A week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
At the beginning of November I spent a week in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
As covered in the previous post, I was there connecting with businesses about training their teams to be effective and efficient in data analytics, and between meetings was able to get a decent impression of the city.
This post covers the key aspects that became apparent when I came to jotting down thoughts on the trip.
This stood out from conversations with people who lived and grew up in Addis.
Rightly or wrongly (I mean, it’s probably wrongly) when I’ve travelled through East Africa, and indeed India and Latin America there’s been an element of deference from my interactions with local people.
Not so in Ethiopia.
Almost certainly linked to the fact that (apart from Liberia) they were the only African country to not be colonised, I found a sure-headedness about every Ethiopian I met that came, I guess, from an inner confidence in the heritage of their country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint this trait exactly, but one story that personifies it comes from a story I was told about a legend of one Ethiopian general.
Ethiopians are quite comfortable eating raw meat, and during a battle with the Italians, the Ethiopian army would bring with them, and then eat, raw beef whilst on crouching amongst the dead bodies of the enemy.
The Italians saw this, assumed they were fighting with savage cannibals, and duly fled.
In a conversation with a lady running an ecommerce business, I asked her what surprised her, compared with other parts of the world she’d worked.
Without skipping a beat, it was the amount that men spend on clothes.
Walking around Addis, men from all walks of life clearly spent a lot of effort looking good, and were happy to compare outfits when the chance arose.
Originally this was going to be a small comment at the end of the Fashion section, but on reflection, it warrants more note.
The diversity of hairstyles on men was striking
This comes, I think, from two places.
The first is that I think culturally men in Ethiopia like to express their personality through their hair. It becomes a differentiating factor amongst people, and as such you’ll have all kinds of cuts on show.
In writing this segment I realise how sparse my vocabulary is in describing hairstyles, but needless to say there was all sorts.
The second element to the equation is just how homogeneous male hairstyles are in the rest of East Africa.
For 99% of the male population it’s just having a shaved head.
I asked a friend about it in Kenya and he looked confused at the question. The most his hair had changed was a 2 week period at high school when he didn’t shave it because he was too busy studying for exams.
Anyway, I felt weird going up and asking to take pictures of random guys on the street and so unfortunately no first hand photographic evidence exists.
Try as I might, there’s not much on the internet about these haircuts, and so for those wanting their fix of funky hairstyles, you can see this piece about Rwandan (who share a heritage with Ethiopia) traditional hairstyles.
The language in Ethiopia is Amharic, which is distinct from Arabic.
It’s a historical language and alphabet which one taxi driver I spoke with was adamant all other African languages should adopt.
Because it is based on a whole different alphabet, a result is that other languages are rarely adopted or used in Ethiopia.
Consequently, when it came to entertainment it was mostly Ethiopian generated content which was getting consumed.
As with other goods/ services that aren’t traded internationally, this reduces choice, and often quality.
A few years ago a TV station called Kana TV emerged.
It’s premise was simple: take wildly popular programmes from around the world, and dub them in Amharic.
This essentially meant finding the most popular soap operas/ novellas from Brazil, Korea and elsewhere and have Ethiopian actors do a voice over.
The results have been staggering: the country is hooked.
Most people I spoke with mentioned how swathes of the population would routinely stop work and become fixated on the latest episodes each evening.
Dinners were going uncooked, work left unattended and generally a sense of the nation becoming so engrossed in the latest on screen drama, that all previous concerns were set aside.
The cynical posited that the government weren’t too displeased that the Kana TV sagas were distracting people previously occupied with criticising them…
Upon returning to my hotel each evening, I found there was a 50:50 chance that the owner would be watching Kana TV.
The days when he wasn’t wasn’t for lack of wanting, but instead because the power was out.
Power cuts were a daily occurrence, and unpredictable in nature.
On the first day of arriving one kicked in and, because it powered the WiFi, I was then unable to make calls I had scheduled which was less than ideal.
The oases of WiFi in Addis are the fancy hotels, and so I duly went to the Ramada and nodded to a knowing waiter who brought out the sign in code, for $5/ hour.
Apparently a few months back there was an outtage for 11 days.
I spoke with two companies who relied extensively on computers, and they said that it was not only debilitating, but that their systems have now been developed to be incredibly robust against future uncertainties.
Interestingly the one place in the city able to keep the MBs flowing was the Hilton, who apparently faced an onslaught of fraught residents and holidaymakers jabbing tirelessly at their iPhones.
These particularly extreme cases aside, it generally gave the whole place a blanket of uncertainty when it came to planning to be able to communicate with other people, or get work done outside of the well-enamoured places mentioned above.
Ethiopia is famed for its coffee, with some citing that its soils were the first to bear fruit of the world’s favourite bean.
Around the city it was ubiquitous, with every street corner having someone selling small cups of freshly brewed “bunna”.
During a power cut one morning, the chef was berating the lack of electricity when making coffee for the team.
It took 20 minutes to roast, grind and then brew the pot, none of which deterred the team from fueling up.
I was told that the Ethiopian Starbucks is called Tomoca, and whilst agreeing that the ambience was similar, the menu had only three options, which seemed inconsistent with the American counterpart.
The vibe in the shop would’ve fitted in well in London: exposed brick, workbenches and, interestingly, no chairs.
Everyone inside would stand and lean, sipping one of the three varieties of coffee on offer (small, large, milky) and either chat away or read the paper.
Apparently it’s the coffee shop that the millionaires go to, even though a cup was only 50 US cents.
