Tolerance of slow progress is not one of my strengths. After a whole three weeks of unemployment, I decided that applying for jobs was a fool’s game and it would be sensible to fly to Ethiopia to look for work there. I had the offer of accommodation from a family friend, and knew that the country was full of NGOs doing things I believed they could use my help with. So I booked a ticket and a week later, having failed to say goodbye to or even notify a number of people in UK who deserve better, I landed in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
I gave myself a few days to acclimatise. Apart from seeking work experience, it had also been well over a year since I last had a holiday. And I had a lot to learn about Ethiopia, which locals say as It-yo-pya, and about Addis Ababa in particular.
Addis is a city under construction. A brand new tram network arcs over the city propped up on huge concrete towers, and deep concrete underpasses keep traffic churning along on two- and three-lane carriageways. Everywhere there are new concrete tower blocks going up, chunky grey skyscrapers covered with spindly exoskeletons of wooden scaffolding. Red Sinotrucks from China dominate the roads, carrying construction material from one site to another. What are all the buildings for? No-one’s sure. Hotels. Offices. Apartments. Someone will buy them, or rent them, or use them as an investment. Who’s paying for it? The Chinese. Ityopyans grumble about Chinese workers, Indian small business owners, Arab investors, Turkish financiers, and the lack of opportunities. Security is excellent. No-one worries about getting robbed. They worry about being seen by traffic police.
In a city of several million, it feels like most people have their own vehicle. There is no road tax, and public transport that people actually use is mostly limited to fleets of blue and white minibuses that are halfway between buses and taxis. All hours are rush hour. Being on the road resembles nothing so much as an ongoing negotiation, the traffic politicking with each other in tiny grunts of their horns. Cars, trucks and minibuses nudge, enquire, take advantage, concede and sigh, their drivers gesticulating with resignation, gratitude or annoyance at the caprices of the herd.
Official districts are named in Amharic, and unofficial ones in Italian. The city centre has a number of memorials to heroes of Ethiopia’s history. The Italian legacy is limited to a thousand and one cafes serving macchiato, as far as I can see. I haven’t heard anyone speak Italian or seen evidence of Italian communities.
My host lives in Bole, pronounced Boll-eh, in a district known as Rwanda because of the nearby embassy, or as Little Mogadishu because of its concentration of Somalis. I recognise it now by the Pepsi-sponsored roundabout at the end of the central road and the never-closed wooden stalls of bright fruit and vegetables, lit by bare lithium light bulbs at night, that line the corner on the way to my street. The house is near the southern edge of the city, just close enough to the airport for me to hear the rumbling whoosh of take offs when it’s quiet at night. It’s also near a mosque, which calls the umma to prayer five times a day with a melodic chant, challenged on weekends by a nearby church. Then the two compete to broadcast their devotion over Bole as loudly as possible, as though God looks favourably upon he who has the biggest microphone.
My vegetarianism lasted a matter of hours. The staple is injera, a large, sour pancake that is simultaneously plate, cutlery and carbohydrate, and fillings of vegetables and meat called wot. You tear pieces off your injera, scoop up sauce inside it, and eat with your fingers. It’s very satisfying to get a watertight package of food in your fingertips, and surprisingly difficult.
On my second day my host family took me to a restaurant serving a local speciality. We walked through an arched entrance to find a courtyard like a pub garden, with something like a box office at the entrance. In the box office was a cashier, with whom we placed an order, and great sides of red raw beef hanging on hooks behind him. A waiter took a cleaver to one of these and sliced off our due amount of meat, which he loaded up onto a silver plate with a stack of injera, a bowl of mustard sauce, and a very sharp knife. With this on our table, we cubed the meat into small portions which we wrapped in injera, dipped in the mustard, and ate.
“What if it makes me sick?” I asked after three or four cubes.
“We have an excellent medicine at home” reassured Lydia.
One of my favourite things is the post-lunch coffee ceremony. Green coffee beans are roasted on top of a small cube of a stove, while nuggets of incense are burned on a brazier, wafting thick clouds of smoke. Once the beans are roasted each guest is invited to breathe in a lungful of the smoke coming off them, like being asked to taste wine before it’s poured. The beans are then ground and made into thick coffee served in small cups, and is brought out in rounds. Two coffees is normal, but you can have three and even, rumour has it, four.
Looking for work, which I got down to after a few days, has not been so enriching. The message is that an unattached foreigner like me is extremely unlikely to gain a work visa, one I’ve heard with such consistency that I wonder how I managed to arrive in the country without knowing this. I’m now spending my time with the NGO people I manage to meet asking about opportunities in other countries, mostly Kenya, where I am going in a week’s time. Some people have been very encouraging and others have been the opposite, and the line between being enterprising and being foolish seems not only blurry but vacillating.
Having left fairly suddenly, I’m very conscious of the distance and time between me and people I can text any time I like, sit in a pub with, or watch the sun go down with on Primrose Hill. While I often feel lucky to be able to simply head to east Africa and see what happens, being so unsure about the future and not having any structure or stability is quite draining. I have a week left to enjoy Ethiopia, and then will start the search again in Kenya.