18 June 2012
I’m sitting outside the Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. According to the paper I read over coffee this morning, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa (with some 82 million people), and has the fifth fastest growing economy in the world. Addis is on a high plateau some 7700 feet up, and it’s chilly here.
The hotel is the oldest in Ethiopia, and is named after the Empress Taitu, who led a force of cannoneers against Italian invaders in the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
Ethiopia is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. In the 19th Century, when the European scramble for Africa subjected most of this vast continent to colonial rule, Ethiopia dealt the Italian invaders a humiliating defeat and maintained its independence. The Italians invaded again under Mussolini, and occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936-1941) before getting kicked out by the British, who restored Emperor Halie Selassie to the throne. Though Selassie was considered the second coming of the Messiah by Rastafarians, he was deposed by the Derg, who took over in 1974 and ruled Ethiopia as a People’s Republic until the end of the Cold War.
At the airport yesterday, we didn’t find the car the hotel had sent for us, so Tyler haggled with taxi drivers in Amharic. Our luggage didn’t all fit in the small car, so the driver tied my suitcases to the luggage rack on top of his car. Driving through the city felt much like driving through other African capitals in some ways, though very different in other ways. With about 3 million people, Addis is similar in size to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Like those cities, the winding roads are crowded with taxis, minivans, and people. The streets are lined with small shops with brightly colored signs. But here most signs are written in Amharic, which uses its own alphabet, based on the writing system for Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ge’ez has a longer history as a written language than English, with some early inscriptions dating back to the 5th century BC.
The Ge’ez script has roots in common with Hebrew and Arabic, but doesn’t look very much like either, and all the signs in these odd, lovely letters make clear that we’re in a different world now. I’ve been trying to learn the script, and spent time on the plane copying out whatever phrases I could find. Each letter represents a syllable rather than a consonant or vowel. With 33 consonants and 7 vowels, there are 231 different letters to learn, but they vary in a sort of systematic way. Syllables that start with “m,” for example, all have a pair of circles connected by a horizontal line, like a set of spectacles. If the spectacles are unadorned, the syllable is “mä.” If the spectacles have a handle on the right, like a lorgnette, then it’s the syllable “ma.”
At the airport, on the city streets, many different sorts of people mill about. Some people have jet-black skin, and look like they could be from southern Sudan or Uganda, while most others have lighter brown skin and narrow noses. Ethiopia is a diverse country, with many different languages and peoples, and stands at a crossroads between Africa and Arabia. At the hotel, some of the visitors are dressed in long white gowns and Arab headdresses.
After checking in, Tyler and I walked through the city for a while to get our bearings. Our hotel is in the Palazzo neighborhood, with many old buildings dating to the Italian occupation. Before we had gone fifty feet from the hotel, a young man called to me – “Hey, are you looking for something? I can sell you my sister.” At a street intersection not much further along, small children reached up to touch my hand, begging for money. A pair of vultures circled high overhead, and a pile of garbage smoldered on the street. The city air was hazy and acrid, smelling of diesel fumes and burning garbage. Further down, shiny new office buildings stood on wide, smoothly paved streets. Buildings under construction arose in a framework of scaffolding made of roughly lashed together saplings. At the intersection of two major streets stood a huge bore cannon that was fired once, cracking the barrel.
There are a few tourists here, and I saw one white United Nations car, but the place generally feels off the beaten track. We drank excellent coffee in a small café, and ate delicious local food for lunch and dinner at the hotel: spongy injera flatbread with different sauces, vegan for lunch and meaty for dinner. After dinner went to the hotel’s jazz club to see a local band playing straight-ahead American jazz-funk – songs including Stolen Moments, Footprints, and Freedom Jazz Dance. What a country!