Finding Friends in Addis

Words by Simeon Gready - December 2014

“Please, can I use your mobile,” I pleaded, making a phone gesture with my right hand. The lanky waiter in Bole Airport, Addis Ababa looked carefully at me, finally consenting and handing me an old Nokia. I smiled manically, clasping my hands together as if in prayer, rushing to phone my host in Addis, a man named Tesfa, to blabber that I was at stuck at the airport with no Ethiopian Birr, no phone, and no idea how to get to his house. It was also 8pm, and the darkness had come to frighten me.

Tesfa sounded jolly and exceedingly happy to hear from me, which put me more at ease; he instructed me to find a blue taxi outside and call him again from the taxi’s driver mobile. I thanked him, handed the phone back to the waiter with no means to tip him for his kindness. He turned away without expecting one.

Soon enough, I was haring through brightly lit Addis Ababa, the streets of which seemed strangely quiet until we reached the bustling outskirts where the lights were dimmer and further apart. We drove on, until the lights were no more, my paranoid mind demanding that I grip both my bags fiercely, eyes peeled for any sense of danger.

Suddenly, the taxi slowed and a great big beaming face popped up in my window.

“Simeon!” The face exclaimed. “I’m Tesfa!” I broke into a relieved grin. Through the darkness, a large block of apartments emerged next to the road, and Tesfa led me to the uppermost floor, chatting away as if we were old friends. We stepped into his sister’s small apartment (for that was where we would stay), and more beaming faces greeted me: mother, sister, brother-in-law, two very young daughters (who hid behind the couch), and a steaming pot of coffee alongside side a big meal of injera.

“Please! Sit! Eat! Drink!” The beaming faces told me in unison. It was an incredible welcome. Through dinner, I learnt a little of Ethiopian custom, particularly regarding coffee: it’s a very important social process, more of a communal event than a hot drink.

“The neighbours come around and we have three cups – the first is called abul, the second is tana and the third is baracka. We add boiling water before each round, so they get weaker every time. Once the third cup is finished, then it is over and they go home – there is no awkward waiting around where people are unsure whether and when they should leave! No one can come just for baracka either – because it is the weakest round it is bad luck to do so.”

Tesfa was a bouncy, chubby young man around 30 years old, whose smile never left his face. He had an intense curiosity about other places, and questioned me endlessly on South African politics and culture, while genuinely intrigued to hear my thoughts of East Africa. I learnt about Ethiopia’s history from him – from Selassie (“you know, the Rasta!!”) to the 17-year rule of the Derg and finally to the current rule – “people aren’t happy. There is no freedom! You know journalists are in jail right now for the things they say? I used to blog about politics as well, but my family begged me to stop because it wasn’t safe. So I stopped.” He was brave and ambitious in his own work, as he looks to become a published author for the second time through his new book, though his big goals involve owning a travel company: “I want to organise tours around all parts of Ethiopia, all the transport and accommodation, make sure it is safe. But – you know – I’ve never actually been to Lalibela, or Aksum, or Makele. I have a plan though – a friend and I are saving up every 6 months to visit a different part of Ethiopia we haven’t been to yet.”

I slept deeply and happily that night, in Tesfa’s room as he insisted that he’d sleep on the couch. The next morning, we woke early as I had the day to explore Addis. After making sure I found an ATM that accepted my card and organising a bus ticket to Dessie for the next morning, Tesfa drew a number of maps and instructions in the back of my notebook so that I could get around every place I wanted.

I went first to the National Museum of Ethiopia, which held Lucy, and took a fascinating look through the evolution timeline, learning of Africa as the ‘cradle of humanity.’ To think of the ignominy and pain it has suffered at the hands of white arrogance since then. A French documentary crew were also there, looking rushed and stressed and bored simultaneously. A group of schoolchildren walked in as I was leaving.

From there, I walked to Addis Ababa University, where I was barred from entering because I could not prove I was a student there (all throughout my fake protestations). Seeing this, Brooke, a civil engineering student, approached me and struck up a conversation. He was incredibly warm-hearted and forthright, telling me about Chinese influence in Ethiopia and Africa, and laughing at how the UN was paying for his entire studies. He took me to the nearby lion zoo, which was as depressing as it sounds. I left very quickly.

Along the way, however, I learnt some Ethiopian words from Brooke:

Amesagenalo = Thank you

Saleem = Hi

Ishi = OK

Baka = Stop (he said that would be useful for all the beggars).

I left Brooke to catch a few minibus taxi’s up to Entoto, an enchanting church at the top of the highest mountain in Addis Ababa. The taxis chugged up the steep winding roads, taking care to mind several locals and sure-footed donkeys carrying heavy loads on their backs. Once there, the church was resplendent in the midday sun, painted to reflect the colours of the Ethiopian flag: green, yellow, red, and blue, bright and beautiful yet quiet and peaceful, with many locals kneeling in prayer as they faced the magnificent structure; they kissed the walls, the gate, the floor, eyes shut tight, lips murmuring.

I went into the palace of Emperor Minilk, deathly cold with creaking wooden floors and small doorways with high ceilings. It was distinctly ordinary looking from the outside but once inside, there was a certain presence within the tall plain walls. Fields of barley surrounded the structure, and the bare artefacts inside were dull and uninspiring, though that might have been the effect of cold dark feeling of the rooms. In the midday heat outside, the views over the city were hazy.

I met Maleesa and his friend in a minibus taxi on the way back down.

“Our culture respects guests,” he spoke slowly, deliberately; his job is in the education department for the government of Ethiopia, visiting schools and observing/testing aspects of the school against a prescribed checklist. If a school doesn’t fulfil the checklist, then the government support the school in whatever ways it can so that it can make up for what it is missing. “Education here is not good enough. Hardly any of the schools pass all points on the checklist. They must always improve.”

Eager to make the most of my day in Addis, I made my way to the Piazza, the famed street in the centre of the capital city, with no particular plan; soon enough, however, I was beckoned over by Abel, a larger-than-life self-acclaimed reggae artist, and Solomon, who was more into hip-hop, and often found himself at the butt of Abel’s jokes.

“We like white people because we weren’t colonised by them,” Abel half-joked, winking at me. They were very proud of their Ethiopian heritage, particularly of the fact that Ethiopia was the only country to avoid to violence of colonialism: “We are strong!!! We chucked them out!!!” Through their words and actions, as I had already experienced throughout my short time in Ethiopia up until then, they reiterated the Ethiopian culture of respect of warmth towards foreigners.

We sat in the Piazza all afternoon, drinking St. George’s beer and eating injera. Abel was a clearly popular man as many people greeted him as they walked past, particularly women; he pointed to each one as an example of how the Ethiopian women are the most beautiful in the world, urging me to find one and take one home.

I got lost on the way back to Tesfa’s, drunk, happy, and sleepy.