Already I’ve given you five good reasons why you should love Addis Ababa. Now I’m going to give you another five:
(1) You get to ride on line taxis. Line taxis (I’ve read that some people call them “blue donkeys,” but never heard anyone use that term) are, as I said, a convenient and inexpensive way to get around Addis Ababa. Most rides cost either 1 birr 30 cents (7 US cents/ 4 British pence) or 2 birr 70 cents (15 US cents or 9 UK pence). I travel 4 miles or so to work and back every day for less than a total of 50 US cents. Line taxis are minivans with sliding doors on one side; they hold maybe 12 to 15 people. Most of them are blue and white and are easy to identify, and there are hundreds of them on the roads, weaving in and out of traffic. They have a conductor, usually a young man or boy, who pops his head out of the window or gets off at stops and shouts the name of the destination. When I first arrived I had no idea what the conductors were saying, because they speak so rapidly. I’ve heard there is someone who holds the Guinness Book of Records title of the Fastest Speaker in the World, but I swear that you will find, among those line taxi conductors, more than one of them who could easily beat that record.
Well, when I first arrived in Addis I was afraid to take any line taxi. I’m not sure why. Someone had told me there were pickpockets on them; and maybe I was concerned about being self-conscious as a conspicuous foreigner; then there was the fear of getting on the wrong line taxi and ending up lost in a strange new country. I spent a week avoiding them before I realised I couldn’t possibly walk an hour to work and back every day, so I took the plunge and started using them. Now I’m addicted, and I look forward every day to my line taxi trips. Every one of them is an experience and I haven’t had my pockets picked at all.
So what’s so wonderful about squeezing into a packed line taxi for an hour every day, bumping your head half the time when you get on or off, having sometimes to squat on a small wooden block 3 inches off the floor if there’s no room on the real seats, or scrambling with six or seven other people, aiming to be the lucky one who gets on when a line taxi approaches with room for just one more? I can only say that my experiences with line taxis combine learning about Ethiopia, Ethiopians and Ethiopian culture, having simple yet poignant human interactions that are precious and noticeably less common in western society, getting to see street life and scenes of Addis through the window, and picking up new words of written and spoken Amharic.
Line taxis have had such an impact on me that I’m going to dedicate a future post entirely to them. For now, I’ll describe two experiences from my eight line taxi trips of yesterday and today: I change line taxis on the way to work and on the way back, so I take 4 trips a day. Yesterday I scrambled onto one and was directed to the back seat, where I sat next to a woman in her 30s who had her daughter, who I’d guess was about two, on her knee. Although I understood nothing they were saying, the child was curious about everything she saw outide and inside, and mom was obviously trying to answer her queries. Who among you who’ve had kids remembers that Phase of Curiosity they go through when they constantly ask “Why?” “How?” “Who?” “When?” “What?” “Why?” “Because, Sweetheart, that’s just how it is,” you sometimes answered, didn’t you? “But why?” was the response. My daughters, Etty and Sasha, both spent many months during that inquisitive period of their tothood. I smiled as the little girl pointed at everything in sight, while her mother patiently answered the best way she could. After a few minutes, Princess Precious turned her head around, noticed me, and laughed as I gave her a big smile. She turned away timidly, then looked back, giggling at me as I said, “Boo!” and we repeated this game ten or twenty times. I surmised that the Amharic word for “Boo!” must sound like “Boo!” and I guess it might be written as ቡው!. Grinning mom looked as if she was pleased to be relieved of trying to answer every question about Existence. As a result of this simple human interaction, I smiled all the way from getting off my line taxi to arriving at my office.
This evening, one of the line cabs I was taking waited at a stop for 5 or 10 minutes, while the boy conductor shouted the destination at lightning speed, aiming to get a full house. I was again on the back seat, this time by the window on the side where passengers get on and off. The back window was slightly open. A poor young lady with deep, enticing eyes that commanded compassion and spoke silently and humanly, and who was carrying a sleepy baby on her back, approached the window, cupping her hands out for a donation. I gave her a sympathetic smile and nodded that I was sorry, I couldn’t give her anything. I watched her do the same thing with four or five other people, without any success, then she caught me looking at her empathetically, and again came up to the window, her hands outstretched. I gave in and pushed a meagre banknote, which-believe me- was not even remotely generous of me, into her hands through the open gap in the window. She nodded appreciatively, looked up and smiled gratefully at The One in the heavenly sky who truly, unconditionally and eternally loves her, then walked away, her baby gently bouncing up and down with every delicate step that her mom took.
