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A Kenyan in Addis Ababa (Part 1)

Addis Ababa,Churchill Avenue, with the canon somewhere in the middle of the roundabout.
Note the construction in the background.
Addis is a delightful city to visit!
Ever woken up in Nairobi, or anywhere else in Kenya, and felt that you should have woken up in Addis Ababa? Thankfully, you can do something about it, if you are a Kenyan .

Not many Kenyans know that you can travel to Ethiopia in a whim - you do not need a visa. To top that, travelling to Ethiopia is quite cheap - it can cost as low as KSh. 19,000 for a return flight, if you book early, and about KSh. 27,000 normally. Of course the low prices are on Ethiopian Airlines - who have about 4 daily flights between Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

On my inaugural flight to Addis (well,  I have transited through Bole airport before), I happened to meet someone who was travelling on a Kenya Airways flight to the same city, and who their flight had been delayed by 2 hours. Thankfully, my flights on Ethiopian left in time and arrived early.

If flying any of the two, unlike South African Airways, be warned that you will not be allowed to use your phone in flight - even if you just want to listen to music or read some ebook. They however do allow laptops,  tablets (aren’t this just giant phones?) and I think ebook readers. I carried some magazines.

As we started the landing descent, I looked out and wondered why we were still flying over a patchwork of black and green farmland. Being August, a rainy season for Addis Ababa, the black was mud and the green were recently planted crops. There were also lots of visible waterways, small brown rivers and the art they made as they deposited their brown, silty water into small lakes.

View from my hotel window.
Half  the city is under construction
Ahead of, I could see hills,  but no airport, or even city. A few minutes later, an airport did appear, and we were landing. It turns out, Addis Ababa is surrounded by hills, hence the sudden transition from hillsides and farmland to an airport.

A brief fly over Addis revealed a city virtually under construction. There were rows and rows of multi storey buildings, all under various stages of construction, possibly hundreds of such buildings.

There aren’t many midday landings at Bole Airport, and My fellow passengers and I turned to be the only ones interested in coming into Ethiopia at this time. The airport is busy in the evening, when Ethiopian Airlines does lots of incoming and outgoing flights, bringing in people from all over Africa,  and then flying them to the rest of the world, mostly Europe and the US.

Immigration for Kenyans isn’t much of an issue at the airport, as you just need to have your passport stamped.

Mickey Leland Street,
your one stop street
for everything entertainment in Addis 
After getting your passport stamped,  you need to get yourself some local currency. Ethiopia may be Kenya’s immediate neighbour, but Ethiopia isn’t Uganda, or even Rwanda. They do not accept Kenya Shillings, period. You therefore need to have carried some dollars with you.

If in Nairobi and looking  for dollars way past the 4:30 pm closing time for most Forex bureaus , try Sky Forex Bureau at 20th Century Plaza. They are open till 7 PM,  and have good rates. I found this place after paying a guard outside 20th Century Plaza KSh. 50, just for him to direct me to the building. Nairobians are so obsessed with their shilling.

To digress just a bit, you should read Yvonne Adhiambo’s Weight of Whispers, a Caine Prize winning novel. Adhiambo aptly brings out the challenge of trying to live in Nairobi without having a shilling, which seems to be demanded at every corner you turn.

Back to Bole International Airport, you can opt to change your dollars to Birr at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia’s bureau inside the airport. The dollar is somehow accepted at some hotels and traders too, especially in areas frequented by tourists. Formal businesses will tend to match the bank's exchange rate, while informal businesses will give you a better rate in a bid to incentivise. The country does have some stringent currency controls, hence the bid by merchants to try obtain dollars in non-official ways.

A taxi from Bole Airport to where you're staying will need to be paid in Birr, and should cost you anything from $150 to $300 Birr to around the city centre, depending on where you get one (inside the building or outside) and your bargaining skills.

Staying in Addis is pretty easy, you can book a hotel on, pay using your Visa/Master card in shillings, and show up with your reservation. I would advise you choose a hotel that offers WiFi, given most prepaid mobile operators do not work anywhere in Ethiopia, and getting a local SIM can be a long and costly process. EthioTelecom is the only mobile operator in Ethiopia, and charges about KSh. 12 per megabyte of data. Safaricom Postpaid does work in Ethiopia,  but Prepaid does not.

Like the transition from farmland to airport, the transition from airport to down town Addis is just as sudden. You literally drive from the airport into proper Addis. While the airport once sat at the outskirts of the city, like most other airports do, the city has grown so fast that the airport found itself in its current convenient location.

I was promised traffic by the taxi driver, who drove a vehicle which happened to have been manufactured some time between me being born and me growing my first set of teeth. I was informed that this one was in fact one of of the “newer” taxis in the city.

Traffic jams in Addis Ababa,  as much as the locals will complain, are non-existent for a Nairobi or Mombasa resident. What they call traffic is a group of cars that slows near a junction, and which will have moved more than a kilometre in less than 10 minutes.

The junctions in Addis do have traffic lights and these do work, with the exception of the frequent blackout. There are also traffic cops who are stationed at busy junctions, or who might come in to other junctions when the frequent blackout strikes.

Now,  if coming from Kenya,  be assured that the cops are not there to shake you up for a made up offence. Believe it or not, they are actually there to handle traffic issues.

Note how wide Addis roads tend to be
In addition to the buildings, you will notice that a good number of roads around the city are under construction. Interestingly, during my 2 night stay, I did not see any road crew at work.

