Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ciao Addis

When it doesn't rain, you have a car, nice house and iron constitution Addis Ababa is a good place to live: you are extremely unlikely to get murdered and can walk around at night. And yet much as I tried I didn't like it and after 4 months was desperate to leave. A short-term contract made it hard to settle, a long-distance relationship with poor telecoms was always going to be difficult and the rainy season, which I experienced in full, (and when most expats go home for summer holidays) is depressing. Waiting to go through customs at the airport it struck me that I would have done whatever it took to be allowed go home.
I'd like to go back, but not immediately. Like a tribal drug that makes you horribly ill but provides temporary transcendental insight Ethiopia is intoxicating, wonderful and distressing. Each day waking up you never know which one of these it will be. Finding an abandoned baby in a gutter, hitting a child on a bike on my first field trip and getting pickpocketed twice on minivans (the third guy who tried to rob me on the street on my last day I caught with his hand in my pocket and pushed him to the ground overcome with rage). The world's getting smaller but Ethiopia remains unique in its history, culture and perspective on Africa and what the continent's future should and will be. 10 things I noticed: 1. Addis is changing quickly - whole neighbourhoods are being bulldozed and people moved to blocks of flats while downtown former shanty towns are replaced with large hotels, malls and office buildings. 2. At a boring UN conference I climbed onto the 15th floor roof and counted 31 large buildings covered in scaffolding and cranes being put up at great speed. 3. Chinese built roads have no drainage and disintegrate when over used. In Addis this means many become massive collections of pot holes during the rainy season. The main roads linking regional towns are excellent but this is probably because they are used less and have a less miserably relentless rainy season than Addis. 4. Ethiopians mock the Chinese for their crapness in making cheap things. An Ethiopian woman married a Chinese man. On their wedding night as they got into bed he collapsed and died. "What did you expect?" her friend asked. "Everything Chinese falls apart as soon as you try to use it". 5. China is investing massively in Ethiopia - outside Addis there is a massive industrial 'special trading zone', the Lifan is a car which is assembled in Ethiopia and they see Ethiopia - a country of 90 million expected to grow to 130 million in the next 30 years - surrounded by unstable countries with growing populations as a regional trade hub of the future. 6. China has also exported its surveillance expertise. They don't like Skype as it's hard to tap. Emails are easier. The only telecoms company is owned by the Government. When the Prime Minister died they sent everyone text messages saying how sad it was. It's unsettling to live in a place where at all times someone might be watching you. People don't feel they can speak freely. Even in cafes you never know whether the person at the next table is listening. 7. No one knows where all the money is coming from. Who is paying for the construction boom? The Government with cheap Chinese loans? Chinese state-owned companies? Ethiopian diaspora who have made money abroad and are coming home to invest it? There are estates of luxury homes springing up around the outskirts of the city but no one understands the economics underpinning it all. 8. No one knows what is going on. Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of 21 years died sometime between June and August - no one knows when. The new Prime Minister is suspected of being a puppet of the friends of the old Prime Minister but no one is entirely sure who exactly is really calling the shots. There was no violence or unrest as power transitioned. Instead a State-back totalitarian personality cult emerged with massive pictures of Meles appearing everywhere: road sides, taxis, buses, T-shirts, even small pictures on sale for 10p that people were buying on the pavements. When I first visited Addis in 2005 there were no photos of Meles in Meskel Square (giant Soviet-style car park/interchange which doubles as an ugly meeting place). Returning in June there was 1 massive billboard of him pointing to Ethiopia's bright future. Leaving last week I counted 14. 9. The Opposition mostly got kicked out or arrested in 2005 so there are no figures of dissent for people to gravitate to. Whilst there might be an internal power struggle going on in Government it's in no one's interests to draw attention to this. As long as everyone thinks they're omniscient things are likely to stay stable. As soon as it seems to be unravelling it could become unstable quite quickly. 10. A lot of younger people were more sad at the Prime Minister's death than they thought they would be. Even people who had told me how rubbish the Government was respected the intelligence of Meles. Unable to remember a time when he wasn't in charge they are worried about the future and political instability. Rampaging inflation has been the biggest economic problem in recent years, along with creating enough jobs. Neither will go away and while Addis is booming life in the countryside remains as hard as anywhere on earth.

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