Kes bi kes enkulal berg yehedal Little by little, an egg will walk (Amharic proverb)
Although I am not foreign to the idea of organized chaos, I have experienced a new caliber of such during my brief time in Addis Ababa. With a name that means “new flower” in Amharic, the air of change in the capital city is palpable. You inhale it around every cautious turn of any busy street corner, smell it in the strong yet welcomed aroma of buna (coffee) coming from tiny coffee shops, or reject it while holding your breath walking through dark exhaust clouds from the passing cars.
The city is in the midst of a big change, and everyone seemingly has a working part in its progress. Though seminars and research back in America prepped me with an understanding of the history and the rapid development here in Ethiopia, it was not until I called it home temporarily that I felt the change.
It started on the first day, when I heard outside the window what sounded like a donkey or a goat making sounds like, “oohale.” The sounds were repeated around six to eight times about five seconds apart, and they would stop until a few hours later when I would hear six more. On the ninth day, I was walking by the window conveniently during the donkey’s routine call. At this very moment I watched as a man holding a tarp sac, walked past our house shouting what I had thought for a week had been a very vocal animal. Our Amharic teacher, Mehwal, explained through tears of laughter, who these men were, and why I heard them every day. They are called quorales, and the noise I hear every day is a variation of different words meaning “scrap metal,” “mops,” “plastic scraps.” The young men walk around communities routinely chanting a poetic way of collecting scrap metal and plastic to then sell at Merkato. People hear the calls and come out from their homes if they have scraps to sell at the time. Quorales started a business by making a service accessible, coming to your front door.
The new and often disorienting sounds, smells, and sights, remove me from a place of comfort, and I find myself trying to regain my footing in a new environment (undeterred by the lethal combination of my clumsy tendencies and uneven gravel).
Each street is laden with an equal share of tiny tin-roofed homes, open-air convenience shops, clothing stores, and a few large buildings under seemingly sluggish construction. Tiny shops on side streets are metaphors of the organized chaos by which the city functions. The covered stands take up 5 foot by 5 foot parcels, with shelves stuffed from floor to ceiling with anything you could possibly need to buy, accessible and cheap. Shop owners are cramped, often working with unreliable electricity, and continue to show up to work every day with a smile on their faces.
Construction workers build under precarious conditions, climbing stairs and balancing on scaffolding held together by what looks like toothpicks from where I stand. Young boys make a business by sitting on curbs in front of scales, waiting for a passerby to pay them to find out their weight. Donkeys walk in the middle of opposing lanes of traffic, with heavy burlap sacs strapped to their backs, herded by a man with a whip.
I am experiencing a completely different kind of “commuter city” than that of Manhattan. People are constantly walking on rocky “sidewalks” and in the street, with a seemingly mutual understanding of a shared space with drivers. There seems to never be a “quiet” time in the street while the sun is still up.
There is always something going on, and always somewhere to be. As firenge (foreigners), exploring the city, we have received mixed reactions. Most people are excited for us to be here, like Shashi, the bread lady on our street, who bashfully tries to communicate with us per an equally limited foundation of one another’s languages. Like Shashi, many people are willing and often eager to try and speak in English or help us with our Amharic, and share their culture with us. Many people just stare with curiosity as we walk by, their heads whipping at the same pace as our legs, muttering “yes,” or “hello.”
Men walk together hand in hand alongside women linking arms with one another, so as not to separate in the constant flow of foot traffic. The sense of camaraderie in the country’s capital sets the tone for the culture in general. Men show their affection for their male friends without reservation. My first impressions thus far leave me feeling that the people in Addis stay close and protective over the ones they know and love, leaving a mixed batch of emotions for how they receive outsiders. Until I learn more, I will continue to drink the buna in excess, eat shiro and injeara for most meals, and refuse to pay to step on a scale.
(Left to right) Sharing Ethiopian cuisine consisting of injera bread and various wats and veggies; The view from my bedroom window.