque atmosphere to the crowd. Glass-fronted restaurants and fashion boutiques overlook the avenue. On a Sunday afternoon, Amhara youth in spray-on jeans and designer tops lounge together in cafes and browse their iPhones. I step onto the street with a friend and across the avenue, golden sunlight from the settling dusk paints the domes of the Orthodox cathedral while prayers sing from the loudspeakers. As we pull away, an old man hobbles across the street on makeshift crutches, head weighed down by a vast, grubby turban, a gold cross dangling at his neck.
The food here is good, the coffee better. I read an accurately descriptive quote in a travel article the other day: “The prefered caffeine delivery mechanism here is the macchiato.” It comes at morning-tea time without fail in a shot-sized glass, rich black coffee with milky froth on top. I watch my Ethiopian colleagues spoon two, three, even four shovels of sugar into their brew and suck it down, and feel saintly for my half-spoon concession. I buzz for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon. At lunch I join them in the canteen and pay sixty-five cents for shiro wat and injera– a tasty red sauce poured onto a bed of the spongy teff-based bread that is a national institution. The fingernails of my right hand are already stained yellow with the remnants of spice.
It’s dark now, and the traffic is steady but thinning. Come tomorrow morning, it will be a choked grind up and down the clogged arteries of Ethiopia’s throbbing heart. My commute- a brief walk from the hotel to the office- reaches its climax trying to cross the four-to-six lanes of moving metal, waiting for the right moment when I can step out and not be pulverised. A dead bitch lies swelling in the sun in the lane across from the hotel. In my brief time here I’ve already seen one man hit by a car, but fortunately not seriously.
My waiter comes round with another Amber. He sees me working away on the computer, next to my constantly-snapping camera.
“You make movies with that one?” he asks me. “What software you are using?”
I try to explain the concept of time-lapse photography and fail to find an example on my hard drive. He tells me that in his free time he does video-editting for weddings and likes to integrate photographs into the process. A short while later he brings me a plate of toasted grain, on the house because he wants me to try some. It tastes like roasted corn kernels, and keeps great company with beer.
There’s a lot up in the air here. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to stay. Hopefully, a long time. I’m desperate to follow through some of the changes that are already happening, and have a chance to put my experience in this industry to the test, hopefully make a difference in this office and in this program. Some things are out of my control. If there’s one positive in the limbo I’m currently in, it’s that I’m determined to make the most of every minute this place gives me. Ethiopia is fascinating. It’s enriching, invigorating, inspiring. I’m delighted to be here, despite knowing that challenges doubtless lie ahead. So I’ll share what and when I can, and hope you enjoy the journey with me.
*PS– watch the bottom left corner of the time-lapse video to see the planes coming in to land at Bole International Airport, one after the other