13 August 2012

First days in Addis Ababa

I love Addis Ababa.

My arrival on Friday ushered into this new scene through the filter of American friends and seen the official and expat side of life here - staying at a fancy hotel, eating at fancy restaurants, and seeing how the other half live - was short-lived. I spent Saturday morning with my friends as they waited to leave for the airport, and then stayed on to drink coffee and use the internet for another hour after they departed. During this time I watched as groups of Chinese, Americans, and Europeans gathered in the lobby, met with humbly dressed Ethiopians and headed out. I approached one American man who was speaking to two very interesting looking young men who looked very out of place in the hotel lobby. He was going out to the rural areas with them as guides, something to do with African animals, though I did not ask the details. I heard the New York accent and started up a conversation, and he was delighted to speak and invited me for coffee on another day to talk research. He is a professor at Rutgers of African studies and has been working in Ethiopia for many many years. His two guides were eager to make my acquiantense, but they were fast off and I felt it was high time for me to be off as well, so I headed out.

Against the advice of the Americans, I left the Sheraton on foot to join the teaming masses of Ethiopians who travel this way throughout the city all times of day and night. I am amazed at the diversity here, there are so many different ethnic groups, clothing styles, and fashions. I thought that people here would be in general as were described to me as Ethiopian - small boned and light skinned. But that is really only a few ethnic groups here. Also, due to the presence of the African Union Headquarters and the various multitude of other international organizations, there are plenty of different Africans here, and Chinese and Europeans and Americans. There are Muslims who are taller, slim, light-skinned and draped in chequered headscarves and long white robes. I walked next to a man today who was leading a goat on a rope in the market-place. There are women with face tattooes, along their cheeks, jaw, or on the forehead, with petite builds and colorful skirts and headscarves. Full-figured women with braids and jeans and sneakers. Disfigured beggars missing limbs, hair, skin, teeth, eyes. Children running and playing in tatters and smiles. Tall, dark-skinned men in business suites. Beautiful slender women in high-heeled shoes, western clothes, and long soft hair. Ragged men in ragged clothes carrying wooden staffs and barefoot. Boys herding goats, cows grazing at the roadside, dogs running around in packs, mangy looking cats loitering by doorways or on rooftops, groups of sheep and small donkeys...

On my initial walk I started to get hot, uncomfortable, and a bit lost. I also attracted a flock of children and would loose them at a street crossing, only to gain a new group of these small eager faces along the next street. A taxi driver hailed me. I negotiated a reasonable price, jumped in the front, and carried on a lively conversation while we dodged cars, minivans, and trucks toward the Holy Savior church compound. I left him with his fare and an apple from a bag of fruit that Peter, one of the Americans I was just with, so generously offered to me to take to the Friars. He was really happy about this. I found out later that one apple can cost upwards of $3 in the store and that many Ethiopians make less than $6 in a day. This was more than what I paid for the cab ride!

Once I reached Holy Savior I met a woman half of my size and (from her life-story) about twice my age. Sister Carol is from Massachusettes and has been working in Ethiopia for 10 years. She had been at the compound all day for a lecture on Saint Clare. It turns out that this compound is in fact a center for international Catholic activities and there are Italian and English language masses held consistently. She was heading home, but offered to show me where some things are out on the main road. She asked if I wanted to walk with her, and I immediately said yes, wanting to again face the throng and do a better job of it this time. I put my bag up in my room and we set off together. As soon as we stepped out of the compound onto the street we were in it. It feels like 5th Avenue at rush hour. We picked our way along the broken sidewalk and into the smiling faces of the people. People are doing all manner of living out on the street - selling things, barking their wares, begging, laughing, chatting, walking, strolling, drinking coffee, sitting, relieving themselves, crying, calling out of cars or buses, holding hands. The roads themselves are congested with cars, buses, minivans, and SUVs all burping thick exhaust and driving chaotically, and you have to be careful when crossing.

Sister Carol explained that she teaches English and in fact entered the Medical Mission Sisters to work abroad. She lives with Sisters who are Ethiopian and either doctors or nurses or trained to work social services. We made our way up Churchill Street, a main artery in the city, and as we travelled north, we also traveled up and I could feel the 8,500 feet elevation in my lungs. There is a constant presence of people speaking or calling in Amharic to one another, a very sing-song language. Sister Carol showed me where the post office is, where we could not enter because I had my camera on me, where the local grocery store is with simple restaurant attached, the strip of tourist shops where we saw a handful of young European backpackers examining their recent purchases. The shopkeepers beckoned to us, but we just smiled and nodded and continued on. Things for sale include woven rugs, woven baskets, carved wooden things, woven animals, scarves. The colors all around us on the street are so bright - women with bright pink headscarves and blue skirts, men in kelly green shirts and yellow pants.