2) You get to learn Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. As I mentioned previously, written Amharic is based on “consonant-sound” combinations that make up a syllabary, which is akin to an alphabet but has well over two hundred characters. The more you mingle among Ethiopian people, the better you learn this fascinating and elegant language. Like a child, I’m learning the “alphabet” syllabary slowly. I look frequently at street signs, food and drink labels, posters, and stickers on the walls and windows of line taxis, carefully trying to pronounce the words. I listen to locals speaking, and I ask, when I’m in stores or cafes, for the shopkeeper or waiter to pronounce the word for biscuit or milk or potato for me. If I know an Amharic phrase or word, I practice it, encouraging feedback as praise or correction. Many shop signs have both Amharic and English words together, equivalent to an Amharic-English dictionary, with instant translation. I translated the sounds of characters from the word ባዩኼሚስትሪ that was on the letter-head of an official Biochemistry Department document where I work, to find thrillingly that is was, Ba-yu-ke-mi-se-te-ri.
So that’s another reason to love Addis Ababa, at least if you’re a foreigner: you get the chance to learn first hand an new, inspiring, fascinating language, from the best teachers of all- local Ethiopians. And what better way to learn it than to live and breathe among wonderful people who smile when they hear you speak Amharic and are always patient and willing to help you improve.
3) Great climate. There are thirteen months of the year in the Ethiopian calendar: twelve months each with 30 days and a final “month” with five days, or six in a leap year. Addis Ababa can therefore claim to be a capital city with “thirteen months of sunshine.” During the four weeks since I arrived, it has been sunny and warm every day, with lovable temperatures bewteen 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit daily, and with just a few hours of rain in total so far. I left England after nine months of rain and floods during one of the wettest years there on record, so it was a welcome change, though I confess I do miss the occasional thunderstorm or shower. There is a rainy season, though, in Addis, between June and September, during which, I’m told, it can get pretty muddy and wet, but I’ll take that when it comes. Even then, there is, I believe, plenty of sunshine between downpours. At the moment, between 6.30pm when it gets dark and 8 am, it can be very cold in Addis Ababa. Fortunately, although my home doesn’t have the luxury of heating, the three woolly blankets on my bed provided by VSO are more-than-adequately warm and cosy and these cold nights bother me only insofar as they make getting out of bed something I reluctantly want to do. I’d say I’m very lucky to have cool nights and sunny days pretty much all year round. Will I miss snow because we’ll have none at all this or any other winter? Oh sure I will, but nothing is perfect, and I’ll take the near-ideal climate of Addis combined with its other plusses any day.
4) You get to realise how lucky you are. There are many areas of Addis that are luxurious, with some splendid marble buildings and high-class homes. But there are also many poor areas and some aspects of life that people who live in western countries might find inconvenient. For example, toilet paper is not generally flushed down the toilet, at least in the areas where I live and work; it’s dropped into a waste bucket for disposal. Initially this was difficult for me to deal with, but with time it has become just a minor inconvenience, and it saves having to deal with blocked plumbing. In any case, what’s the difference between dropping the paper into a bin and dropping it into the toilet bowl? Also, I carry toilet paper with me in case any toilets I use don’t have it, again a minor issue.
There have been more than a few power cuts in Addis since I arrived here, happily lasting usually just minutes, though we did have one in our home that lasted three hours last week. In any case, it can be fun to use candles: it reminds me of the blackouts we had when I was an adolescent in Yorkshire in the 1960s and 1970s, during workers’ strikes. We kids enjoyed them, happily terrifying each other to death in the dark, maneuvering our hands to cast wavering silhouettes of witches onto our bedroom wall, projected by flickering candles that reminded us eerily of how people must have lived every night during the 18th and earlier centuries. We even had a few power cuts, caused by storms, when I lived in St Louis in the USA, when my daughters, Sasha and Etty, were young, and I enjoyed playfully frightening them with the same shadow puppet demons and scary stories that my brothers, sister and I had told to one another during those childhood power cuts.
Occasionally there have been cuts in water supplies through our taps, but again these haven’t been as bothersome as you might imagine. Our VSO house has a water storage tank and this keeps us going when there is a problem with the water supply. I have a shower with hot water and although it trickles rather than flows, it is adequate, and encourages me to pay extra special attention to personal hygiene and cleanliness.
