culture

Going to work in Addis

This is an article by an amerian proffessor she tells about her impressions of addis ababa. here it goes:-

There is nothing exceptional about seeing the streets of Addis Ababa from the back of a minibus. Thousands of Addis Abbabans negotiate the city that way, as for about 1 birr or a bit more (between a dime and a quarter) you can catch a shared ride from one end of the city to the other or any distance in between. Although the mini-buses themselves are always the same beat-up vehicles wherever they go, the passengers they take in match the neighborhoods in which they board. My best ride is always in the morning, for I board from a relatively fancy part of the city (Bole road close to the Saudi Embassy) to go towards downtown. At that moment (around 8:00 AM), the many house servants, gate keepers, gardeners, and drivers have reached my part of the city (also by mini-bus) from opposite directions. The people I join in the minibus are therefore mostly also people on their way to “white-collar” jobs or young people trying to pass as such. They mark their class belonging — or aspiration — by wearing clothes that are at least in part imported – a pair of jeans, a suit jacket, unexpectedly frivolous shoes or shirts – but not the flowery, locally sewn skirts and cotton shawls of the less classy and urbane. Hairdo’s too mark degrees of modernity and status, especially for women, as the fashionable use part of their weekends to have their hair styled and smoothed, straightened or braided at one of the many beauty salons and hairdressers of the city.  If one could only hear the dreams dreamed there! The minibus has a driver, of course, but he focuses on his driving and stops and starts according to the signals he receives from the young man who rides in the back with great flair and abandon and is responsible for the passengers and the fares. This wayala – a social institution in every African country — is the one who calls out to anyone who walks by, uttering a series of names that only the initiated (or semi-initiated) can understand. When he bangs on the side of the car, this means “stop,” there is a passenger approaching, or someone is getting off. Other communications are verbal: waracha – stop: enehid – let’s go! Here and there the minibus stops and sits for a while so that all seats will be filled and no space (and fare) is wasted. Usually there is an Ethiopian love song playing on the car’s speakers, of which I think I understand the words, even though I don’t.  The songs are about love lost and found, lovers longing for each other, swearing ever-lasting love, saying goodbye, and so forth. Only a heart of stone would remain unmoved, I think. Meanwhile, from inside the bus, I can – for once – observe the streets and the passers-by unobserved. There is the promise of the new day in the air. A little girl, cute as a button, is out on an errand to a local shop – this is how safe the city is in the neighborhoods we pass. Heavy-set women, with white shawls wrapped around heads and shoulders waddle by — on their way perhaps to one of the busy churches or, perhaps, on their way to work of some sort. Highly elegant and stunningly beautiful young women prance by – their outfits as tight and sexy as in an American mall or European high school! I see gentlemen in suits and working men with furrowed brows and features tight with worry and exertion. This is what one would see in any city, but this is Addis Ababa and I am completely new to it.   The Church of Urael, on the corner of Medhane Alem  and Haile Gebre Selassie road (named after the famous runner) is a major landmark for me.  It is always crowded here with worshippers, as well ordinary passers-by and beggars of all kinds. Since cars sit in traffic in front of the lights here, boys and men who miss limbs or have other handicaps, mothers with babies on their arms, and street kids of all ages and sizes beg at the car windows, or peddle “soft” (packages of local Kleenex), chewing gum, CDs, DVDs, Time magazines and so forth. I recognize some of the regulars, but they never approach me when I am in a minibus. One of them is a young guy with a green, gold and red blanket who always looks healthy and happy; once when I passed the Church on foot and he recognized me, he came to formally shake my hand and even forgot to ask for money! Another has a grotesquely swollen eye, as one may see in the strange creatures of Star Wars or so. The chaos at this traffic light is increased by the fact that workers — men and women — are digging a huge trench between the wall of the church and the road. They also seem to be repointing the huge stone walls of the church compound. Their tools are all hand tools – mostly pick axes – and they labor on, slowly and steadily, even in the big downpours that characterize this season. The women in particular are dressed in layers and layers of worn out clothes and scarves — their faces veiled so that only their eyes show, big straw hats concealing their features further. The life of the city unfolds around them as if it is oblivious to them and they to it; as if they are shadows that want to remain unseen. A bit further away from the road, on both sides of the entrance to the Church compound, men and women sell green grass for the coffee ceremonies associated with praying to the saints as well as colorful parasols, which look like the ones I have seen in historical images of  Ethiopian nobility and royalty, but are now used only in church, I am told.  Once we cross this busy intersection, we are in Kazanchis (where Italian engineers used to have their houses (or casas). Our indefatigable young “conductor” now calls out the next major destination, that of Mercato, said to be the biggest and most crowded market of Africa. The people joining us now are not as nicely dressed and look less middle-class. A mother joins with her little daughter, the latter a miniature of the former, as both are wearing the traditional white cotton Ethiopian dress and shawl.  I cannot even guess their destination, but the little girl proudly imitates her mother’s every action and gesture. Ambition of all kinds surrounds one in this city.  I am getting close to my destination now. I catch a glimpse of a small shop with a huge, red, Coca Cola sign, where men in red coveralls are loading and unloading crates in the mud. I see the sign to the very sha`bi al-`Asir diner, where my Somali friends took me for a delicious rice and meat lunch once. It is run by Muslims, I am told, and is a cross between some one’s home, a simple diner, and a mabraz – a place with alcoves where one can sit on pillows on the ground and eat or chew qat with friends in semi-privacy. There is also a bath- and prayer room.  I fantasize about doing an ethnography of al-`Asir restaurant and the people who run and patronize it.  If only I could borrow another body, less conspicuous than that of the firenji woman I am.  Sometimes – but this may be a newcomer’s conceit — it seems as if I am the only white person who even goes anywhere on foot – that is how conspicuous I sometimes feel in this city dominated by the UN and other land cruisers with fancy logos.  But, in general, the people of Addis are kind and polite to me and look the other way when I pass; many of them have lived and worked in the places with which they associate me and they even make sure the street kids do not bother me too much, that no wachala cheats me, or that my long skirt does not trail in the mud. So far the city seems to me sympathetic, unpretentious, dynamic, on its way to better times, perhaps in that new millennium that is around the corner. I have arrived.  I get down in the middle of a big puddle of rainwater, walk by people drinking their morning coffee in a coffee shop called Koffee Days, and breathe in the diesel fumes as I wait to cross Tito street.  People in cars are the real kings of this city. High and dry above the dust, dirt, and mud of the city, they could not care less whether they splash mud on you; the idea to slow down to let a pedestrian cross appears foreign to them. I join forces with another woman poised on the side of the street waiting to cross. Together we step stoically into the street, forcing some cars to slow down.  We exchange a triumphant smile. I walk the last 500 meters to the huge compound of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), show my I.D., get waved through by the guards, and enter the fortress.  I climb the stairs to the UN offices. High and dry above the muddy streets, the mini-buses and land-cruisers of the city, with only the fancy hotels and new high-rise buildings being constructed meeting my eye, I turn on my computer and enter the world-wide web. The real world of Addis Ababa will have to wait until I make my way back home again.

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