Since its establishment in the 19th century, Addis Ababa has always seemed like a gateway to another world. For the rural masses of Ethiopia it was, and is, a city whose streets are paved in gold; and for a foreign visitor, the portal of Addis Ababa is at the verge of an ancient and mystical world. For both these groups, Addis – Africa’s fourth-largest city and its diplomatic capital – is a place of contrasts: wealth and poverty, new skyscrapers and shanty towns. Despite this merging of worlds, many foreign visitors try to transit Addis as quickly as possible. But by skipping out on the contradictions of this happening city you run the risk of failing to understand Ethiopia altogether.
Unlike Addis Ababa’s numerous predecessors as capitals, the locations of which were chosen according to the political, economic and strategic demands of the days’ rulers, Addis Ababa was chosen for its beauty, hot springs and agreeable climate. Menelik’s previous capital, Entoto, was in the mountains just north of present-day Addis Ababa and held strategic importance as it was easily defended. However, it was unattractive and sterile, leading his wife Taitu to request a house be built for her in the beautiful foothills below, in an area she named Addis Ababa (New Flower). In the following decade, after Menelik’s power increased and his need for defense waned, he moved his court down to Taitu and Addis Ababa.
Since 1958 Addis Ababa has been the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and, since 1963, the secretariat of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Many regard the city as ‘Africa’s diplomatic capital’.
Addis Ababa and its three million residents can be rather overwhelming on first exposure, with beggars, cripples, taxi drivers and hawkers clamoring for your attention, and con artists and pickpockets doing their utmost to divert it. Independent travelers who haven’t visited a large Third World city before – and, indeed, many who have – are likely to end their first day in Addis Ababa feeling somewhat besieged but like most African cities, Addis does tend to grow on you.
The bad news is that Addis Ababa is one of the worst cities in sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to casual theft and con tricks. The good news is that Addis Ababa’s less savory elements – the pickpockets, con artists and bogus students – are far more easily handled and deflected once one has become attuned to Ethiopia more generally. Eventually, sadly, the visitor will even become somewhat if not entirely numbed to Addis’s shocking parade of polio cripples, amputee war veterans, ragged street children, naked beggars and ranting loonies. More than anything, though, Addis Ababa grows on the visitor because it is all bark and very little bite. For all the hustlers and opportunistic thieves, the actual threat to one’s personal safety is negligible.
I’d feel safer spending a month in downtown Addis Ababa than I would an hour in parts of Nairobi or Kinshasa – or parts of many Western capitals. And beneath the poverty there lies the infectious spirit that is characteristic of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is a busy, bustling, exciting city; the hassle that one might occasionally receive comes from only a tiny fraction of its predominantly friendly population – don’t let first impressions put you off. This is a city with a real buzz, one possessed of a sense of self-definition and place lacking entirely from the many African capitals whose governments have attempted – and largely failed – to create misplaced pockets of Western urbanity in otherwise under-developed nations.
Perhaps the highest praise one can direct at this chaotic, contradictory and compelling city is this: Addis Ababa does feel exactly as the Ethiopian capital should feel – singularly and unmistakably Ethiopian. Moreover, Addis Ababa is also one of the few African cities that offers a wide variety of exceptional sightseeing.
Finding a street sign in Addis can be something of an art form and then, when you do find one, it’s likely that no local will actually know the street by that name. In fact, aside from a couple of streets (Churchill Ave, Bole Rd, Meskal Sq and a few others) it’s highly unlikely that any local will have any idea what the street is called. Most people, taxi drivers included, use landmarks in order to enquire about the location of something. When trying to get to a specific place, asking for the nearest big hotel to it, or shopping centre or well-known restaurant, is more likely to garner a result than merely giving a street name.
I hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions or comments that you might have.
Briggs, Philip (2012-09-24). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Bradt Travel Guides. Kindle Edition.
Planet, Lonely; Jean-Bernard Carillet; Tim Bewer; Stuart Butler (2013-05-01). Lonely Planet Ethiopia, Djibouti & Somaliland (Travel Guide). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.