I sit on my rooftop, the sounds of construction intruded slightly from behind me, the strain voices from a speaker turned up too loud from below; it has a religious tone to it; I couldn’t tell you if it Islamic or Christian. The non- distinct buzz of the streets can be heard, too faint to be delineated but I can imagine the minibuses shouted out their destination even before they have pulled to a stop, the ladies selling there 25 cent traditional (but still excellent) coffee from ever available alcove, doorway and empty patch of pavement and the ever present shoe shine boys pointing at your feet as your walk past.
I sit, 5 floors up, with my European style cafetière of coffee, contrasting with the wooden jugs warmed over small coal fires served at street level. Always slightly removed. This is a truly African city. I will always be moving through it, never in it. The shouts of “how are you- are you fine,” as people notice my foreignness as I walk through the unpaved, muddy back streets. “I am fine” I shout back. Occasional shouts of “Farangi!” (foreigner); I am not quiet sure what these people are shouting are me – reminding me I am a white man? And of course those poorest and most desperate, noting my foreignness rapidly, and asking for money.
The country has never be colonised, as every Ethiopian will remind you if you spend longer than fifteen minutes in their company. And you can tell, the food everywhere is Ethiopian, once you get used to the sourdough pancake-like Njera it is quiet good, mixed up with various curry like dishes, occasional pasta dishes the only nod the brief Italian interventions in their history. The music is always in amarachic, the dominant of the local languages, and occasional in late night bars the tempo and mood reverts to everyone singing along to patriotic songs, which I assume has only increased as various regional conflicts rumble along. The Calender and time are completely different to the rest of the world. Despite this all, it is an outward looking city. A conversation in fluent English about football or how the city contrasts with it’s neighbours is frequent (safer than Narobi, more fun than Khartoum). It is a country unique on the continent, but in the capital at least, very much linked with the wider world.
At this time of year, it is the constant threat of raining. Rumblings from behind the low lying mountains, the only large spaces of green in the city, to the north warn everyone. Most afternoons there is a splash of rain, like the city itself, it is intense and short lived. Everyone invites you in for shelter, just like they reflectively offer to share their meals with you, so you learn to sit out for the twenty minute downpour before getting our with your day, dodgy the puddles as you walk through the uneven streets.
Up here on my fifth floor patio, watching the rain fall, I feel twice removed. When I descend into the local life, drinking coffee on little plastic stools, walking the unlit and unkempt streets and talking to the city dwellers cautious about the election that has be occurring I can fake a camaraderie. There is enough other Farangis about, especially in the relatively nice part of town with the posher hotels, embassies and NGO headquarters, that my presence is not extraordinary. But there is still a level of removal again from another Ethiopian reality. There is war on. Quiet a bad one. As I get a taxi to explore another vegetarian leaning Ethiopian restaurant the taxi driver may give their opinion on “the north” or Tigray or the election, but the hundreds of thousands of almost starving people are not mentioned. Working for MSF I make a conscious effort to be politically neutral. Also in the knowledge that although I have spent much longer in Addis than planned, I will not understand the intrinsics of the politics here.
And that’s the thing. You imagine were you are reading the international news that the events that make it onto the BBC or Al-jeerza are the only things occurring here. But for those not directly involved it is just politics. Just like Brexit back home, yes we talked about it a lot, but mostly people just tried to get on with their lives. So the upper middle classes drive to upmarket bakeries to buy fancy bread, the lower middle classes wait on mini-buses at the intersections to commute back out of the city, the poor hawk fried doughballs or samosas alongside the queues and the poorest shuffle along as best they can with their injuries asking pleadingly for change. Life goes on.
I have fallen in love before. Cali, Colombia; another city lacking green, on the surface a concrete mess, but underneath a beating heart you can’t help but dance along to. Cape town, South Africa; A swirling mass of diversity than obscures any change of boredom, and still truly has an African soul (despite what the Ethiopians might say). Of course my home town of Brighton, England, which I love despite its excessively alternative pretence and terrible weather. But Addis, maybe because I have been forced into it’s company for longer that I expected, it feels like that friend you make whilst travelling or on holiday, and for a couple of weeks you know everything about each other. You enjoy each others company, you have mini adventures. But ultimately, it will carry on with it’s life, with it’s delicious ubiquitous coffee and happy friends eating together out of massive silver plates, although they will always invite me to eat with them, I will eventually leave, looking on at a distance with my Cafetière.