Roads Change

The city is not sanitary by western standards. Addis Ababa is littered with plastic water bottles, food rappers, and discarded rags. The blue taxis and mini-busses belch leaded fumes, creating an ashy shroud over the city. Raw meat hangs in open windows; butchers carve off bits for passers by. The patrons make small talk as they wait.  Everyone always smiles.

The driver points to one of the men carving beef with a dull knife. “That cow was probably slaughtered less than an hour ago.” It is only 5:45 in the morning. “Ah,” I drawl. I watch the meat marinate in soot and fumes and hope that, in the end, everything cooks clean.

We drive through chipped concrete streets and rusty tin roof developments to the outskirts of the city. There are new office parks and the streets are blacked with a new layer of asphalt. We cross the Awash river and head toward Sodo, that city that lies deep in the mountain country.  The driver tells me that the Chinese have been repaving all of the highways in Ethiopia and I nod knowingly. I have seen their flag flying high over the country side. The driver says that the Chinese have been good for Ethiopia, that they have made the roads navigable again. I wonder if he knows the exchange rate.

The mountain country is awash in green. Enset and coffee mark the fertile soil. A man follows behind an ox drawn plough. He stops and talks to a woman in the field and they double over in laughter. We pass his farm and draw into the next town. Men walk hand in hand or arm in arm. Women set up roadside stands and swap stories. There is a tenderness in this country that is liberating. A familiarity that is quiet but resonant.

The driver smiles and pulls a cd from his case. We listen as that Arkansas accent booms, “hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” This land seems so far from Reno or Ira Hayes, but I know that development is inching across the countryside. I know that newly paved roads create arterial pathways for the passing of viruses. I see the electric lines beginning to stretch south. We head toward coffee country and I wonder what will become of these farmers, of the pastoralists in the southwest. All that is beautiful and vibrant is destined for change. I smell it in the tar.

We fall of the ridge into a small community with a beautiful hotel and a burgeoning middle class. It is well manicured and class warfare hides down back alleys where the people eat njira and chew chatt to take the edge off of their hunger. The prison is perched on the down slope of a hill. It’s walls are tall punji sticks, perhaps eucalyptus. Yards away sits the local Catholic school. Girls wander up and down the roads in royal blue uniforms.

The people here are beautiful. They laugh and kick makeshift soccer balls in the open spaces. We pull over and the children run to hold our hands. They call us “forenge” and ask us for money. We politely decline and they laugh. We become like pied pipers, moving from soccer field to ping pong match. It’s a hospitable culture.  Really.

The roads through Ethiopia are changing, and maybe the winds are too. The tar fumes are sweeping in from the east and I wonder how much farm land will be left when it’s all said and done. I wonder how much the culture will be forced to change, how much will be traded for development, for progress. It’s an unanswerable question, so I put my hand on the driver’s shoulder and say simply, “thanks for driving us down here. It’s a nice place.”

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21 Responses to Roads Change

  1. Mike Rusch says:

    Feels like I’m there again…

  2. Lora Lynn says:

    Welcome home.

    I wonder if the key doesn’t lie in who brings the progress. We saw the same issue in Uganda. There was a great pride in the progress made by locals but they were more embarrassed/frustrated by the progress made by outside investors. It was always a disruption to their way of life, somehow. And just as soon as I think I understand, I realize I probably have no idea what I’m talking about… Africa is humbling, isn’t it?

    • sethhaines says:

      It’s very complicated. I asked many different people about the progress and the responses were very mixed. All were grateful for the roads and infrastructure. However, most were a bit miffed at the ultimate price and the feel of colonialization. It was very interesting.

      And yes, it is humbling. I’m not sure that there’s any easy answer.

      Thanks for stopping in here, LL. You and yours are genuinely good folks.

  3. Amber says:

    I love it, Seth. I knew you’d come home with some present-tense Ethiopia all over you. I love the questions you ask.

    It makes me think of even here, or the home I grew up with. In Alabama before TVA, people were hungry and cold, but some of the beautiful old ways that they lived were erased. There’s always a trade, I guess.

    And you’re not even saying that here, are you? Some people are getting along just fine, it sounds like. It’s just different.

  4. Kaitlin says:

    You mentioned the men walking hand in hand or arm in arm…it made me think of Uganda. That was one of my favorite things, the complete affection the people have for one another, and even for us, welcomed outsiders. The hospitality is overwhelming and beautiful…I miss it.

    • sethhaines says:

      Did it feel odd the first time someone randomly grabbed your hand and walked with you down the street? The immediate discomfort made me feel ashamed.

      And… btw… I know where you can find that hospitality.

  5. Brittany Tomaszewski says:

    You make it sound like home instead of an unfamiliar country. Good words.

  6. Oooh, so nicely done, Seth. This is the tension of all of life – writ large on the African continent, isn’t it? Change is inevitable, but… Where will it come from? Who will orchestrate it? What will be lost in the process? Yes, Africa is humbling. Been 44 years since I lived there and that is still true.

  7. Ashley says:

    Makes me long to be where I know you got to walk…thanks for painting this picture for me and all of us who didn’t get to go. I will certainly cherish your family more because you walked this road with us. And I am humbled at God’s goodness to us that comes through Ethiopia.

  8. Jennifer says:

    My love for this place, these people, and of course your driver is beyond words. So glad you got to experience a part of heart.

  9. Hey-O! Just a wee “welcome home” from the east coast {pseudo} relations. 🙂


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