We made our way in this manner, Sister Carol showing me landmarks and useful places along with telling me about her life until we turned off of the main drag to head to her compound. The Mission is located in a neighborhood that could be considered a slum. The road is mud and full of holes of water, the houses made of corrugated iron scraps and cookfires burned out the front. I found the place absolutely charming. The road began with a bunch of locally run shops in hovels, bread makers, beverage sellers, the sister even pointed out bundles of chat - a drug used in this part of the world as a stimulant. Muslims and Christians have their shops right next to each other. Fresh bread sells for about $0.80 a loaf. We stopped at one shop that makes their own yogurt that Sister Carol loves. They also sold juice imported from Egypt. I bought a box of mango juice and the shopkeeper threw in a free bottle of guava juice as a gift. I remember this feeling - being in a place where people have so little and still want to give.

We then turned down another road and passed by families out in front of their houses chatting amiably, children playing together, dogs running about with toys or bones, people gathered together at the communal water taps to fill jerry cans. There were plenty of trees and flowers and greenery. This neighborhood is beautiful and charming and being here gave me the impression more of being in a village rather than a bustling city. People greeted the Sister with smiles and affection. We even passed by a row of small scale manufacturing where metal and wooden furniture were being assembled. You could smell the industry and see people working in the shops as they are open to the street.

Sister Carol took it upon herself to ring several people when we got to her place. She had listened intently to my research objectives and wanted to put me in touch with some potential interviewees. Through these phone calls, she secured me a place to live after two weeks with the Friars with one of her friends who is a nurse for the UN. She also decided to call on the Comboni Missionaries in Addis as I had stated that I had been in touch with their superior in the States. The man that answered the phone was Father Sixtus. After a moment of speaking Sister Carol explained why she was calling. Then she said, "She is sitting right here with me," and handed me the phone.
"Hello?" "Yes, Jennifer, this is Father Sixtus, I sent you an email two months ago!" (soft Italian accent) "I am so sorry, I never received it! What did it say?" "Oh, it was a very detailed-ah-email. I can resend it. I would like to meet." "Of course, when and where? I am staying with the Friars at Holy Savior Church downtown." "I will be there tomorrow for the Italian mass, we can meet after." I agreed. I asked Sister Carol how I would recognize him. She smiled and said I would know which man he is.

We then sat and had coffee and spoke with one of the other sisters in the house. She works with trafficked women and children in social services. She asked me why so many parents come to adopt in Ethiopia from the USA and Europe. I told her that I wasn't sure, but that it could be many reasons to include infertility rates and the difficult red-tape in America. She said that there are more than 60,000 homeless children in the street of Addis Ababa. I had seen so many on the walks that day and they had flocked me, greeted me in English, pleaded with their eyes and hands, and ran away laughing or disappointed. I was told later by the Friars that there are less now than there used to be. But there is also an increased steady stream of trafficked children out to other parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The Sister raised her eyes from her coffee cup to mine and asked me why I thought the children were being taken. I didn't want to guess.

The day was getting on. Because we are just north of the Equator, there are about 12 hours of daylight, and the same of night. It isn't very safe for a foreigner to be out on the streets alone after dark, so Sister Carol said we should go. She would walk me back to the main road and I would travel the two miles back to the compound. Along the way some Ethiopian men and boys called to me or greeted me, but nothing aggressive or insulting, quite to the contrary. Typical city stuff.

I arrived back in time to have dinner with the Friars. As soon as the sun sets the temperature drops and I am wearing layers, a scarf, my coat...These friars are Ethiopian Capuchin Franciscans and they wear the long brown robes and white roped belts. This is their central house in the country, so all of their Brothers are traveling through here on their way to somewhere else. I have had many lively and interesting discussions about all corners of Ethiopia. And about the Olympics. They observe a bit of the Eastern rite, so they are on a fast now. This suites me well as we were served amazing Ethiopian vegetarian food with fresh injera. I gave the head Father the bag of fruit from Peter. He totally lit up. And so did the other Friars. There was enough fruit to go around.

Things are moving quickly since I came to the country. My research has already started, but this is for another day. I am in very good company and am really happy to have made this connection to the Catholic community. They have explained that though there are only about 600,000 Catholics in Ethiopia, they are by far the most active mission groups living with Ethiopians and helping with the dire situations in the rural communities, and even in the cities. There are mission houses of various Orders all over the country. And these people are giving and concerned, and very wired into the network of many things happening here. I am super thankful to have met them and have the chance to live with the Friars for these two weeks. I feel very good here.


  1. Yeyyy! Glad you are there, safe, and connecting with people! The city sounds so diverse... It would be hard to process all of the contrasts you describe-- West/East, this/that religion, very rich/very poor, laughing/crying, bright colors, high elevation, hot/cold-- It sounds like a land of extremes! 60,000 homeless children... Did the sister mention how many of those were orphans vs. children of homeless families? Good luck with everything!

  2. Sometimes the kids are outright orphans. Sometimes the case is that the families cannot afford to take care of them, especially with the anti-retroviral drugs two times per day. There is a government program to try to encourage the families to be more involved if there are relatives to be found. Often the orphanages are making efforts to place the kids back with their families. The advantage to this is debatable, but in Ethiopian culture, family connections and relationships are more important than anything else.

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