We arrived to a dead calm in Addis – 45 dead to be exact. The previous week’s protests against election irregularities and the anti-democratic tendencies of the reelected government had spun out of control with hundreds of civilians shot or injured by military and tens of thousands in jail (including all the opposition party leaders and a host of “treasonous” journalists). Our dear host Russel braved the general strike, meeting us at the airport with the only cab driver in the city who was willing to take to the empty streets. How bizarre to be introduced to a stunned, angry, and disillusioned city, as it superficially returned to its vibrant and exceedingly pleasant daily life.
Over the course of the next week, we saw a gradual repopulation of Addis’s countless sidewalk cafes until they were once again packed with chatty espresso sippers enjoying the sunny but joyously temperate climate. As the transit system inched back to functional chaos, we enjoyed the harmonious chorus of minibus touts screaming out their completely incomprehensible destinations. As locals regained confidence in being out at night, they joined the requisite evening stroll when Addis Ababans of diverse age and class (but uniformly good-looking) take to the streets en masse, temporarily reclaiming the sidewalkless pavement for its proper pedestrian use.
We spent many hours wandering Addis’ old neighborhoods wedged into the riverside slopes and tucked between construction-laden commercial corridors. These communities have well-built stone streets lined to the hilt with mud huts and decaying Italian-era homes. We were guided by a recent publication, “Old Tracks in the New Flower.” (Addis Ababa means new flower in Amharic.) This guidebook turned our journey into a treasure hunt. We wandered winding stone paths, searching for each historical home, showing photos in the book to local children. How cute to see them light-up when they recognized a house from their very own neighborhood in the printed pages of our guide. They would lead us excitedly to the pictured home, where we might meet another hoard of screaming kids swarming us on arrival, and explaining their familial relationship to the various historical figures named in our book.
If this sounds like a good time then come quick to Addis. The neighborhoods described above are not long for this world. Addis is undergoing a development boom that makes DC look like it’s in a recession. I spoke with a few folks in Ethiopia’s planning and development world, and none of them expressed interest in preserving any of these fascinating old neighborhoods, so the future will look very different.