Keep Off the Grass: Searching For Addis Ababa’s Secret Gardens

One of the most challenging parts of being a parent in Addis Ababa is finding places for your children to run free. Many note that Addis seems to lack green spaces, but this isn’t quite right. Indeed, Addis is a city full of green. Tree filled hillsides are often in sight. Small rivers, as dense with vegetation as they are with refuse, snake through the city. And everywhere you look you see an unusual combination of palm, evergreen and eucalyptus trees. There are flowering, flowing vines and bushes and trees everywhere. You can almost always see green. But you can’t usually get to it.

This is a city of walled off spaces. There are no free public parks. There is little open space open to everyone and most of what is, is usually dusty. Most of the lovely, lush vegetation that is almost always in sight is hidden behind walls and fences and locked gates. We live down the street from the English embassy, which contains a vast garden, forest really,  backing up to the mountain. I like to walk past it, always gazing longingly through the coils of razor wire perched atop the large stone wall, at the trees looming above and wondering about the loveliness inside.

Since we arrived, I have been on a quest to find green, open spaces where my children can exude their enormous and abundant energy and somehow come close to nature. Some of my efforts have been successful. One of the first places we found was a lovely, sprawling playground across from the Hilton hotel. At 20 birr a child (a bit less than a dollar) this is quite affordable for us, but means that it is only accessible to the affluent in Addis Ababa.

We’ve also discovered that for the price of a contract taxi ride (about 150-200 birr, or 6-8 dollars) we can drive up the mountain behind the embassy and hike through the Eucalyptus forest while taking in views of the city and the farmland beyond. We often see other foreigners hiking, jogging or riding horses up there. Similarly, we can go to Entoto, in the hills above the city where Emperor Menelik’s former palace is.

Other efforts to find green spaces have been sad failures. I have poured over the map of the city in my now dog-eared guidebook and google maps, coveting anything colored green, anything that says “park.” Many of my quests have been frustrating failures. The lion zoo, near the University, is being renovated. Our efforts to find the Netsa Arts Village in Ferensay park took us on a wild goose chase in the vicinity of the French embassy only to find what looked like a lovely park behind a solid cement wall with several locked gates. I was giddy with anticipation as I glimpsed tall trees standing over the wall, expecting we would find some hidden treasure if we could only find an open door. We finally found the entrance down a rough dirt road but were told by the guard that the art village was gone and the park had been closed ever since they’d begun construction on a large building on its premises. We were not allowed to even walk through the former park, but it looked like it had been a lovely forest of gnarled ancient trees with flowering vines spilling across unpruned shrubbery.

The Ghion Hotel is one of the loveliest green spaces in the city. A former palace and present-day hotel, the Ghion is one of the most beautiful spots in the city full of manicured flower gardens bordered by towering palms. It is a popular spot for wedding pictures and during wedding seasons, a single weekend afternoon might see more than a dozen wedding parties. It also has a wide, lush, lawn. Just seeing it makes you feel like you’ve had a tall glass of cold water after being parched for days. We’ve brought the children here a couple of times to let them run on actual grass. This past weekend, they immediately tore off their shoes and took off.  They weren’t the only ones. Within minutes of arriving many children stripped down to bare feet and ran with glee across the open green space, feeling the novel carpet of grass below their feet.

There’s only one problem with the Ghion hotel. Apparently, there is a sign that says, in ge-ez, “keep off the grass.” The hotel employs a couple of very frustrated guards whose job it is to make sure that the children (and adults, who also come to enjoy the grass) don’t step foot on it. The guards, of course, fail miserably. The children can’t help themselves. Their parents have come to relax and sit in the café enjoying machiatos or draft beer (or at times rolling on the grass with their children) in this lovely setting. Spurred on by the power of greenery, the children gradually find each other as they race across the lawn, forming large bands, pursued relentlessly by the beleaguered guards. Eventually, it becomes a game of running away from the guard which only increases their glee.

The last time we were there our children kept moving from one side of the lawn to the other while the weary guard alternately ignored them and decided, usually when Yona started practicing his slide tackles, that they were out of control and approached them. Shortly before we left, Yona responded to the guard’s approach by doing a little hip-wiggling dance before leading the band of children running off in the opposite direction. The guard responded by pulling a switch from the tree to threaten what had become the small gang of children. But he was either unwilling or unable to move as fast as them. As we left, we made Yona apologize and told him that he really shouldn’t disrespect the guard like that. After all, it was the guard’s job to keep children off the grass, and not an easy one. But in our hearts we knew that this job was futile. Who can keep off grass like that? And why should they? Yona declared it one of his best days here.

