In October 2008, Richard O'Dwyer SJ went to work for JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) Eastern Africa. He recently sent back his first impressions of Ethiopia, where he will work for the first two or three years of his assignment.
Early days of Addis
On 4 November 2008, I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Nairobi, Kenya. The city was dark and largely deserted as I was taken through the rain-drenched streets from the bright new modern airport terminal to the Jesuit residence on the Northern fringe of Addis on one of the city’s hilltops not far from the University of Addis Ababa. I received a warm welcome from my fellow Jesuits when I arrived. The weather was surprisingly cool and damp, not unlike Ireland on a rainy cold November night.
I was shown to a large room in what some Jesuits say is the roomiest and brightest Jesuit house in the East African Assistancy (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia). I slept well my first night in Addis, not having slept particularly well during my week-long stay in Nairobi. I was anxious to go to Ethiopia and see firsthand the land where I am due to spend the next 2 to 3 years working with the Jesuit Refugee Service.
The next morning I went around 9am to the Ethiopian Country Office of JRS. There I met the country director, Seyoum, the programmes and advocacy officer, Dereje, and secretary Hareg. I had a pleasant chat with Seyoum in his office. As I was driven to the office I had my first daylight look at Addis. I noticed that the roads are much wider in Addis than in Nairobi and the traffic flows much more freely. Some of the main avenues must be as wide as 100, perhaps 120, feet. The day begins here around 5.30 am as day dawns over the city. I began to realise, as my driver and I made our way downhill, that the city is built on a number of hills - or should I say mountains, as Addis in 8,000 feet above sea level.
The old palace of Emperor Haile Selassie is now the main campus of the University of Addis Ababa. The Emperor ruled as a feudal lord with a small aristocracy for too long and was swept away in a military coup in 1974.
The Marxist dictator who replaced him ignored all the warnings from a minister in his own government in 1984, as the country slid into the most disastrous famine in its history, and he gave his total attention to the 10th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power. He spent $150 million on extravagant commemorative parades and military displays. He in turn was ousted from power and found sanctuary in Zimbabwe, in the arms of Robert Mugabe, and now lives out his days as a confidante and advisor to Mugabe.
As I have gone around the city over the last week my eyes have been opened to the grinding poverty that is the lot of over 90% of the inhabitants of Addis. It is funny what afflicts one in a strange country, but I am really bothered by the lack of footpaths. At the side of even the grandest avenues instead of a footpath lies a muddy track, filthy with uncollected refuse, food and bone waste, and potted with pools of stagnant water. All along the main streets are single-storey shops and behind them dwellings - hovels might be a better word - of corrugated iron sheets. They must be like ovens in the hot weather and like refrigerated cold rooms on the cool winter nights.
On Sunday morning after mass, a Ugandan Jesuit scholastic who lives here in the Jesuit community took me to the Museum of Addis Ababa. It was my first time to travel in one of the Toyota Hiace vans that are the city’s unofficial bus service. It cost about 10 cents for a trip of a few miles across the city until you reach the “terminus” and pick up another bus for the next leg of the journey. They are reminiscent of the Jeepneys of Manila. All of them spew out toxic diesel fumes, straining on the moderately steep inclines of Addis with a full complement of 12 to 14 passengers. They are painted in two horizontal bands of blue (lower band) and white (upper band). Definitely painted not sprayed! There are also Lada taxi cabs with the same colour scheme. Lada jokes from the 80’s flash through my mind. But please refrain, the Ladas are the aristocarats of the streets and their fares cost a multiple of that of the Hiace. By the way, the drivers of both Ladas and Hiaces never signal their intention to pull out, pull in, perform a sudden u-turn or swerve across 3 or 4 lanes whenever the mood takes them.
As we were taxied through the city I noticed how many young mothers with babes in arms begged whenever the traffic stopped. Then, after we left the taxi and walked to the museum in beautiful sunshine, I began to notice how many people were still asleep on the street covered in cardboard and whatever other protection they could find to shade them from the sun. I read today that there are somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 street children on the streets of Addis and there must be at least a comparable number of adults living on the streets as well. Sadly, young girls in particular are likely to drift into prostitution in order to survive on the streets.