The capital of Ethiopia seems to be one vast building site. As the high-rise blocks, broad avenues and roundabout take shape, a new Addis Ababa is springing up. The priority for the regime is to build at all costs, the work being supervised by impassive Chinese foremen.
Ethiopia (population 85 million) is the second largest country in Africa and busily modernising. It is ruled by the (Maoist) People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is set on turning the country into the tiger of Africa, after the Vietnamese model.
Once synonymous with acute poverty and famine, Ethiopia has over the past decade enjoyed one of the highest growth rates in Africa – between 8% and 10%. Although a third of the population still live in poverty – on less than $0.60 a day – an urban middle class is appearing. Its members cannot compete with western countries, as earnings and careers are still very uneven. But they share a fierce determination to improve their lot.
Mekonnen Tilahun, 32, is an accountant. He is ambitious, switching jobs every two years. In eight years his wages have increased fivefold. To save money, he still lives with his mother. Were it not for inflation – 33% in 2011, 20% in 2012 – Tilahun would count himself very lucky. One day, if he puts enough money aside, he may marry. With “no more than two children”, he promises. Meanwhile, he works hard. His only luxury is the sports centre where he goes three nights a week. His younger sister wants to emigrate to the US, but not him. “Everything remains to be done here,” he says.
Hanna, one of his workmates, came home last year for the same reason after finishing university in France. “I realised that in Europe I would never matter as much as I do here,” she says simply. The chauvinism of her male compatriots, the ingrained conservatism of society and the weight of religion irritate her, but she nevertheless thinks the country is “starting to open up to the outside world”.
Lily and Mimi Kassahoun hesitated a long time before deciding to head home. The two sisters finally returned to Addis Ababa at the end of 2011. It was a wrench because after 20 years in Canada it felt like home. “Our parents kept saying: ‘Why won’t you come back to Ethiopia? Business is booming here’,” they explain.
Three months ago Lily opened a restaurant in the Bole neighbourhood, appropriately named “Oh Canada”. The place is already packed . “I paid attention to three things generally lacking in Ethiopia: clean toilets, quality service and atmosphere!” she says brightly. The bureaucracy, unreliable contractors, the need to train staff, the irregular supply of ingredients and the constantly rising prices bother her, though. “I thought it would take six months to open. It took three times that much. You have to learn to be patient here, but I’ve no regrets,” she adds.
Sales of beer are another unusual indication of Ethiopian gentrification. Bernard Coulais heads the local branch of BGI Castel, which sells wine and beer all over Africa. “I aim to bring beer to everywhere in Ethiopia,” he brags. In Angola, which is heavily urbanised, average per capita consumption now stands at 50 litres a year. In predominantly rural Ethiopia it is only four. “But things are changing so fast. Our sales are progressing at the same pace as the road network and electrification. It’s a revolution. We can barely keep up with demand,” he adds.
For the time being there is more evidence of extreme poverty in Addis Adaba (population 4 million) than upwardly mobile prosperity. The churches in this predominantly Orthodox Christian country are surrounded by maimed beggars, street children and mothers, their hand outstretched, an undernourished child in their arms.
Whenever he passes a church – roughly every 300 metres – Samuel crosses himself. A young taxi driver, he belongs to Ethiopia’s lower middle class. He lives in one of the countless shacks with corrugated-iron roofs which are spreading all over the city, home to two or three generations of a family. The father of a 14-year-old, Samuel owns his car. An 80-strong network of relations and friends helped him buy it. Every month he repays about $8. But his prime concern is paying his daughter’s private schooling, convinced as he is that “state school is for the poor”.
Regardless of Samuel’s misgivings, Ethiopia has achieved almost 100% school enrolment, largely thanks to former prime minister Meles Zenawi, who ousted the dictatorship in 1991 and ruled the country with an iron hand until his death in August 2012. At midday and in the evening children in uniform stream out of state schools under the watchful eye of the former leader, whose portrait still adorns all the capital’s main thoroughfares.
Come back in five years’ time and the place will have lost its rural air, with donkeys, cows and goats wandering among the pedestrians and traffic. It will be a modern city, with broad tarmacked avenues and ultramodern blocks and shopping malls.