I’d almost given up on finding any new or interesting green spaces in Addis. There are others, I know, but the effort to find them is exhausting and often heart-breaking.  We’ve become content with a handful of restaurants that have a bit of extra space on an outdoor patio where the children can run, or a morning trip up the mountain, or a weekend trip out of town. And one of the benefits of the kids’ new school is that it has much more space in which they can run, but its still a city school with limited space.

On Sunday, we went out for a morning walk, with a restaurant and lunch as our ultimate destination. When we got there, it was early to eat so we continued walking. We passed on of those areas that I remembered from google maps, an area that was green, labeled with the words I’d learned to ignore—park. I’d passed it many times, but never really looked. This time, I peered in, noting the dark shade produced by dense trees. I asked Ermias what the sign, which was in Ge’ez, said. “It’s a park.” He said. We paid the one birr entrance fee and went in.

Yeka Park is old and seems to have seen better days, but lovely and inviting. The children immediately found ancient playground equipment and began climbing on it. Sitting on the benches under tall, old trees amidst not-particularly well kept flowering bushes, small groups of Ethiopians, solitary people listening to music couples sat on concrete benches. It only took ten minutes or so to walk through the park and come out at a local football field on the other side, but it was enough. What I thought was my futile quest to find Addis Ababa’s hidden green spaces is rekindled.

One of the frustrating and fascinating things about Addis Ababa is the way the city conceals itself. It was, once a feudal city and before that an agricultural town. Fuedal lords set up their encampments with their hierarchies of lieges under them. The legacy of feudalism means that the old neighborhoods have historically been comprised of people from multiple class and status levels and are largely self-enclosed, tightly-knit units. Walking around the still-existing older neighborhoods is fascinating. There is one world on the wide main streets, a world of traffic and glass and metal fronted shops and burger places. And there is another world when one turns off the main streets and delves into the increasingly narrow network of cobble stone and dirt roads where villas and shacks co-exist next to each other in a confusing and befuddling symbiosis. Some children run freely in these spaces, playing soccer and chasing each other through the streets, lanes and alleys. While other children remain sequestered behind villa walls, perhaps playing in their own secret garden.

But the architectural,  geographical and social legacy of the feudal city has been layered over by various waves of modernization, displacing former city centers and replacing them with others, which somehow never really feel like the center to the older residents. One of my favorite things to do is to walk through one of these older centers of the city in Piazza, where Ermias grew up.  I always feel both sad and excited. Addis Ababa’s modernization began in this bustling commercial center which housed the first cinemas and the first modern shops. It is full of Italian restaurants and cafes, auto-mechanics and carpentry shops and, more recently, high rise buildings and hotels. But when you step off the busy main streets, descending down a steep cobble stone hill, you see a group of boys somehow playing soccer on the steep road, moving out of the way of any car that passes, you pass old wood houses behind stone walls and know there is a whole life inside those walls and you feel like you are in a community that is very old.

But now, Ethiopia’s own unique version of capitalism is clearing out this dense tangle of city as the old neighborhoods are razed and replaced with high rise office buildings and hotels. Upper class residents move to villas in the much more modern new center of town or to even bigger villas in the outlying rings of the city. Meanwhile, the middle-class buy condos in high rises that stretch for miles on the edges of town towards the farmland beyond. They consider closing up their businesses in the old neighborhood and wonder if they should invest in taxis instead. For the moment, the poor seem to still inhabit the center, squatting on plots of land designated for construction but not yet constructed, but their ecosystem is changing and its not clear where they will go when they shift from being part of a complex neighborhood to being isolated amidst the glass and metal of the shiny high rises looming above them.

When we found Yeka park, I felt like I’d stepped back in time to a place, a secret garden, that those wanting to sit quietly under green trees had known about for years, a place away from the traffic and the hassles of the city. At one birr, this is a place for almost everyone. I am glad this still exists. As the city expands and modernizes yet again, there is little thought given to the very human need to sit under a tree, to gaze at something that is not made of glass, concrete or metal, or to run across green grass in our bare feet.


One thought on “Keep Off the Grass: Searching For Addis Ababa’s Secret Gardens

  1. Your post reminds me of Shanghai, where most of the interesting older architecture and alleyways and compounds have been torn down to build high rise apartment buildings and shopping centers. I look forwRd to hiking in the hills and visiting your secret park when we are there!


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