The roads in Addis are quite different from what we have in Kenya. For starters, we drive on the the opposite side of the road. Secondly, their roads are quite wide, and a good number of major roads are dual carriage. Major roads around the city have been built with intersections featuring roundabouts and an underpass. At night,  most Addis roads are well lit (again, barring the occasional blackout)

Around the city centre, smaller access roads, which would be about the equivalent width of our roads are also tarmacked.

A roundabout at a busier part of Addis
As indicated, traffic in this city isn’t much of an issue. This could be due to a number of facts - starting from a better network of roads, to the number of vehicles on the road.  Unlike Nairobi, it does seem that you can easily get from one part of Addis to another without having to drive through a section of the city centre.

However, the main contributor to less traffic seems to be fewer number of vehicles. At the start of this millennium, Kenya had more than double the number of vehicles that Ethiopia had. In addition, both capitals have about the same population and city size. We can therefore assume that Nairobi carried double the number of cars that Addis did in about the same area at the start of the millennium.

Nairobi has seen a tremendous growth in the number of vehicles on its roads in the last 2 years.

Layout of main roads in Nairobi reveals a star layout
In Ethiopia, I was told that the duty of imported vehicles is about 3 times the value of the vehicle. This, I think, is in a bid to promote locally assembled vehicles, of which with the exception of buses and trucks, are few. Lifan, a Chinese car manufacturer does assemble cars in the country, including what look like BMW replicas. There weren't many Lifans around,  with most of them being “newer” yellow taxis. When it comes to a choice of Chinese vehicles versus those from Japan or Europe, buyers seem to vote with their wallet for the latter, irrespective of the cost difference. Clearly, value matters here.
Addis Ababa road layout is different from that of Nairobi, the equivalent of
a # layout. Hence, fewer vehicles meet at the city centre

Another factor you can throw in to why Addis has lesser traffic is the layout of the roads. Nairobi mostly has a star (*) layout,  where all main roads lead to the central business district. This is being fixed but may take some years. Addis already has sort of a # design of roads,  meaning there are numerous ways to get from one point to another.  

As a foreigner, the most convenient way to get around will be a blue and white taxi,  most of which are Lada, an old, but what looks like a reliable car brand from the former Soviet Union. While they may lack modern amenities,  the 30 year old cars are still on the road, and even have modern radios and sound systems. Malaku, the taxi driver who took me round the city, even had a sound system with USB functionality in his taxi.

With his limited knowledge of English, Malaku told me he liked the African songs playing from a flash disk,  even though he did not know the artists. With my limited knowledge of music,  I was able to tell him that was Wizkid on Ojuelegba, and Bombay , Ali Kiba interceding with Mwana  and a hit that featured Uganda’s Chameleone. Kenyan music did not seem to make the cut to Malaku’s best of African music.

Articulated Metro Bus in Addis, among the
main means of transport for
most of the city's residents
For the brave, they do have an equivalent of “nissan” matatus,  blue and white aged Toyotas. There were also metro buses, red and yellow, which too were aged, and usually full.

There are new blue buses, which did not seem crowded, but I was told these were for government workers. Most of the buses are manufactured locally at what I was told used to the military complex. This is the same complex that manufactures Russian Tanks for the Ethiopian military and for sale to other armies.

For short distances of less than 4 kilometres, you may as well take to walking around. One way of spotting a Nairobian walking around Addis is the person showing symptoms of car trauma- characterised by a person who repeatedly casts a wary glance at cars coming in from behind them. Unlike in Nairobi, Addis drivers tend to stick to the middle of the road, and are content with letting pedestrians walk in peace,  without repeatedly threatening to mow them down.

And as much as Addis residents may swear their driving is chaotic, it actually is quite timid, with slower driving and more patience. Well, they bully each other often through unnecessary hooting, but trust me, nothing compares to the aggressive Nairobi driving where a motorists will cut you off at high speed, without batting an eye lid. Or the Nairobi habit where we love rubbing our cars against other cars as we drive around.

Even politicians' motorcades in Addis are well mannered. I watched one drive up the wrong way to evade traffic, but the motorcade substantially slowed down, and the cop leading the motorcade repeatedly made a hand signal with his left hand indicating that oncoming motorists should use the other lanes. In Nairobi, no one has the time to afford other motorists such courtesy.

The city authorities in Addis do keep the city clean,
and collect rubbish daily
The streets in Addis are relatively clean. There are workers in bright orange, reflective uniform who go around sweeping the roads in the morning. There are garbage trucks that go around swapping empty bins for those with garbage.

Pavements around the city are relatively intact, despite lots of ongoing construction. Well, in some places, both the road and the pavement have been stripped off for construction of new ones, but there is still some place to walk on. Additionally, the risk of falling into an open hole or trench in Addis, while not entirely non-existent, is quite diminished. There are few such abandoned holes.

Scar left by a communications cable on
the pavement, and a fruit vendor
While some places might have drain water flowing across the pavement,  this too isn’t a big issue here. In some places,  the pavement shows the unpaved scar of where a communications cable went underground. With only one communications provider in Ethiopia, pavement will likely be dug only once, and in time, have the dug part repaved over. In short, walking around Addis is a non-issue on the basis of pavement quality.

Walking around at night also seemed relatively safe, including for the ladies. Street harassment appears to be less than what we have in Nairobi - I did see a lady in a mini skirt get some comments from some men in a different part of town during the day, though in other parts, ladies, including sex workers, seemed to go about their business quite unperturbed.


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