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.”