I think of the excesses that many people have in the world, yet they often don’t enjoy or appreciate them; I’m reminded of how there is so much strife for monetary wealth. To quote the words of my mother, a kind woman who never had much material wealth, and who would give the last penny in her purse to a needy neighbour, “You didn’t bring any money with you into the world and you’re not going to take any with you when you leave.”
Sure, terrible poverty does not breed happiness, but then material excess is not the key either. Somewhere bewteen the two extremes, betwixt the Havenots and Havelots, there is a place where the Havegots dwell with contentedness, tolerance, a sense of belonging, camraderie, humour, compassion and humanity, without greed, prejudice, vindictiveness, misguided strife, animosity or arrogance; where the true Jewels of Life are valued; where there is no greed or selfish exploitation of others, and where the goal for everyone to make life better for everybody else. Knowledge, Humility and Humanity constitute the currency that makes people truly rich, and the more of these they have and spend, the wealthier they, their children and the society around them become.
Ethiopia continues to be a country whose government supports development and programmes to improve the lives of its people, and it has a fast-growing economy. Construction projects are happening all over Addis. My life as a VSO volunteer here is not one of great luxury, but I have well enough, and I am thrilled, and so lucky to be here working and teaching in the Medical School as part of a programme aimed at transferring my knowledge and skills, and living in this vibrant city. Any inconveniences are surmountable and can even be turned into pleasant memories.
5) It’s inexpensive! You can live in Addis without breaking the bank. As I said, you can travel all over the city on line taxis and see the sights, or simply enjoy the rides, for less than a dollar a day. You can buy healthy food cheaply in local stores and practice your Amharic. A kilo of mangoes, guavas, tomatoes, carrots, advocados, plums, potatoes, oranges or whatever fruit or vegetable you care to name, costs no more than a US dollar. Eggs cost less than a dollar for half a dozen, and they are exquisite.
I did notice that local shops sell two types of egg: large ones, which are usually brown and smaller ones, which are usually white. The smaller ones are more egg-shaped. I asked a shopkeeper what the difference was between them. “These eggs,” she said, pointing to the bigger, rounder ones, “are Ferenji eggs, and the others are Habesha eggs.” “Ferenji” means “foreigner.” “Habesha,” broadly speaking, refers to a “pure” Ethiopian (or Eritrean), although I believe it can be used more specifically to refer to certain ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Ferenji eggs, she said, come from Ferenji chickens, and Habesha eggs from Ethiopian chickens. The Habesha eggs, are a little less expensive than Ferenji eggs and I already had some Ferenji eggs at home, so I bought six Habesha eggs. In any case, Do in Ethiopia as the Ethiopians Do has become my motto.
So, when I got home I decided to compare Habesha and Ferenji eggs side-by-side, and fried one of each in olive oil. The first thing I noticed was that the Habesha egg, though smaller, had a much deeper yellow, indeed orange, yolk, and had less egg white, than the Ferenji counterpart. Eagerly, I grabbed a knife and fork and tasted a sample of the Habesha egg, ensuring that I included both the white and the yolk. It was like sampling wines at a wine-tasting party. I chewed and savoured the sample, then did the same for the Ferenji egg white and yolk. My verdict? The Habesha egg appeared visually more pleasing because it had a richer, orange coloured yolk. Both were tasty, though different; the Ferenji egg was a little more salty. The yellow/ orange colour of egg yolk is due to natural carotenoids in plants eaten by chickens, and I gather that free-range chickens often lay eggs with a deeper coloured yolk because they have more access to various plants. Habesha (Ethiopian) chickens have the freedom to roam widely and I’ll bet the ones I see and nearly trip over every morning, happily clucking outside of my home, produce some of those Habesha eggs! Those chickens have freedom, but who knows, the Ferenji chickens might be cooped up on some farm, unable to access the varied and colourful vegetation of Addis Ababa. Since Habesha eggs are very tasty anyway, look more attractive, have more beautiful yolk, are less expensive, are true Ethiopian eggs, and since the chickens that lay them are likely to have the free range of Addis Ababa’s carotenoid-rich plant life, then I’m sticking with Habesha eggs from now on!
Back to the cost of living in Addis Ababa, you can eat a tasty main course Ethiopian injera meal in a very reasonable restaurant and have two Meta or Saint George beers to go with it for less than 4 dollars, or have a cup of the best coffee you ever tasted, along with a gigantic piece of invitingly seductive white forest cake, for less than a dollar. But if you prefer expensive food you can also have that- whatever you choose.