Now, for the coffee connoisseurs reading, I can’t comment on its quality, but I think it was good.
Facing a When in Rome… realisation at 9am one morning I had my first coffee of both the trip, and 2017 and ended up not falling asleep until 2am next morning, such was my sensitivity to the caffeine.
I’d recommend trying it for yourself though, everyone seems to rave about it.
When it comes to social drinking, one thing which was particularly pleasant was the frequency at which I passed roadside buildings with people enjoying a beer.
Perhaps it was the routes I was taking, or that it was typically night time, but whereas other EA cities feel a bit a more set back in their bars, in Addis they felt vibrant and open.
There’d typically be a TV blaring out a football game, and clusters of people sat on benches laughing and chatting over a bottle of beer.
Beer in these places was cheap (~30 US cents) which made it all the more welcoming.
Beyond the bars and in the restaurants there was also Ethiopian wine on offer.
This was not something I knew existed, and it pleasantly palatable when eaten over dinner one evening.
Again there were differences between Addis and the other EA cities I’ve resided in.
The most obvious one is that the city has its own light railway.
It essentially operates like a tram, and the two lines snake across the city affording people to cover good distances for 15p a ride.
This is the first of its kind in the region, and is fairly dissonant with the informal settlements it weaves through.
The other differences are more subtle.
The first is that there’s not a culture of motorbikes being used for taxis.
In Uganda this is huge, and even Kenya and Rwanda, you can usually hail one in less than a minute from most points of the city.
The second is that taxi transport is very expensive.
Now, before you say, it’s not just because I’m obviously a tourist that I received such high prices. I spoke with the founder of ZayRide (who are attempting to be Uber for Ethiopia) and Habtamu explained how the dynamics of an undersupply of taxis led to this situation.
We discussed this more during a podcast interview, which will be appearing before too long.
Anyway, the result of this meant that in terms of getting around the city, outside of the obvious bus routes was a bit less straightforward.
Nascent tech scene
The number of tech start ups in Addis felt finite.
I reached out to some ahead of time, and up on meeting a few, it already felt like I had a one degree of separation to most people in the scene.
This is likely a result of numerous factors, though the main ones seemed to be:
- very difficult for foreign investment to enter the economy
- low smartphone penetration
Consequently a lot of the internet enabled services being adopted elsewhere don’t have the addressable market as elsewhere, despite the population being 100 million.
This was something which took time to understand when I first arrived, and the implications seem telling.
When walking around places off the beaten track, I’d often cross small children playing in the street.
Their instinctive reaction to seeing me was to point and shout “China!”.
This is very much in the same way kids in other parts of EA will uncontrollably scream “mzungu!” when myself, or other fair skinned counterparts wander past.
Speaking to a friend there about it, he said it’s because the small kids can’t distinguish at their young age and, with a greater presence of Chinese in the country, this is what they have learned to associate non-Ethiopians as.
This fact isn’t too surprising from even a short stint in the country.
I passed several “Ethiopia-China Friendship [Bridge/ Building/ Roundabouts]”, and around town there are just more Chinese people proportional to Anglo-Saxons and Indians.
Some Ethiopians joke that they are, after all, getting colonised, just this time from the Asian Tiger.
Beyond the Chinese, the other huge influencer in Ethiopia is the man upstairs.
People in Ethiopia attend church more frequently than most, with many attending service at some point throughout each day.
Again linked to a sense of nationalism, I was proudly told how Ethiopia was the first Christian country which, I was told, was in part due to the Queen of Sheba.
Now, when I first thought was “Who are you, the Queen of Sheba?!” but after suppressing my internal giggle I was given a lesson on the Bible and informed that she was King Solomon’s wife, and apparently an important figure in the holy book.
I also found the prevalence of religion in everyday conversations.
Most people would ask what my faith was, and when a couple of guys helped me load airtime onto my phone in Tomoca, they seamlessly asked me to join them in prayer the following day.
I also arranged to meet with a mutual friend on Sunday afternoon, and he naturally suggested doing so at church.
By the time I arrived the service was over, and so we went for lunch with a number of his friends, and then for a group coffee afterwards.
It was now approaching four, and there was “this thing” which a bunch of them were going to, and my friend insisted I joined and so, as his guest, I duly obliged.
A group of us walked down to a building near the church where seats were gathered around, and once the room was at about thirty signals were made and the door was closed.
Let us pray
Silence swept through and a few of the girls (early 20s) stood at the front and began leading the group in prayer.
I had ended up in Bible study
This was an experience I hadn’t encountered for many many years, and found the whole experience all quite interesting.
For starters, I thought it was incredibly rude that everyone started going on their phones as the hymns started, only to discover that these were being used to read the lyrics off.
During one of the passage readings, again people took to their phones – navigating through what appeared to be a fairly comprehensive Bible app.
The idea of people engaging in religious practices in such a technical manner was something I’d never seen before, which says more about the regularity at which I interact in faith-based activities than it does about technological progress.
Needless to say, by the end of the session I wished everyone well, and was thankful for the window into a culture I’d not ordinarily have come across.
Beyond Addis Ababa
In concluding this post I’ll simply comment on how little of Ethiopia I actually saw.
It’s Africa’s second most populous country and has many wondrous historical and natural sites across the country.
It’s also landlocked, and when speaking with people they were excited at the idea of taking a new train up to Djibouti, to get a beach weekend getaway.
In all, I found Addis Ababa to be a very pleasant place to be. The people were friendly, food was tasty, and the music was great.
Upon returning I’ll have to be sure to explore beyond the city.