Addis Ababa has a proud 125-year long history of being actively involved in world affairs. It has never really been isolated from the world since it is the capital of Ethiopia, if not the whole of Africa. And, consequently, the world has long wanted to extend its engagement with the Ethiopian people.
The city’s founder, Emperor Menilik II wrote a series of letters in the 1880s and 1890s to the rulers of Britain, Russia and Italy and other world leaders which showed the special attention he gave to the political importance of establishing closer relations with the outside world. His efforts were not in vain for all the big powers opened their legations here in Addis Ababa.
Italy was the first European country to establish a diplomatic relation with Ethiopia opening the Italian Legation. Later France, Britain, the U.S.A. and Belgium opened up their respective legations in Addis, one after the other, over 100 years ago at the time of Emperor Menilik II. Egypt was the first African country to open its mission in Addis.
That made Addis Ababa to have the greatest number of Diplomatic Corps, with over 110 missions, next to New York and Brussels, who are the seats of the United Nations and European Union, respectively. The formation of the Organization of the African Union (OAU) 50 years ago in May 1963, with its headquarters in Addis Ababa led to its becoming the true heart of Africa. That basic approach of Menilik to actively involve with the world has hence been vindicated by history.
Legend has it that Addis Ababa is synonymous with both cold and hot spring water. The hot water which is commonly called ‘Filwoha’ is one of the factors for the city’s foundation. The existence of fire woods, drinkable water, supply of food, meat, animal byproducts like butter from the surrounding areas were other factors that helped found Addis Ababa as the capital city. Being geographically the centre of the country was helpful to effectively administer the vast areas of Ethiopia that stretched from Tigray to Sidamo, Harar to Wellega.
Addis has become a symbol of change and inspiration since the time of Emperor Menilik. Infrastructure construction, the entrance of railway, the emergence of telecommunication, electricity, potable water, the opening up of hotels were something new for the traditional Ethiopian society. Modern education with the opening of Menilik II School in 1903 and hospital almost coincidentally brought a shift of lifestyle to take shape in the country.
For instance, people began using holes as “squatting latrines”. This was a big transformation at that time where most people urinate in open places or in the forests. Currently, of course, new modern residential areas made the traditional “squatting latrines” obsolete. Later showers that are now more common, started to slowly become the order of the day. But back in the 1880s the concept of shower was little known in the society. Most people wash their bodies at the river; a quite common undertaking as the water was very clean and pure. The concept of tapped water was not known in a country where almost all people drank river water. Addis Ababa introduced tapped water which was seen as a miracle simply because tapped water began to flow not just down but could be pushed upwards too; something not really observed in river streams.
Taitu Hotel, the first hotel in Ethiopia that still stands tall and in good condition in the Piazza area, was opened in the 1890s by Empress Taitu. Still, at first nobody came in to eat at the hotel paying money. Doing so was considered a shameful act by the nobility and common people alike. Currently there are several hotels with over 5,000 beds and thousands of customers, both local and visitors, who flock in everyday. Taitu Hotel had less than 10 rooms at that time.
The population, 125 years ago was no greater than 50 thousands. But now it is said to have reached 3 million; some even say that it is 4 million.
The city of Addis grew to be a metropolitan from a small village in these 125 years. But is the transformation up to the world’s standard? Does the city provide the basic needs for the current urban population as sufficiently as it used to? There seems to be more questions than answers.
Although hotels, schools universities and roads are expanding on a huge scale, roads are still incapable of accommodating the fast growing vehicle numbers of the city; schools and universities do not provide quality education; hospitals are poorly organized and managed and far below from satisfying the needs of the people with only seven public hospitals built at the time of Emperor Haileselassie and no new ones being built in the last 39 years. Addis Ababa has only two stadiums and one public swimming pool- at the Ghion Hotel. The small rivers, such as Kebena and another river that crosses through Piazza, were clean enough for kids to swim in them up to the early 70s. Now they are extremely polluted. Electricity and water are in short supply. There are no parks like those found in big modern cities elsewhere in the world. Plan implementation is rarely seen in vast areas of the cities. In modern urban planning, cities expand upwards with skyscrapers. But in the case of Addis it is common knowledge to evict farmers from the surrounding areas to expand cities; while at the same time next to six or seven-storey buildings a ramshackle house is left to exist seemingly with no concern for the city’s aesthetic value. In the middle of high class ground plus two or three houses, it is common to find an old house made of mud and wood.
One can find entertainment places, fancy cafes and restaurants, and night clubs in residential areas. The mosques, churches, hospitals, electric power stations with high voltage, government offices, schools, hotels serving beer and alcohol, can be found clustered in the same area.
Pollution is visible. Many say that Addis is the most polluted city in the world. Noise pollution is out of control.
Corruption has gotten out of hand. Land grabbing is a common occurrence. Charges of corruption with millions of birr take place all the time. Transportation is in short supply. Taxis and buses are not sufficient to provide services for the growing population.
How long will this chronic problem continue? Well, the hope is that with the construction of modern residential houses, the light railway, the completion of big hydroelectric power dams, water reservoirs and most of all modern urban planning is implemented, it is possible to have the remedy. Addis Ababa that has celebrated its 125th birth day with all these chronic problems hopes a better future if things go as planned. Better to be hopeful than gloomy.