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Potholes and puddles in Africa’s loftiest capital city

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Addis post boxes
Addis post boxes
Amharic script at Lalibela
Amharic script at Lalibela
Anyone for a cucumber?
Anyone for a cucumber?
A rare traffic-free picture of Addis
A rare traffic-free picture of Addis
A rather typical roadside scene in Ethiopia
A rather typical roadside scene in Ethiopia
Artwork in Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Gondar
Artwork in Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Gondar
A wall-eating tree in Gondar
A wall-eating tree in Gondar
Bole Road, one of Addis Ababa's main thouroughfares
Bole Road, one of Addis Ababa's main thouroughfares
British telephone box at the Sheraton hotel in Addis
British telephone box at the Sheraton hotel in Addis
Bus stop sign in Addia
Bus stop sign in Addia
Colours of Lalibela
Colours of Lalibela
DHL delivery
DHL delivery
Fasilides' castle at Gondar
Fasilides' castle at Gondar
Fruit stall in Addis
Fruit stall in Addis
Giant Coca Cola bottle on Bole Road
Giant Coca Cola bottle on Bole Road
Gunge in Addis
Gunge in Addis
Lalibela's rock-hewn Church of Saint George
Lalibela's rock-hewn Church of Saint George
Local clothing store in Addis
Local clothing store in Addis
Medieval Gondar
Medieval Gondar
Pepsi sign
Pepsi sign
Skyline of Addis
Skyline of Addis
Tasty Saint George beer
Tasty Saint George beer
The faithful resting in the shade
The faithful resting in the shade
The famous rock-hewn Church of Saint George in Lalibela
The famous rock-hewn Church of Saint George in Lalibela
The newly opened Addis Ababa Light Rail
The newly opened Addis Ababa Light Rail
This is as good as pavements get in Ethiopia!
This is as good as pavements get in Ethiopia!
Village housing in Lalibela
Village housing in Lalibela

To anyone in the West who was alive during the mid-1980s, when you think of Ethiopia you probably think of Bob Geldof and the millions who were affected by the famine which hit the country between 1983 and 1985. I certainly remember TV interviews of Geldof ranting down the camera lens and Queen stealing the show at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. And who can forget the classic song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’? In fact, I believe that was the first single I ever bought! Even if you weren’t around at the time my point is still the same – that many people are surprised to know that Ethiopia is not one big desert with endless miles of parched and cracked earth.

When I landed in the capital Addis Ababa (locally referred to as Addis) I was met, not with a scorching sun, but a wet and chilly afternoon to rival any damp and miserable London spring day. Not a baked piece of desert in sight. That is because the Ethiopian capital is actually at an altitude of 2355 metres, making it the highest capital city in Africa and the fifth highest in the world. The record temperature in the city is a mere 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) and I don’t think I saw anything other than cloud during my stay.

Although by no means the largest or most populated, Addis is one of the most important cities on the African continent and often referred to as Africa’s political capital. It’s home to the African Union headquarters and the UN Economic Commission for Africa and therefore a large number of foreign diplomats reside in the city. Many of these diplomats live to the south east of the city centre in the Bole area. This is where I was based but despite hoping for tree lined avenues (which are common in expat suburbs of many African cities) all I found were potholes and puddles. Addis is quite a sprawling city and despite it’s ‘African political capital’ moniker, it’s certainly not a pretty city.

There’s a lot of poverty visible, even when walking along the Bole Road where many of the supermarkets visited by expats are located. It’s also nigh on impossible to venture out on to the streets without one of the many street children trying to strike up a conversation with you. Even after a swift rebuff many of them will trail you for miles. They’re friendly enough and not at all threatening but it can wear you down after a while when you’re trying to be on the lookout for all things ‘expatriate suitable’. I even left the pavement (if you can call it that) and went into a supermarket for over an hour and one young guy was still there waiting for me afterwards.

The supermarket that I visited was Bambis, a shop that every expatriate in Addis Ababa knows. Knowing before my visit that it was popular with relatively wealthy foreigners I was rather surprised when I walked in to find a fairly small and unassuming two storey shop with unexpectedly limited choices of international brands. No Heinz ketchup, no Danone yoghurts, no Barilla pasta, no Uncle Ben’s rice. In fact, I was disappointed in the choice of international brands in all of the supermarkets in Addis. Considering Ethiopia is the second most populated country on the continent (with over a 100 million people) one would expect a better choice of foreign goods. Apparently, the likes of Spar, Shoprite and Nakumatt, which are popular African supermarket chains throughout the continent, have not been allowed to set up business by the Ethiopian government. Furthermore, there are often very high import tariffs imposed on many international goods.

In a different supermarket (which shall remain nameless) I had a rather surreal experience the day after my visit to Bambis. Power cuts are not unusual in many parts of Africa and I’ve found myself in a few unexpected situations as a result of them (being plunged into darkness for ten minutes mid-shower whilst in Guinea-Bissau springs to mind). On this occasion, I found myself in darkness in a supermarket aisle sandwiched between nappies and lipstick. Often back-up generators will kick in within a few seconds but this time there was nothing. I had no option but to just stand there for fear of sending a whole shelf and its contents crashing to the ground. It was pitch black outside too, except for a very slight glow seeping its way to me at the back of the shop. Enough of a glow to see the cockroaches scuttling around my feet!

As well as Ethiopia’s shopping environment being less than impressive, the country still lags behind much of the continent in terms of connectivity. The World Bank has suggested that fewer than 4% of households have a fixed-line telephone. In this list of 71 countries it has the third worst mobile phone connectivity, ahead of only Cuba and North Korea. The World Bank also suggests that less than 3% of Ethiopia’s population have access to broadband. 

It’s not all doom and gloom though. At the turn of the century, Ethiopia was second from bottom of the United Nation’s global Human Development Index list, with only Niger below it. However, it has since risen to 174th out of 188 with 14 nations below it in 2015. Last year it also recorded the highest real GDP growth rate of any country in Africa, at 8.7%. There are also several ambitious infrastructure projects in the pipeline, not least the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project on the Blue Nile River, which is due to be completed next year.

Due to Addis being rather glum during my visit, I’ve included some more interesting snaps from my trip to the towns of Lalibela and Gondar in the north of Ethiopia


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ECA publishes reports and calculators which enable employers to work out location allowances which place a value on the difficulty that may be experienced by expatriates and their families in adjusting to a new location.

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