by Ben Panter
In the seat of the African Union, traffic lights are rare and there are no rights of way. There are also no traffic jams – well a minor one once a day. Driving is a fine balance between politeness and assertiveness. Surprisingly, Ethiopian traffic management is effective, and fun. Blindly stepping out onto the city’s main thoroughfare is not the life altering catastrophe it would seem. Ethiopian drivers peer into the future, assessing and reacting to potential incidents before they occur. Usually a honk is enough. Vehicles, pedestrians, donkeys, kids playing football all share the main road, with very little incident. In Addis Ababa, every spot on the road should be considered a potential mini-roundabout.
Dozens of skyscrapers are being built, all over the city. Between churches and mosques, shanty towns and squats, markets and shopping malls, their concrete innards rise into the sky. All of them seem to be at the same stage of development, suggesting either a very sudden start to the boom or a centralised approach to the development of Addis, or both.
My arrival coincided with a performance in the country’s National Theatre by University of Limerick dancer, Ras Mikey C. The show was entitled ‘Common Threads’. Youngsters decked out in the freshest Hip Hop streetwear rubbed shoulders with politicians and ambassadors and the performance highlighted the similarity of dance traditions from around the world. It was a good start to the trip. I’m not sure if I had internalised the message but for the rest of the week, it was the commonality of life experiences that had me fascinated. A single mother, working all hours to support her mother and daughter; a business owner complaining about tax; multi-nationals not paying their fair share and a PhD student suffering from heartbreak. Different countries, common threads.
I stayed in an apartment in the Gotera Condominiums, in the cities Bole district. It is a middle class area that some have nicknamed ‘Hollywood’. The place was crowded with extended families and friends as open houses spilled out on the surrounding streets. In this atmosphere companionship was easy to find. Every apartment block had bars, barbers, small shops, beauty salons, coffee shops and takeaways underneath. Ethiopia’s Harlem.
The compound is alive 24 hours a day. Licensing laws mean bars close at midnight in residential areas, on account of noise. Mosques have no such barriers on sound. As Ramadan reached its climax, the call to prayer rivalled Electric Picnic for its sound system -ringing out until four in the morning. Islam and Christianity do not have any issues in Addis Ababa. The Orthodox Church was well established by the time the Muslims arrived and the two cultures have had over a thousand years to work through any clash of civilisation.
Both faith systems put a real emphasis on respecting thy neighbour. A Sunday afternoon spent chewing Khat with the Muslims next door confirmed it. The fresh leaves, easily obtainable are used as a social tool. It is all quite ceremonious, fully grown men, accountants, bankers and journalists sit around chewing them and chatting. Although some of the dealers look and act decidedly addicted and rumours of its equivalence to coffee are slightly understated, it is hard to see the drug having the fearsome consequences of alcohol. Britain has recently banned the plant, in what was the Khat farmer’s third biggest export market; it feels like an attack on a culture stretching back millennia.
Surprisingly familiar was the rain, a notoriously unprepared traveller, I had not factored in the tropics, or July in my travel plans. It would have been a waste anyway. I stepped of the plane into the exact weather conditions I had left behind in North Clare. This is Ethiopia’s rain season, two months of the year essential to the countries agriculture. So far these rains had been light. The thunder and lightning was not the sort I would expect to see so near to the equator, it was all a bit Irish but it’s consequences are serious. Consecutive seasons of low rainfall put pressure on the agricultural industry. Government figures claim that 10 million people are at risk from food insecurity. Unseasonably dry conditions are undermining Ethiopia’s bullish attempt at modernisation just as multinationals are starting to take interest.
Diageo and Heineken have opened breweries in Addis, keen to capitalise on the rising middle class and the ensuing increase in alcohol consumption. Heinekens brewery, situated in Kilinto at the city’s southern outskirts, was surrounded by block after block of brand new condominiums. Their virginity testified to by the same taped up windows that denote Ireland’s ghost estates. One day, it is hoped, they will be filled by Heineken workers, and workers in the accompanying economic prosperity they bring. This hope is tempered by increasingly dry rain seasons but DuPont-Pioneer thinks it has the answers. They make “hybrid seeds” breeding and distributing these draught resistant strains to farmers and commercial growers. Eventually, they claim, this type of seed could provide another export income but DuPont-Pioneer admits that this is some time away.
The astounding growth in Ethiopia, rising levels of education and increasing foreign investment is pulling the country into a new age. Whether this boom will filter down to the poorer citizens and whether it can be sustained longer than the Celtic Tiger remain to be seen. There are challenges of population and climate threatening to hinder progress. How long will the Lion of Judah continue to roar? It will be fascinating to find out.
Ben Panter was funded through the Simon Cumbers Media Fund Student Scheme 2014/15 to report on Ethiopia’s alcohol-boom and its impacts. He is due to have his work broadcast on Newstalk‘s Global Village programme in August.