I’ve been to a few cities in my life. Try London, Paris, Havana, Chicago, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, to name a few. And here I am in Addis Ababa. If I had to compare I would say that Addis is right up there with Scarborough in my list of ugliest cities visited so far. The buildings are plain or just plain strange, the scaffolding is terrifying and prolific, the roads are full of holes and debris, and informal structures take over the streets: corrugated aluminum huts, makeshift fruit stalls and converted freight containers. But there is something about the city that makes up for all of physical deficiencies.
Take, for example, the transportation. While at first glance travel on a Minibus (communal taxi bus) seems chaotic and risky, they make travel around the city relatively quick and painless. For about 1 Birr ($0.08 Canadian) from my house, I’ll arrive at one of two central Minibus stations and can carry on for the same price again to anywhere in the city I want to go. And unlike Canada, there is always a Minibus waiting for you.
This weekend, I attempted my longest Minibus journey so far (two transfers at a total cost of about 50 cents) to Merkato, Africa’s largest open-air market. This is another one of the things that redeems Addis. I went with a coworker and his relative, as its unlikely that I would have been able to manage the sprawling marketplace on my own. The congestion on the way was unbelievable, and the actions the drivers take are awe-inspiring- if it’s going to get you somewhere faster, driving on the wrong side of the road is completely acceptable. But, when you step out of the Minibus into the teeming life of Merkato, you can understand why everyone is trying to get there. I don’t know how big the place is, as after 2 hours of walking around we’d only covered a third of it, but I guarantee that you can buy anything under the sun. A malay of cars, people, donkeys, food and manufactured goods, I was barely capable of understanding the shopping possibilities.
Merkato isn’t just a place to shop, though. Really, it’s a microcosm of Addis that showcases the gem of Addis: the people. Sometimes I feel like a rock star here because of all the attention I get, and once my friends bought me a souvenir scarf in Ethiopian colours, that attention doubled. The sentiments called out as I walked by in my new scarf testified to the pride and hospitality that I’ve encountered with each Ethiopian I’ve met. A “Welcome to Addis Ababa,” “I love Ethiopia,” and “Hello, how are you,” shouted by every third person is enough to convince me to stay here, compared to aggressive merchants, pickpockets and beggars I had been warned about.
At one point, we turned a corner and came across a group of about 5 old men on a blanket. One of them had a drum and they were singing traditional songs, trying to earn enough for dinner. A few steps further and I saw a group of about 15 women, singing and clapping and drumming as well. I pointed to my camera to ask if I could take a picture. The music got louder and more enthusiastic as I crouched down to get to their level, and they smiled as I photographed them.
On every corner of Addis you see new buildings going up, and past the city’s Ring Road construction is rampant. One of my friends told me the other day that it is as if he can see Addis waking up after years of Communist rule. I like to think that maybe the informality of the city is temporary, and that one day its surface will match the vibrant humanity that is present underneath.