On our second day here, we drove to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in an attempt to look at a house for rent. (We’ve since found a house in a great neighborhood, very centrally located between the University where I work and the kids’ school, rented by a wonderful family who live in the same compound.) The house we say that day was in an area called Shero Meda. To get there you drive about two miles from our current house, past the University, past the US embassy, past a market area where traditional clothes are sold and part way up Entoto Mountain. To get to the area you pass through several different kinds of neighborhoods and wind up in a place that feels more like a village than a city. There were herds of sheep. It was green.
Observing the range of shops and houses that we passed, Yona, my nine year old, commented that it was so interesting that “people use pieces of junk and stuff” to build houses, buildings and fences. His tone was curious and admiring. He was mostly referring to the combination of corrugated metal (sometimes in rusted scraps, sometimes in new sheets), sticks (mostly Eucalyptus stalks), plastic bags and bits of wood, which can serve as materials to build whole houses, fences around houses, latrines, kitchens, shops or other structures. I pointed out that these are not just “bits and pieces of junk” but instead “bits and pieces of useful things.”
Later on, after that conversation, Sami, my five year old, made a comment on how the “bits and pieces of useful things” were being used in a construction site. Sticks and trunks of Eucalyptus trees are used as scaffolding and corrugated metal is used cordon off construction areas. This makes the sight of these bits and pieces of useful things something that the children see everywhere. For our first week or two here, “bits and pieces of useful things” became our refrain as we drove around Addis in a vintage, blue and white Toyota taxi. Noticing the ways that these “bits and pieces” were used became a favorite activity for the kids.
On our fourth or fifth day here I took the kids for a long walk. I believe that most people (including most Addis Ababa natives) would probably think I was completely nuts totake kids on a walk…just for fun. The walk was not particularly dangerous, but walking itself is precarious here, so small children typically stay home while adults run errands, unless one doesn’t have a choice. People don’t seem to take their children on walks for fun. But I’ve always been a little odd, I like walking, I can’t stand feeling like I have to wait for a car to take me everywhere, and I think it’s a good idea to get the kids out each day, to get familiar with where they live, so we went off for a walk. We passed many beggars, at least one of whom growled at us (the kids didn’t notice). We passed a whole row of furniture makers/ sellers one of whom called out ‘South Africa!’ to Yona who was wearing a South African soccer jersey. We passed a car dealership and a very crowded market area selling everything from flooring to pillows to kitchen wares and vegetables. We repeatedly had to walk around flooring material, which was being rolled out, measured and cut on the narrow, crowded sidewalk. The kids learned to adeptly jump over quite a few holes in the ground (Addis doesn’t generally have open sewers, but frequently the road or sidewalk hasn’t been maintained well so there are large gaping holes in them and, of course, sewers below). I had to remind them to maintain a constantly vigilant eye for traffic, which follows few rules except for ‘the biggest and quickest has the right of way.”
During our first week here, we went to the tailor to have the kids measured for their school uniforms. The tailor that the school recommended was located near what is often thought of as one of the more posh neighborhoods in Addis, the place where high quality restaurants, shopping malls and burger places are abundant. However, the tailor was located off a main road , away from the glossy store fronts, down a small dirt track barely large enough for our small taxi to turn around, and inside a compound with a corrugated metal door framed with wood beams. There was a latrine to the right as we entered the narrow compound which gave off a pungent smell. There were chickens.
Yona noticed a group of children near his age in the alleyway as we entered the tailor. Later on, he told me about a “prank” he observed them pulling on our taxi. They were blowing up a juice box, filling it with air and then placing it behind the taxi’s wheels to make us think we had a flat tire. He even noticed that the children moved their home-made balloon from the front to the back of the taxi when they realized which direction we were going. Unfortunately, and to Yona’s disappointment, it didn’t work as they planned and we drove away “unpranked.” To children a juice box is a very useful thing and has many uses, which I would never have noticed or known about if not for my oldest child.
Also during our first week here, we were running errands in my husband’s relative’s vintage taxi (which our children have dubbed “T’s famous taxi.”) At one point, the kids and I were stuck sitting in the taxi while my husband tried to get my i-phone properly unlocked at a roadside stand. We happened to be sitting next to a line for a “route taxi.” The route taxis are taxi-minibuses which are the typical public transportation for most people here. They are similar to forms of transportation throughout much of the continent. In Addis, people line up in an orderly way for a coveted spot in the taxi mini-bus, but the lines are often quite long. As we waited, the people in the line entertained my kids, who were weary of waiting, and vice versa. A succession of people played peekaboo with Sami while teenaged boys selling things kept trying to get Yona to buy gum. When we eventually pulled away, Yona was very concerned about these gum-sellers and wanted to know if they were “very poor.” I told him that they probably were, in fact, very poor. He didn’t seem to want to believe that the young men he’d built a rapport with were “very poor.” “I don’t think they are very poor, mommy,” he said, “because they seem to be happy and smiling.”
We live in a very nice, safe, quiet neighborhood, but there really are no elite bubbles in Addis (unlike the United States)— no affluent neighborhood where you can forget that you are in an enormous city that is home to somewhere between four and eight million people, many of them “very poor.” Unlike many large African cities there are neither enormous, isolated “slums” in Addis nor exclusively rich neighborhoods. All neighborhoods are mixed income and have everything from beggars and squatters to modest houses to enormous villas. There are no neighborhoods that have regular trash pick up. There are no neighborhoods that don’t have potholes, dirt lanes and open gutters on the side of the road. We have everything we need here—bars and butchers and pharmacies, a grocery where we can get a few luxury items like cornflakes and American-style peanut butter and wine, a baker that makes great bread and the best lentil samosas I’ve ever tasted. We live in a great place, but there is no sheltering our children from the realities of life here.
We live in a comfortable house with a beautiful flower garden and a little slice of a view of the mountains. We live in a compound with our landlord and lady, their grandson who is our kids’ age and has become a great playmate of theirs, and the young women who work for them. It is fairly typical for people to rent the main part of the their house to foreigners or others who can pay ferenge (foreigner) prices while the owners move into the service quarters in the back. In the face of economic uncertainty and the rising price of everything, the additional income is always desired, if not needed. This, I think, is not so different from life at home.
Over the last week, the kids have stopped talking about “bits and pieces of useful things.” I think their eyes have adjusted to the site of corrugated metal and Eucalyptus stalks and makeshift structures. They do have many questions about poverty wanting to know if and why Addis has so many “very poor” people. I don’t have any good answers, but this seems to be on the minds of many who live here.