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Quite recently, Anbessa bus has taken a different direction and implemented new ways of boosting its income. It has apparently made an advertising board of itself and opened its famous yellow and red painted body for any interested party to post their messages and reach an audience of enormous size. From imported noodles to an album by a local superstar, from contraceptive pills to condoms, are being advertised on Anbessa buses. The move, which has somehow arrived hand-in-hand with the glittering and comparatively incredibly big Bishoftu buses, seems to be a wise one as Anbessa is always said to be struggling when it comes to earnings. But not everyone is jovial about it. Even if coming up with any creative or derivative idea to support itself cannot and should not be a point of criticism per se, it is possible as well as important to raise concerns on how it is being done.
It was first pointed out to me by a friend who had encountered a practical inconvenience; the combination of the red and yellow, which is loud enough to grasp attention from afar and is part of the sublime consciousness of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa (thanks to more than half a century of adaptation), is giving way to relatively obscure and unfamiliarly mixed colors. This, my friend claimed, is causing difficulty for passengers in spotting it. Anbessa (Amharic for lion), which has been roaring on the streets of Addis since the mid 1940s (and is state-run after the 1974 socialist revolution), is often and rightly associated with the lower class. It is the cheapest means of transportation and it provides service to millions of people daily with an increasing number of destinations. Particularly, in cases when one has to take long trips (maybe frequently) from one tip of the city to the other or even to the small towns nearby (because Anbessa has destinations outside of Addis as well), nothing beats it in the battle for preference. Even though it definitely is not the most comfortable means to travel on, at least it does not abuse its clients financially (like most minibuses do), or it does not stop every other minute to add even more passengers (again, like most minibuses do.) Besides, long before passengers started queuing up for minibuses, Anbessa users had been known for their decently made lines. This has made getting into Anbessa buses a little safer.
Most Anbessa users know the buses by heart. They stand where they are supposed to, submersed in thought or chatting with a fellow passenger and glance up and down the highways to check whether a certain bus with a certain number is coming. The colors are in their blood. What happened more than a few times, in the account of my friend, is that after the buses have gone “commercial” and have found new wardrobes, the passengers have to make real efforts to notice them. On several occasions, many people were seen confused as a certain bus bombarded by shimmering colors of a product it is promoting, stands in front of them and opens its gates invitingly. It is with astonishment, mingled with embarrassment, that they learn that is the new appearance of the good old Anbessa. They have probably used it for decades, have grown old with it, and have taken it from and to work or home. It was part of their lives. It was part of their understanding of the city in which they live in. But all of a sudden it has become different.
“Isn’t it possible to have advertisements and not overlook the identity of the buses?” asks my friend bluntly. “After all they are one of our identifiers. Like a landmark.”
With their downtrodden and elderly passengers and the frank conversations they engage in, the evident suspicions and humbleness, beggars and scoundrels, the small time pickpockets and impromptu sexual assaults, weary faces and witty remarks, hopes and despairs, strength and surrender, Anbessa buses are wherein the heart of Addis Ababa lies. One of the essences of being an Addis Ababian is knowing which numbered bus goes where. Some of the neighborhoods are even named after the bus numbers that pass through that area. Anbessa buses are not simply transportation means; they are one of the components that give the city the color and feel that it has. Abandoning that recklessly seems at the very least unfair.
To solve the severe problem the inhabitants of the city are experiencing with regard to transportation, one of the different initiatives taken by the government is to assemble more Anbessa buses in the military plant Metal and Engineering Corporation. The new Anbessa buses, dubbed Bishoftu to commemorate the place where they are assembled, look slightly different from the old ones in their design and brightness. But they do not have a shocking alienation. More assembled buses may arrive and the broken ones may also be repaired to join the streets. This makes one thing very clear: Anbessa is here to stay.
It is good to know one aspect of life lingers. Often times it is stated that, we Ethiopians, as nostalgic as we are, are not good with the past. We have seen abundantly, political leaders trying to control not only the present and the future, but also the past. When A seizes power, he works energetically to erase the marks and footprints of B, who was the leader before him. Sometimes this correction of the past goes wild and everything in the past goes down with the leader. Thus, parents and children might not share a lot. They might not know and understand each other a lot.
Anbessa bus is one of the things Addis Ababians of different generations share. And we should not throw away this fact. Things like the Anbessa bus are some of the few things that tell us we are in Addis, some of the things that make us know we are home when we come back from a trip abroad, that make us claim the city and hum in even an elusive non-articulate way; “This is my city”.
The fact that Anbessa bus is trying to make its finance healthier is respectable. And opening up for advertisers may be one way of doing so. But it must be done in a way that should not cloud its brand; the city’s brand. Otherwise, like some of the squares and roundabouts nowadays, they might feel like just somebody’s property. So far, only a few buses are wearing nothing but advertisements. But before all the buses become billboards and no longer identifiable, it seems good to tame the trend somehow.
Kalkidan Yibeltal can be contacted through his e-mail address: [email protected]