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Jane Doran in Ethiopia – Post 1

Jane Doran is in Ethiopia to produce a news feature for the Irish Independent on the impact programmes to improve agricultural production, boost livelihoods and eliminate hunger have had on women living in remote areas in the country.

9th December 2010

Impressions of Addis Ababa

After 24 hours of relatively painless travel, we (Laurens Meulman, the photographer, and I) arrived in our hotel in Addis Ababa on the afternoon of Sunday 15th. Fifty per cent of Ethiopians are Christian (37pc Muslim) and the religion has a strong influence on the country’s society and culture. So, much like the Ireland of old, with the exception of restaurant and bars, all businesses and offices are closed on Sundays. We couldn’t pick up our press permits until the following day so we wandered around Ethiopia’s capital.

Ethiopia is a country almost synonymous with hunger in the minds of people in the developed world: almost half of the population live on less than 40c a day. It ranks 169 out of 177 on the human development index. The capital in any country is its showcase and most riches will be concentrated there. However poor the capital is, you can be guaranteed it will be tenfold outside of it. And Addis is poor.

Addis’s official population is about three million. However, NGO workers we have talked to here estimate it could be as high as seven or eight: the impoverished villagers from all around the county fleeing food insecurity who end up living in tiny corrugated iron shacks or the streets are simply not counted in the official census.

It is a large, sprawling city, over 2,500 metres high, surrounded by mountains. You can feel the thinness of the air as you step off the plane .With the exception of the areas around the official city centre, Piazza, government buildings and the embassys, huge tracts of the city have unpaved roads and little or no street lighting.

I brought a torch for when we visit farms in the countryside but I learned on that first evening to carry a torch with me in Addis too. If there are pavements, they are often broken, strewn with rubble, full of open sewers. Night falls quickly as Ethiopia is near the Equator so one minute you are walking along watching where you put your feet and the next you can’t see them and are in severe danger of tripping up or worse, falling down a sewer.

Most of the buildings are one-storey, made of tin or concrete painted bright colours. High unemployment levels result in a lot of young men just sitting on the streets hanging out. While Ethiopia’s economic profile is improving, extreme poverty is evident in the capital – families sleeping in the streets covered only in sacks, sick people sprawled helpless on the streets too weak to beg, lone dirty five-year-olds begging, old women coming down from the mountains with huge stacks of wood on their bent backs.

But although Addis is impoverished in many parts, it is not a bleak city. Trees with colourful flowers are at every corner and people are friendly and helpful. It also feels safe – violent crime is rare here. Traffic is surprisingly calm. Most of the cars are taxis or huge 4WDs driving around UN, African union and diplomatic staff. The Chinese are involved in huge construction projects here and minivans can be seen all over the city ferrying the Chinese workers around.

Evidence of a growing prosperity is also clear. There is a Sheraton and a Hilton and a few 30-storey buildings backed with Saudi money popping up around the city. Ethiopians are obsessed with coffee and this is reflected in the hundreds of cafes across the city. While some are small hole in the wall places, others would put Starbucks to shame with the variety of coffee available and the plush surroundings. It is in these kinds of cafe that you see the privileged with designer handbags and manicured hands and the huge gap between those who have and those who have not. An NGO worker we talked to said it is only in the last 15 years that this gap began to become evident.

Please Note: The views and opinions expressed in blogs under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund are those of the journalist and / or their interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish Government.