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Addis Gratitudes

Last night, I spent a couple of hours catching up with a friend I had not seen in about eight years. This friend, together with a colleague was in Addis in order to attend a workshop. During our evening together, both women who are from Boston in the US, repeatedly commented on how much they like our city. I took the women home for dinner with my family, and they raved about the home-baked injera with the home-prepared Shiro which we joked is sourced conveniently from the family store – my mother’s house which is a walking distance. At the end of the evening and with children were finally in bed, I wanted to show my friends a side of Addis they had not experienced and took them to a nice, upscale bar in Bole. We parked on a side street and we, three women out alone, were able to spend a couple of hours in relative safety, undisturbed in our conversation and sharing polite banter with men we did not know. When I finally dropped off my friends at their hotel and made my way home at around midnight, I was grateful for my friends’ reminder that there is a lot to like about my city.

Now before you roll your eyes and start counting off all that\’s wrong with our city-home: increasingly intolerable levels of pollution, unmanageable traffic, roads that get clogged in Kiremt because irresponsible people stuff drains with Khat, worrying levels of inequality, unchecked abuse of power and an alarming spread in violence, let me just state, I KNOW! And I could probably out-complain any of you. Some problems I am worried about more than others – as a gender equality activist, I obviously pay attention to the ways in which gender relations continue to change in Addis. Setaweet colleagues and I theorize that traditional notions of manliness – Wondinet – which are imbued with aggressiveness intersect with an increasing sense of hopelessness in which 40% of the urban population, mostly male, is estimated to be unemployed. It upsets me to see the deterioration in quality in health and education services, and people are often surprised when I tell them that I developed asthma two years ago (as the illness usually starts in childhood) – an onset in adulthood is a clear indication of the polluted environment I live in.  More than the health of my family and myself, I despair at the erosion of values that once characterized Ethiopianness, including respect for elders, honesty and generosity. Almost more than anything else, it bothers me that questioning norms and authority, let alone fighting for our beliefs seems like a dying art.

But this blog is not about what bothers me about my home city, it’s about what my guests reminded me is still to love. On a personal level, I am grateful every day that I live in a place that smells, feels and looks like home. Whenever I have lived outside Ethiopia, in the words of Ani diFranco, ‘I had missed this time zone.’ There were times I found life easier but it could never be complete until I came home to Addis. Now, settled back home and as a married mother of young kids, I’m grateful that I can push them in a stroller to my mother’s house, my brother’s house and my best friend’s house. I love that my son was weaned on teff genfo and that my daughter eats Shiro every day. I love living where I look like everyone else. I love that I never have to go through a day without the smell of injera freshly baked on a mitad and that even the furious pace of modernization has not squeezed out the slow tradition of Bunna – if desperate enough, I can park my car in any street corner and easily join the conversation of a group of strangers brought together by the promise of a soul-warming sini of Ethiopian coffee.

I admire the fact that despite real poverty, Ethiopians often find a lot to laugh about. My guests were right, we are generally a friendly and welcoming people. Even our pride, which is often mistaken for arrogance has its value. Much has been written about the beauty of Ethiopians and that often makes people watching a pleasant way to spend an idle afternoon. Most Ethiopians are highly religious and the tradition of taking care of one’s own often saves us from disaster. More diverse than much bigger countries in terms of languages, cultures and religions, I am proud that we have co-existed, mostly peacefully, for millennia. Looking at a lovingly embroidered Harari basket, an ancient silver cross from Tigrai or the striking colors of a Dorze scarf, you could not tell we are poor. We are a people who like our own expressions and poetry and theatre always enjoyed an immense following, even in our darkest days. My visiting friends were amazed when I told them that in Addis Cinemas, Ethiopian movies do better than films from Hollywood.

Despite the frightening increase in violence experienced by women and children, Addis remains a relatively safe city, particularly for those of us lucky enough to operate in the nicer parts of the city. Even poor people give alms to those poorer than them. When I have found myself short of cash at the cashier’s , the answer is invariably, ‘Chigir Yelem.’ While driving, I don’t mind getting lost which I do at least once a month, because I am never truly lost here, just exploring angles of my city I did not know before. However, if you insist that I tell you the one thing that I love the most about this home-city of ours, it would have to be that here, people are SEEN. Ethiopians, being curious people, have a way of reminding you that you’re alive. I feel like my kids are validated here – by the waitress who offers to hold my son so that I can drink my macchiato in peace, and by the strangers who will take time to ask ‘Mita’ her name and to tease her a little. When you are seen and heard and validated, you feel like you belong. My friends did not put it that way but perhaps it is this very real sense of validation that they liked so much about our Adu-Genet, our imperfectly perfect home-city.