Salambo discovering Ethiopia
A number of my readers commented on the fact that my recent posts about life in Addis were not so positive and portrayed sentiments of frustration and tiredness on my behalf. It made me realise that complaints do not translate well in writing as they lack the necessary distance to analyse a situation. So I thought I would write more about the current situation in Addis.
We live in the middle of a construction site. Most of the main roads are being dug up to be widen or make way for the new tramline being built. As a result, where previously we could use five different ways to go from A to B, only one is currently open which means that it gets extremely congested. This situation is affecting all residents of Addis whether they go by public transport or use their own car. The level of traffic as well as pollution due to the increased dust and noise has become almost unbearable. People do not want to go out anymore because of the time they waste in transport, and after a while, they get depressed from being too isolated from the rest of the city. This morning, I sat in the car for more than two hours for a meeting that barely lasted half an hour. I tried to be strategic choosing the way to cross the city, but half way through the journey, one of the roads I was planning to take had unexpectedly closed so I had to make a big detour. This is a normal occurrence which happens every day to anybody. We never know which road will be closed and which one will be open, so we take the chance and grumble in the process. Some of the secondary residential roads can take up to a year or more to be finished because of erratic work plan and maybe lack of available machinery? I don’t know the answer. I can only report what I observe (after writing this, I talked to someone who told me that in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the situation is far worse; people can get stuck in traffic for up to six hours a day, so everything is relative really).
If the road situation was not enough, we also have the buildings. We are surrounded by half finished ghost-like concrete towers that do not help raise the spirits. They are grey, souless and bring a strange atmosphere to the city. From what I was told, the master plan is to build business towers in the centre of town and groups of condominiums on the outskirt which will be connected to the centre via the new tramline, creating in the process a new generation of commuters. Until now, most residents were living in individual houses. As run down and rudimentary as those houses were, they still give them their own space. People will have to learn to live in modern but restricted apartment blocks, which may bring a new set of social issues, so the transformation taking place goes beyond the urban sphere to touch on the social fabric of the city.
Personally, I am not sure it is good for the moral to live in a city that looks half built or half demolished as for each new tower, a few houses are being destroyed leaving behind rubble that takes ages to be cleared away. In many cases, owners of old houses in the new “business district” are given notice to build a 20-storey tower or if they can’t, leave their premises to another property developer. Currently in Addis, there are many talks and conferences organised on the subject of construction and architecture as it affects everybody in the city. The subject most commonly discussed is the fact that a great number of old houses are being ruthlessly erased, as if the city wanted to quickly get rid of its past to embrace modernity (if modernity is synonymous with high-rise towers). Beautiful houses built with style and care are fast disappearing. Furthermore, I don’t always see a sense of aesthetics or architectural research in the current urban transformation. Towers are popping up, some are interesting, some are non-descript, some are even ugly, but what is the overriding factor is the lack of harmony in the current construction wave. In architecture, there is a term known as Brusselization (named after the Belgian capital) which describes the process of frantically building high-rise tower blocks without any search for residential quality of life or aesthetic harmony (it happened in Brussels in the 1960s and 1970s). This is what seems to happen in Addis, maybe it will become the Brussels of Africa: a large international and diplomatic city, which may loose part of its soul in the process of transformation, or maybe it will become the great new capital of Africa and the African Union?