Sunday, June 30, 2013

Farenji Returns to Habesha Land

This place has changed.

It's fascinating coming back to a country you haven't been to in a long time. You start remembering things you had forgotten. Buildings, smells, words, and views all start looking familiar again. It really is striking how much I'd forgotten in only three years.

Even more striking though, is what's new. Last time I was in Ethiopia, I stayed with a family whose only running water came out of a shared spigot in a shared makeshift compound, fenced in with corrugated metal. The bare cement walls formed only a room or two for the multiple people living there, and to bathe you needed to go catch a minibus to a public shower. Most of what I saw in Addis was like this.

But now there are five, six, or seven story buildings springing up like weeds. There's even a proper skyscraper or two built for the African Union headquarters. A foreign development company is building a municipal railway that should be completed in two years time. And that same family I stayed with is probably now in one of the public housing apartment units, about ten stories high. I won't know for sure because my host's couchsurfing profile has been removed, but it seems likely.

A great deal of this development has come from Chinese companies who import their workers, and a good amount of resentment is brewing. Partially it's because of the fact that all the jobs created are going to imported Chinese laborers instead of Ethiopians, and partially because the stuff they build... well, most of it isn't very good. It'll look great on day one, but roads for example keep falling apart or don't have enough drainage to prevent serious flooding in the rains. Generally speaking if something is falling apart or doesn't work around here, people who live here shrug and say derisively that it's probably Chinese.

I'm living next door to my 8th and 10th grade humanities teacher, Jeff, in an apartment on the campus of Hope University College. ILAE, the high school I'm interning with, shares space on campus for its offices and classrooms. It's not large, but the architecture is interesting. The school is brand new, the first class of freshman start this fall, so all of the rooms are pretty spartan. I've got a few donated world maps on their way which will help, and with any luck there will be some art classes to produce stuff as well.

It's not easy being a country with no major ports. Apparently only Djibouti has a port that does the country any good, and they capitalize on the monopoly-- things take forever to ship and don't come cheap. For example, unplanned power outages are big problem here. The college supposedly has had a generator ordered and on its way for months. Nobody knows where it is in Djibouti. But it's probably there somewhere. All the other possible port countries are either unstable, have poor relations with Ethiopia, or just don't have good roads to the country.

The result is scarcity and high prices. It was explained to me that most people here are living at more or less a subsistence level, while a wealthy elite tries to pretend the live in the west. They'll rent fancy houses with barbed wire fences, eat at western restaurants and frequent western-style nightclubs and bars.  Speaking of those restaurants, places serving pizza are surprisingly common (from what I see, local menu consensus seems to hold that a Margherita pizza has tomato sauce, mozzarella and oregano).

A local taxi driver took Jeff and I hiking up the side of a large hill for a view of the city. When we hit the summit (or as our guide, Shemeles, said when "mountain is finished"), I asked to see the other side, facing away from the city. Shemeles didn't recommend it, saying there was nothing to see. I insisted, and we walked  the twenty or so yards to the other side. We saw a wide expanse of farms and small villages. Shemeles told us that was the kind of place he had grown up.

"There? Darkness. No electricity, no education, no running water. Nothing. Only God." He said. Then he explained that people living out there in the "darkness" lived 80 or 90 years, while on the other side of the mountain, in the city, they might only reach their forties or fifties. As he put it, it was because out in the countryside, it was "clean."

As someone who is going to school this year to work in development, it's certainly food for thought. I'll expect a lot of this to evolve as my trip continues, and especially when I start teaching. Classes start tomorrow morning.

Here's an interesting one: want a different view on Ethiopia and the work of ILAE? Check out Jeff's blog, Blairabouts. He's been here for two months now, and you can get an interesting perspective on life out here and the work of the school. Check it out!
Check out this entry's Photos.

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