Sunday, June 07, 2015

Good Apples, Big Apples, Rotten Apples… and New Flowers

The blogosphere is as different nine years later as Addis Ababa is.

The both have seen tremendous “development” – or growth – or, simply, change.

How do I start?

Where do we begin?


The very concept of a blog has, I think, changed in the last decade. As the tech industry has prospered, this very online content has transformed.

This may be obvious enough, as are its implications for how we live our lives. But the revolution occurring in communications so profoundly impacts the fabric of our lives that it is worthwhile to reflect on it as I exploit it.

The idea of a blog is perhaps most different today in the context of the emergent social media industry. Back in the day, so to say – the early days, the Wild West-ern days, when the Blogosphere was still a frontier being settled – there was something raw and fresh and unfamiliar about what was occurring (…a “Beginner’s Mind” of the Blogosphere?). Today the form is well-worn, engraved in the archaeologist’s epigraphs of hyperlink, broadband, YouTube culture, along with a whole host of other forms of social media that have since been established.

The virtual sites of the worldwide web have been built and rebuilt, renovated and remodeled, burned down and bombed, evicted and demolished, bought and sold… and so on and so on. What happened to Jeeves anyway, as Geocities and MySpace made way for Google, Facebook, and Amazon?

(Rings of a tree – pearls and gems – the earth’s silt and sedimentation.)

With these endlessly new types or forms of technology available to us (to name a few more powerhouses, Apple, Wikipedia, Buzzfeed, Skype, the generic smart phone), the way we experience and interact with this so-called virtual data-content changes, too.

It is still remarkable to me when a security guard checks my bag as I leave the library in Cambridge, Mass while he has a “face-to-face” conversation on his mobile phone with his wife in Pakistan. And we know that smart phones and social media are playing a significant role in popular social movements, from ISIS to Eric Garner.


I purchased a smart phone in Addis Ababa, in cash, in about half-an-hour.

After another half-an-hour of queuing at EthioTelecom – the government monopolized telecommunications provider – a passport scan, a mugshot, and a little more cash, that phone had a SIM card.

And, after stopping at a souk on a corner for a phone card, I had a functioning phone.

True enough, I’m making this simpler than it was.

After purchasing the phone at the TecnoMobile store in Edna Mall, we went to an EthioTelecom storefront a block away. EthioTelecom is as ubiquitous as Starbucks or Walgreen’s around Addis Ababa, as are power outages. Within a minute or two of arriving the power went out (as it would later that day at my great-uncle’s house twice over lunch, and then again when I returned home in the evening). At Edna Mall, however, it was most striking as the storefront is new and just opened; being in a building that is still being built; in a location around Medhanyelem Church that is entirely new, that did not even exist ten years back… but is now, I suppose affectionately, referred to as “New York City” for its glossy buildings (shops, hotels, cafes, cinema) and urban bustle. Needless to say, we didn’t hang around waiting for the power to come back on.

When going to another EthioTelecom after lunch – in an old, brutal building, that makes your heart feel grey and drab, and I suspect might be from the Dergue-era – my cousin and I were initially startled by the length of the line. There were at least 30 people already waiting when we arrived. From the doorway where we entered, they wrapped around the walls of the opposite side of the room, curving around the back wall to our right, and around again to the door where we stood, only to then, rather comically, hop over to a small island bench in the center of the room, and wrap around that. To the left of the doorway was a podium where a young woman sat on a stool calling out --- “Next!” each time a customer finished their business at the desks of a salesperson on the left side of the room. The line inched its way forward in this way, everyone successively standing up and moving forward a spot or two, as the woman at the podium called out again --- “Next!” All told, the line moved rather quickly.


There is something dystopian and surreal about the “New Flower”, Addis Ababa, these days. Maybe it used to be this way, too, but I just didn’t know to notice.

The half-hewn buildings on every block, and the rubble on the streets lend the city the look of being amidst war, as L remarked the other night.

And yet, upon completion, the glossy, towering façade of these new constructions gives no hint of such a phase of destruction – or the brown rags worn on the bony bodies of the workers who build them.

I am tempted to describe this new architecture shaping the changing landscape of Addis Ababa as purely ideological. Its practical purpose is lost on me: it is entirely unclear what and who these new buildings are for. I imagine they are largely empty, though I have only just started asking. And they have no aesthetic value, even negative value if such a thing is possible. They are ugly, completely out of tune with their surrounding environs: phallic symbols of a capitalist, Western ideal.

From conversations that I have had with people on the street, on minibuses, in taxi cabs, at churches, at museums, at cafes, on site at the NGO with which I am working – all of whom spoke at least a little English, if not a lot – there is excitement for the future of Addis Ababa. As construction booms here in the capital, more and more people are moving here (a tangible fact since my last visit); styles and attitudes are shifting, too (also evident).

However, the role and relationship of Addis Ababa to the rest of “Ethiopia” is still unclear to me. People say that the countryside is still the countryside. Although this “development”, as such, is not only spreading the edges of the capital; but also spilling over to the countryside (by way of better roads along major routes, and renovations to preexisting infrastructure); as soon as you leave Addis Ababa cultural attitudes are said to remain intact.

Meanwhile, access to public education (i.e. government-sponsored), including higher education, is expanding across the country (though, from what I hear, the quality of this education is questionable).

And meanwhile, beneath the calm feel on the campus of Addis Ababa University, a cool respite from the rottenness of city life in Addis (any better or worse than the cold sterility of city life in the States?), its pleasure gardens are decrepit and decaying: its majestic fountains run dry, their blue paint cracked and peeling; and its jungle landscaping is untended and overgrown. Such faded imperial glory pops up all over town, its forms having been assumed to fulfill the aims of other regimes.

My sense of a subtle surreal and dystopian flavor pervading Addis Ababa then exists, I think, largely on the level of image (the sights of a city in flux), which is to say, idea or concept. The sight of the city inevitably breeds incongruency and absurdity, just as it did nine years back, but today in a way that its range is more viscerally striking. The variety apparent in this one place is extreme.

And people are leaving – fair enough, people are coming back, too – but people are leaving, and looking to leave, for a range of reasons. New roads around town surface and then stop, dead-ending or returning to unpaved rubble.

I am led to wonder, to what ends is all this construction? On whose terms? Is Addis Ababa becoming anything more than an aping and mimicking façade? Whose needs is it serving? And whose is it selling, demolishing, burying – dispossessing?


A final reflection on the Blogosphere: As a diasporic kid with an American passport and a 3-month visa, I have a certain privilege and ignorance when it comes to commenting on Addis and Ethiopia here in the Blogosphere.

On one hand, I can critique what I am seeing in a way that someone considered an Ethiopian national cannot. It is well-known that the current democratic government of Ethiopia severely limits freedom of speech.

On the other, my observations are severely limited by my status as a kid borne of the diaspora. I am a stranger in this land, American, belonging to one very specific branch of a branch of the culture and history of this place, which today goes by the name of Ethiopia. I see this place only fragmented from my view, so its totality is not done justice by my words. I do not actually understand what it means to be a part of this place. And within weeks, I will leave.

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