A rudimentary stage of construction

“I hope you’re having fun, and not too sad!” This was the parting sentence of a voice message left me by a European friend, the unorthodox English as so often neatly capturing the sentiment, midway between my last blog entry and this one. She was responding to the information that since the two weeks of holiday that followed my last update, I have been struggling in an almost total vacuum at work, unable to stay in one country for longer than a few weeks and adrift in my professional remit.

Leave had been wonderful: a succession of friends and family and time in England, Wales, and Scotland packed into an expeditious two weeks, but was soured by a desperately disorganised return to work. In the handover from one boss to another all the things that had been repeatedly promised before I went away were simply not done; no visa, no contract, no job description, nothing.

In the end I went to Kenya as a kind of default option. I had two meetings with my new boss: in the first he told me the reason my paperwork was undone was that I wasn’t a priority, and in the second he removed around 70% of my job description (that I had written) because he didn’t see the value in it. He didn’t replace it with anything, but said there might be something for me to do around July. Two months later, that remains the last interaction I’ve had with him.

I’m now writing from Kenya again, with thirty of the intervening days between then and now spent in Ethiopia. Mercifully the majority of those thirty days were busy, the Ethiopian Country Director and Head of Programmes keen to take advantage of my presence and largely undefined purpose. For three weeks or so I was involved in research and analysis on internally displaced people and refugees in Ethiopia; hardly my area, but I found with a modicum of direction and structure I was suddenly able to be effective again, and enjoyed it.

Addis Ababa itself is somewhat less developed than I had framed it. Very safe, yes, and home to a huge number of UN, African Union, and East African regional government bodies, but also dirty, lacking in infrastructure, and short on things to do. Meeting people has accordingly been slower than in many other cities, and I was grateful for four whole weeks in a row to begin to establish some tentative friendships. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the city is its expansion. I was amazed to read Evelyn Waugh writing in 1930 on a visit to Addis that “The whole town seemed still in a rudimentary stage of construction. At every corner were half-finished buildings…” – this is exactly my impression of it today, nearly a full century later. I look forward to discovering the city a little more fully over the coming months.

I realised recently that my challenge was not to elicit the fundamentals of management, but to incorporate the absence of management into a structure that allows me to work. It took me a while. July brings the vague promise of new projects, but in my lack of faith in external factors I have enlisted two friends in more senior positions to give me their excess tasks. The hope is that this will provide me with a steady source of things to do, not worrying too much about whether I’m “supposed” to be doing them or not, and enable me to be constructive without requiring anyone’s time.

The subsequent challenge is to break out of the lethargy that I’ve sunk into over the last few months. I haven’t been able to stay in one country for more than a few weeks since the turn of the year. That may sound dynamic or exciting, but in truth it’s draining, especially as it’s the result of disorganisation and a lack of will to do anything about it rather than being driven by goals. Even worse has been the lack of a clear role. The combination has become dislocating and demotivating, and in this brief few days in Kenya my objective is to work on my mental approach to the coming months. I have one more week here, another week in Addis, 48 hours in UK, and then (hopefully) will be able to stay in Ethiopia for a few months at least. I want to make the best of it.


What I’m listening to:

  • Dorothy Ashby, In a Minor Groove
  • Antoine Brumel, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus
  • The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

What I’m reading:

  • Peter Godwin, Mukiwa
  • Kate Fox, Watching the English
  • (Finally finished) Aeneid
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
  • Olivia Laing, The Lonely City



Addis Ababa

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.