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History tells us that before choosing Addis Ababa as the capital city of Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik II established temporary capitals at six different locations. This was because resources like firewood for fuel and construction were constantly exhausted. In 1881, Menelik and his followers moved to the foothills of Entoto, located near present day Addis Ababa. Since the Entoto site was a ridge, it offered very little room for the development of the big city the emperor had envisioned.
In November 1886 Empress Taitu moved the campsite from the hills of Entoto down to the current site with the blessing of the Emperor. In 1892 the new location was proclaimed the new and permanent capital of Ethiopia and officially named Addis Ababa. Today, 125 years later, Addis Ababa was listed as one of the top ten cities in the world to visit in 2013, by Lonely Planet, the largest guide book and digital media publisher. This might be hard for us locals to understand. Because we live here, waking up every morning to go to work and socialize during our spare time we can’t be expected to be fascinated by what we see practically every day.
For us, Addis Ababa’s weather is not what it used to be; we always complain about how hot it is, how the cost of living is not what it used to be, everything being so expensive now. The city is not, by anyone’s standard, one we would call clean and it definitely is more crowded causing a strain on transportation networks. Many a negative thing can be added to what was stated above. Therefore, how can Addis Ababa be listed next to cities like San Francisco, Montréal, or Amsterdam? Why can’t most of us see the reason behind it? We don’t see it because it doesn’t exist. Not yet.
One of the reasons the city made the list was culture. Yes, it’s true, we do have fascinating culture, but some of the culture on display is pretty disturbing. We have accepted public defecation as a fact of life; countless trash cans have been placed around the city over the years, and yet we prefer to throw our garbage in the streets; countless trees are planted every year, but none of them seem to grow from lack of care; those are the kinds of culture that seem to be magnified.
Addis Ababa was also named one of the dirtiest places on earth by Forbes Magazine in 2008 and things haven’t changed much. Addis Ababa is not just Bole road, the lovely AU building or the luxury hotel Sheraton Addis. Addis Ababa is found in the alleys behind these places. It is the areas packed with small houses that are about to fall over any minute, the many men, women and children who are sleeping in the streets and eating garbage to survive, the ever growing presence of workers plying the sex trade standing on street corners even in the blistering cold. It is the inefficient bureaucracy of government offices and the long wait for transportation; the list goes on.
Poverty rears its ugly head here, where the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor is right in your face. Again, the question arises, why did Addis Ababa make the list?
Let’s look at this from another angle, from the point of view of a traveler, who is foreign to the land. The cost of living is pretty good compared to other places with good and cheap food. The night life is pretty hip, people are very friendly and there are some museums to explore with a growing number of nice hotels. Overall, the city has been developing and showing signs of massive change in the last five years or so. I can see why travelers would see Addis Ababa as a chic, up and coming city that is changing every day. It is a peaceful city where one can simply enjoy being out strolling in the evenings in most places without the fear of a crime being committed.
The truth is Lonely Planet will publish its “places to visit” list every year; chances are Addis Ababa will not be on the list again for a while. Tomorrow we might end up on the list of poorest cities in the world. The list comes and goes, it doesn’t matter. The list will not, all of a sudden, give us a different perspective on how we view Addis Ababa. What does matter is that we, the people that live here, build a city that we can actually be proud of. When we keep the streets clean, when there is a system to help the homeless get off of the streets and when we stop using the streets as toilets; well, then, Addis Ababa has the potential to become one of the greatest cities in the world, and I truly believe that it is inevitable.
I have no doubt that when Emperor Menelik II envisioned building the capital city of this historic nation, he foresaw Addis Ababa as a city that would give us that unmistakable Ethiopian pride. Despite its many vagaries, we need to be proud of Addis Ababa because it is truly a great city, not because we are on a list somewhere.