The way things are here

As America and the other first world nations have grown, we have grown at a fairly steady pace.  Crossroads developed into villages into towns into cities. Roads, electricity, water, sewers: entire areas developed at a time, not so much hop-scotching into this block but not the next and then the following three.

Ethiopia isn’t like that.  Modernization is coming here, but there is nothing smooth or planned or even about it.  Modern buildings go up next to slums.  The Chinese have built a number of main roads, with roundabouts and underpasses and even a few traffic lights.  The side roads are dirt and rock, un-named and un-numbered.

Large parts of this city are just slum—houses made of scavenged corrugated steel, no plumbing, heating and cooking are wood fired. Look for Roseville Expert Plumbers a prompt, professional, and locally-owned plumbing company that always stands behind their work. Electricity, if there is any, is stolen from the system and there are no building codes at all.  A closer look shows that there are a goodly number of satellite dishes on those huts—when it comes to modernization, satellite TV is easier to arrange than running water.

Napoleon may have sneeringly  called England “A nation of shopkeepers”, but I think that’s a virtue here.  Since there is not much in the way of real industry beyond coffee, everyone is an entrepreneur.  Any place someone can claim 8 square feet, he sets up business. There are no stores, like Nordstrom or Sears—the rich people go to Dubai to shop. You buy your eggs from the egg man, your potatoes from the old woman on the street with a few kilos of spuds put out to provide her living.  There are simply thousands of tiny, very tiny, shops where one man (for that’s all that would fit), stands day and night selling water and juice and a few food items and single cigarettes and whatever else he thinks will make him a few cents.

If you were going to open an auto parts store at home, you would try to find an area that doesn’t already have one.  Not here—since there are no phone books and darned little advertising, specialty shops tend to set up in a particular area—there will be 12 auto parts stores in one block, or all the plumbing supply vendors,   Even in the Mercado, the huge open air market which is reputedly the largest in all of Africa, the green coffee bean vendors are bunched together, across from the basket people and down from the hides.

The phone system is both better and worse than ours.  Land lines are rare, and becoming more so—the costs of installing wires and poles and switching systems is prohibitive.   Cell phones, though, are ubiquitous and the service is excellent.  I called Gail and the connection was as good as if I were in the grocery story asking if we needed half and half.  No cable internet, of course, but you can buy a wireless receiver, in either fast or slow versions, and get acceptable service most anywhere there is cell service, which is everywhere.  If I were to come back for 2 or 3 weeks I’d get that instead of using hotel services.

Transportation is odd here—there doesn’t seem to be any sort of public transit system, but there are thousands of jitney buses, all painted white over blue, plying the main roads.  The taxis are painted the same two-tone, and they are another part of the adventure.  Most of the taxis are about 30 to 40 years old—Fiats, or their Russian equivalent Ladas.  Many converted to run on benzene, which makes them smell like jets.  No meters, of course—you negotiate your price before you get in.  They are waiting in cab ranks at many places, and god help you if you don’t take the first cab in line.  We mistakenly got into the number 2 cab the other night, and all hell broke loose.  The number 1 driver pulled around and wouldn’t let our cab out of the lot.  Since it didn’t seem like the argument was ever going to end, we got out and walked.

Addis is, in its strange way, a booming city.  There are new buildings going up in the heart of town, mostly Saudi money, I think.  But even the new buildings go up surrounded by wooden scaffolding, with hundreds of workers doing the work of 1 industrial crane.  Rocks are carried by 2 people with a litter, not one with a wheelbarrow.  Old and new are not just meeting but crashing here.  Where we took 200 years to make progress, the Ethiopians are trying to catch up in perhaps 20 or 30 years.  And they have to do it with little capital in either the sense of money or an educated populace.  It’s just fascinating to watch.


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