Addis Ababa, or at least what I’ve seen of it so far, reminds me of the suburbs of St. Petersburg. A sprawling expanse of city peeling, fading, softly falling apart, the occasional brightly coloured signs–often for English or computer classes– leaping up from demolition sites encircled with metal sheeting, like shoots from some great fallen tree. There’s a certain relaxed-ness about it though that scrappy, desperate Bujumbura lacks. Maybe it’s the mountain air or the sheer spread-out dimensions of the place.
It’s the rainy season and the potholed streets are covered with mud; young men on street corners perched on plastic buckets offering to clean any kind of shoe for two birr (about eight cents) do a brisk trade. The city smells of diesel fuel and curry, sometimes of piss.
I’m staying with a Canadian guy named Nick, a Carleton graduate and a friend of Mbonisi’s, who I met on a Facebook group for Carleton Rwanda Initiative alums, and his Ethiopian girlfriend, Mahi. I added Nick as a friend and noticed he was posting in a lot of Addis Ababa expat forums–which I then joined. I posted a message asking if anyone had a couch in Addis. Nick said that he and Mahi not only had a couch, but a whole enormous spare bedroom, because their British housemate was gone for six weeks. So, here I am sitting in an enormous drafty house in Addis Ababa, with friendly hosts, hot water from the tap, cushy couches and shelves full of intellectual books.
Yesterday morning Nick and I went with Mahi to the Merkato, a sprawling expanse of tin-covered shacks selling everything from fruit to djembe drums to bras. From the balcony of one of the bigger buildings, we watched a Coptic Christian prayer service in front of a cathedral– men in robes, women in white prayer shawls, a male voice chanting strange, mournful songs. We ate lunch in a huge restaurant next to a pool hall on the fourth floor of a shopping center– a dozen sorts of spicy curry-like things and pickled vegetables, and these delicious buttery yellow things that I was later told were the boiled grains of a sort of wheat, spread out over a plate made of injera, the spongy, vinegary Ethiopian bread. It wasn’t hard to get the hang of ripping a scrap of injera off the side of the “plate” and using it as a scoop for the pickled cabbage, curried lamb, mysterious-spicy-thing, whatever you liked. I always thought I didn’t like Ethiopian food, but I guess that was because I had never been to Ethiopia– or because I was about 11 the last time I tried it and the sour taste of injera isn’t something most kids would readily like. I taught Mahi (whose English is actually great) the term “acquired taste.”
After lunch there was coffee served Ethiopian style– served in handle-less ceramic cups, without milk but with with a ton of ground-up rock sugar, amid an atmosphere of burning incense, with a basket of popcorn. It tasted different from European or American coffee– a bit like chocolate syrup. No one knows what makes it taste that way. Later on, in an old Italianate café with chandeliers and spiral staircases, we met a friend of Mahi’s and had macchiatos, the Ethiopian term for a café au lait. No, there was no caramel or whipped cream. It had an understated elegance– the coffee and milk swirled on the top of the cup in a tie-dye pattern. It had the same distinctive taste, kind of an aftertaste of baking chocolate. I liked it. Nick says that in Ethiopia coffee beans are always roasted the same day if not the same hour (not roasted, packed, shipped, etc). That could explain it.
Yesterday was also a Coptic festival which involved chants and a huge grass bonfire. I asked Mahi, a city girl born and bred, exactly what we were supposed to be celebrating. She shrugged and said “Google it.”
After the coffee break Mahi took us to a “cultural restaurant” which was actually a sort of dinner theatre, the inside walls lavishly painted with Ethiopian scenes. The crowd was about half expats; Mahi said the Ethiopians were almost certainly Ethiopians based abroad. Nick tried to guess the expats’ stories: “That one’s escaping from a midlife crisis, those two are aid workers, there’s a priest, there are couples who’ve just adopted Ethiopian kids…”
I followed his eyes to four exceptionally self-satisfied-looking, blond-haired blue-eyed middle-aged people. Between them were three kindergarten-aged girls, two Ethiopian and one Chinese.
“Those poor girls, they’ll never know who they are,” said Mahi.
Bored musicians played folk songs from different regions of Ethiopia, their fingers going through the motions while they stared into space or talked quietly among themselves. A narrator announced the region of each dance, in a teachery voice, in grammatical but oddly pronounced English (“heed” instead of “head” for example). The dancers were more enthusiastic, especially one guy who leaped, kicked and dove with a big grin on his face, finally managing to heat up the tepid atmosphere.
The food was fantastic, I’ll give it that. About two dozen dishes on the same plate of injera, vegetables and curried lamb and chicken and cottage cheese and spices that make my mouth water just thinking about them this morning, and more than enough for three people. But everything just felt…painted on.
After dinner, we were all asked to come outside for the “bonfire ceremony.” Some men lit a six-foot-high pyre of reeds and sticks, them whooped and danced around it until it burned to the ground. The Chinese girl and her new Ethiopian sister danced, imitating a couple-dance we’d seen earlier with simulated kissing–or was it arguing?
“None of our favourite travel writers would approve of what we did just now,” I said to Nick.
He nodded. “Ethio-Disney.”
We caught a bus home– the buses look like Russian minibuses and are confusingly called taxis, and all the taxis, incidentally, are Soviet cars. On the walk from the bus stop, a drunk Ethiopian man, younger than me with a ridiculous swagger, got in Mahi and Nick’s face.
“Weah da fuck you think you goin’ like that, shit, bitch,” he said, in a ridiculous, caricatural American ghetto accent. “I don’t know weah da fuck you think you goin’ like that.” He spouted a stream of abuse at Mahi in Amharic and walked off.
“Why don’t you tell him directly in English what you just said to me, how you threatened to fuck my mom?” said Mahi.
He turned around. More abuse was exchanged between the three of them, in a mixture of Amharic and ridiculous 80s-movie ghetto English. “Have a nice life, asshole, maybe you’ll get laid someday!” said Nick, finally walking away from the pending fight. Mahi was silent for the next 15 minutes, stewing.
See, Ethiopian girls do not normally date European men, or so Nick tells me. A European girl who dates an Ethiopian man is generally considered a catch, but the other way around is just…not…done. For them, Mahi is at best a race traitor, at worst a prostitute. People refuse to believe Mahi is Nick’s girlfriend and insist she is his hooker. “How much is he paying you? Can I screw you too?” and “Watch out, guy, she’ll steal your money!” are among the kinder things shouted at them in the street. Sometimes it’s a constant barrage of really, really disgusting, crude insults. You have to be really, really strong to be part of an interracial couple in Addis Ababa. Strong or deaf.
Fifteen minutes of brooding silence. Until we get to the corrugated-tin kiosk corner store near the house. There, about ten people, men and women, are laughing and singing and clapping around a bonfire. Three small, bright-eyed children are jumping up and down to the beat. We all brighten, and Mahi and I start clapping to the beat, chanting and bouncing on the balls of our feet. The women throw their heads back and laugh when they see me jumping up and down with the kids. A few more neighbours stop and watch. We bounce for a good ten minutes in the firelight, working up a nice sweat. The bonfire burns itself out and the kids tire. Smiling big, they shake our hands (the smallest one clasps her hand around my finger) and ask Nick for coins and candy. He gives them a few birr. We wave to the neighbours, Nick and Mahi say a few kind words in Amharic, and then we leave.
“You saw the best and worst of Ethiopia tonight,” says Nick.