Sights and Sounds of Life in Addis Ababa

We have been living and working in Addis Ababa for a month. Like all
cities, there are sights, sounds and other characteristics that are specific
to Addis and, consequently, make it a city like no other. I thought I would
take some time to share with you some of Addis’ uniqueness.

Boys and men herd sheep, mostly, and goats through the streets in search of
green space to fatten them up a little before heading to the slaughter yard.
It is common to see the animals bringing traffic to a stop. It is uncommon
to see anyone get upset about having to stop for the sheep. It is life
here. Also, the sheep will end up on many a dinner plate in due time.


We came to a traffic circle when the traffic policeman dressed in a khaki
uniform brought all cars to a halt. Across the way four men scooted and
crawled to the other side of the road. They were obviously people who lived
on the streets, begging to exist. Why were they crawling and scooting? They
couldn’t walk. Victims of polio? Birth defects? War’s wounded? Not a
single horn blared. I am certain that I felt a sense of compassion
emanating from the cars.


Meskal Square in the morning is filled with runners. Calisthenics are the
activity when we drive by on our way to work. High-stepping in groups that
keep a uniform circle seem to be the standard warm-up. Ethiopia is
world-renowned for its long-distance runners. Many a New York, Boston and
Olympic marathon winner has run in the Square. In the evening when we drive
by on our way home from work, people are running in the square as well.


“Mini-confusion” is the local name of an intersection that operates in
ordered chaos. Cars and buses manage to get through it without incident.
There are no traffic lights. In fact, when lights were introduced, it
apparently caused more confusion. In general, driving in the city somehow
has few accidents, as far as I have seen. But, when I sit in the
passenger’s seat, I sometimes slam my foot to the floor in search of the
brake that doesn’t exist. Yet, as time has gone by, I have come to realize
that there is an order to the driving patterns in the city. Basically, it
is a system that operates on good will and kindness. Road rage hasn’t
arrived in Addis. Drivers wave each other around and through the traffic.
Also, a beep of the horn signals walkers to step aside a little, and they


Women sit by the road with ears of corn cooking on a charcoal stove. Men
stop and buy an ear and eat it. Instead of biting the kernels off, they
pull them off in a rubbing motion that seems more efficient than biting.
After they have a handful, they toss them into their mouths like popcorn.


Shanty towns with homes that have roofs made from scrapped metal gleam in
the sunshine. In the background you can see a few tall buildings that mark
“modernization” and “progress.” There’s even a glass high-rise office
building being built near Meskal Square.


Blue and white mini-buses that transport people around the city all have a
young man that hollers the route for his bus out of the sliding door window.
It is not just his head that is hangs out of the window; it is his whole
upper torso. I have even seen one guy going down the road holding an
umbrella in the rain as he called out the destination.


“Ferangi” is what the children sometimes call out from their doorsteps when
we walk by them on the streets. “White person” denotes that we do not look
like them. They almost always say it with a smile on their faces. I smile
back, saying “Hello!”


Every morning around six we hear prayers in the distance. They are being
said in Amharic over a loud speaker at the Christian Orthodox church that
sits up the hill behind our house. They only last a few minutes. I think
of how this would never happen back home. There would certainly be an
ordinance against it. I was told that when a new bishop took up residence
in Arat Kilo, a section of the city very near our home, he had one of his
churches turn down the loud speaker. It was waking him earlier than he


Up by Addis Ababa University there are lots of students on the streets.
There is a good energy there. I like being around young people that are
full of ideas, passion, and excitement. Well-dressed, they do not follow
the relaxed fashion found on America’s campuses.


Cafes that serve fine pastries and excellent cups of coffee and tea are
found throughout Addis, a holdover of when the Italians were here. Coffee
originates in Ethiopia and is the favorite, but tea does hold its ground as
a beverage of choice. Macchiatos seem to be everyone’s favorite though, a
quick blast of caffeine and calcium.

Addis is a city with a village-like feel to it. Friends and family stop to
greet each other on the streets, giving a hearty hug and a genuine smile.
They really are happy to stop and say “hello.” The animals certainly give
the city a rural feel. Meanwhile, sprawling neighborhoods and the newer,
taller buildings give Addis its “city” status.

Though it has been only thirty days that we have been here, Addis feels like
a place I have known for a long time. It is a welcoming place that I have
been able to ease my way into with no difficulty. Addis Ababa is treating
me well.

(written 7 August 2005)

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