In June 2017, I visited, for the first time, Addis Ababa, the famous capital city of Ethiopia and ‘Africa’, and the home of ‘Ras Tafari’. On the side-lines of my 12-day visit, I took time to note some interesting sights and sounds of my stay in Addis Ababa and to share some of my own personal reflections on them for the benefit of my audience. The issues discussed have been thematically arranged to make for easy comprehension. As my blog aims to do, I hope that sharing these reflections would help provide leisure, insight and lessons to readers.
Public Transportation in Addis Ababa: Sights & Sounds
My guest house was not far away from the Bole Street. I resisted the suggestion and temptation for me to hire a taxi to take me about the city, especially to the African Union premises. ‘Big Brother Google’ (as my Ugandan friend would call it) had informed me the distance was just about 9min apart and I was determined not to spend so much over such a short distance. Moreover, it is good to use my travel through the city to explore the transportation culture of the ‘Addis Ababans’. Getting to experience the real life of the ordinary Ethiopian on the streets was a welcome thought and that meant I had to explore the public and commercial transportation system. I decided that I was going to pay close attention to the sights and sounds of Addis as I got transported through the capital. My first observation is that every commercial public transport vehicle was called a ‘Taxi’: whether buses and mini vans, or cars. I begin to wonder why in Ghana, we only refer to commercial cars as ‘taxis’ and have different names for vans (trotros) and buses.
It’s about 9:15 when I arrived at ‘Shoa Depot’, by the Bole road. On came a speeding van with no regard for the ‘Zebra crossing the road’. Addis Ababa is a busy place, as would be expected of a typical capital city, so it’s understandable why vehicles don’t have patience on the roads; I better be careful. “Mexico, Mexico” bellowed the mini-van conductor (Mind you, this Mexico was in the centre of Addis; not in South America). I hopped in after two people and what I met shocked me. The conductor was ushering me to sit on a small, rusty stereo speaker positioned just at the entrance of the mini-van. That was going to be my seat as a passenger. There was not enough space, and the teaming commuters meant that getting such make-shift seats could be a blessing rather than an embarrassment. In Ghana, we would tolerate ‘squeezing’ in to make space for an extra passenger, but I wonder if we would entertain a make-shift seat as awry as the one I was being offered. ‘Well, Dennis, it’s too late now’, I thought to myself. There was no going back because I felt that would make me the weirdest commuter for the day, and that was not flattering.
On board, the ‘taxi’, I made another odd observation. Many vehicles on the streets of Addis are unwashed, even on an early Monday morning. In Ghana, car washing was a norm and it was possible to count how many cars are unwashed on an early Monday morning on the streets of Accra. In Addis, it seemed rather easier counting those that were washed. I noticed this every day throughout the 12 days I was on the streets of Addis Ababa. I don’t fully understand why this is so, but I suppose there is some myth about car washing in Addis Ababa (and I say this on a very light note). Another pleasant observation was that you could easily identify the religious (or as we say in Ghana, the spiritual) personalities on board a taxi. Apparently, Ethiopians maintain a high level of reverence for their Orthodox Church cathedrals. Hence at the sight of cathedral, a devout member of the Orthodox Church was minded to make the sign of the Cross, as a show of respect for the institution. As a Christian myself, I really appreciated this sense of spirituality that characterized many of the fellow passengers I met in the ‘taxis’.
After 15 min, we arrive at ‘Mexico’ and I decided to walk the streets to the AU, in the company of some students from an Ethiopian university who were also heading to the AU premises.
Going back to my guest house from the AU, was a lot easier. I was beginning to feel Ethiopian in less than 12 hrs of manoeuvring the public transportation system. If you care to know the fastest way to feel at home in a foreign land, the magic is probably in the use of the public transportation system. On my way back home, I noticed the long queues of people waiting to embark long buses to their various destinations and that reminded me of Accra. If there is anything I despise about big-city-life in the developing world, it is these hustles, in the absence of efficient transportation systems. Luckily for me, the ‘taxi’ heading to my destination was not that crowded and I hopped into one of them; this time more comfortably on a ‘proper’ seat. As I was hopping out of my taxi, at my destination, I am welcomed by a familiar delicacy: ‘Roasted Corn’!!. How nice!!. Quickly I got two pieces: one for me, one for my shoe-shinning pal. After bragging to him about how Ethiopian I had become, I walked to my guest house, settled into my room to watch a comedy movie by one of Nigeria’s finest: ‘Chinwetalu Agu’. One full day on the streets of Addis Ababa, and I was getting to know Africa’s capital city better. It’s a wrap!
The Addis Ababa University
In Ghana, we are used to free thoroughfare to and from the campuses of public universities. At the gates of the University of Ghana (Ghana’s premier university) and the University of Cape Coast where I work, there is no sifting between who is a member of the university and who is not a member. Well, the rules of the game are different in the Addis Ababa University. Security officers conduct ID checks to ensure that, as much as possible, those who access the university premises are entitled to. So, my access to the campus was covered by my friend’s ID. I am not sure whether to feel happy or sad about this arrangement because I have mixed feelings about its implications. On one hand, I feel that a ‘public university’ should be open to the public and that there should be unhindered access if its public profile is to be maintained. On the other hand, I cannot help but imagine how much safer, my own university would have been, if security checks were a bit more rigorous. I can appreciate that the SoE in Ethiopia strengthens the security apparatus by default. But maybe it’s better to have more security than less of it. Another interesting observation on the campus of the Addis Ababa University is the euphoria that surrounds the graduation of final year students. Such a colourful sight to see all final year students uniformed in black suits, as an indication of their joy. It is not the suits that fascinate me, but the uniformity in attire. I don’t remember seeing such uniformed appearance on our campuses during such climaxes; but hey, may be it’s worth the effort.
The State of Emergency
As I already indicated, the weaponized security presence on almost every mid-level installation in Addis Ababa spoke profusely about the level of the state of emergency. As much as it made me feel safer, it also had an intimidating feeling. But that was not much of a bother to me compared to the shutdown of the internet for almost 4 days after I arrived. My sources tell me that there had been a massive examination leakage the previous year and the government was determined not to let that happen again. As a result, the internet was being shut down until the exams were done. Really? How was this even bearable? I did not even hear the ‘English-speaking’ media complain about it. I thought to myself how Ghana’s government would have been taken to the cleaners for even nurturing the idea, not to talk of implementing it. But, hey, if the Ethiopian people believe this is the price to pay for sanctity to prevail in this all-important national exercise of a pre-university exam, then so be it. After all, those who passed this exam were going to receive huge subvention from government to get university education, and so it was very important to ensure that people get in there on merit.
Dear reader, this ends my selected reflections on the informal sights and sounds on the side-lines of my 12-day visit to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Some of these reflections may have been more or less correct about the reality, but such limitations are to be expected in a personal appraisal of situations. Thanks for reading.