The first morning we woke up in Addis Ababa I thought monkeys were on the roof. Thump! Thump! Thump! Scuffle, scuffle. Thump! Thump! Bang! Scuffle, scuffle. Brian and I both heard it and exchanged confused looks. They don’t have monkeys here, do they? What in the hell is that? Then came a repetitive, guttural noise that almost sounded like a muffled engine trying to turn over. Ruh, ruh, ruh, ruh, ruh! Whatever that thing on the roof was, it had to be some big, bizarre, scary animal we’d never seen before. We were in Ethiopia, after all. The whole place was big, bizarre and a little scary as far as we were concerned.
We eventually left the mystery animal to its rooftop antics and started our first day in Ethiopia. With the sun up we could now check out our temporary home. We’re staying in a large house in the subcity of Bole, located on the southeast side of Addis. The property is operated by Cherokee Gives Back, which offers housing, education programs and connections to local organizations for westerners coming to volunteer in Addis. The neighborhood is eclectic, like the rest of Addis. Massive houses are under construction across the street, and a humble family compound with a sheet metal home is next door. Our housemates during our time here are Amy, Reagan and Tyson. Amy serves as the director of the local Cherokee Gives Back programs and manages the house and its staff. Reagan and Tyson are both students taking a year to volunteer abroad. They leave each morning for their internships at nonprofit organizations in the city. We’ve quickly become one big happy family here. The girls love their new roommates and all the people we’ve met. They’ve already set up forts on the patio and have raided the house’s board game collection.
We’ve also gotten to know the people working for Cherokee Gives Back and running the house. Binian helps orchestrate local volunteer partnerships and manages the finances for the organization. Asni runs the house kitchen, making all dinners and baking breads, desserts and homemade snacks throughout the day. Hana, who always has a smile on her face and has proven her jump-roping skills, handles all cleaning and laundry. Having help from the staff has been a bizarre experience. We aren’t allowed to do the dishes, laundry, major cooking or food shopping. We don’t even make our own beds. It’s a little surreal.
During our first few days here, Amy and others associated with Cherokee have taken us around the city to introduce us to restaurants and stores. We’ve also had meetings with the organizations we’ll be working with during our time here. As a result, we’ve explored Addis a lot in the short time we’ve been here.
To say Ethiopia is “different” than what we’re used to would be the understatement of the century. We westerners tend to associate cleanliness with safety. If an area of an American city looks extremely rundown, then it’s an area you don’t want to be in. With this mentality, a cursory glance of Addis would lead someone from a westernized nation to believe it’s an extremely unsafe place. Many buildings are in disrepair. Most streets lack directional signs, painted lines and sidewalks. Where there are sidewalks, they’ve often disintegrated to the point of being gravel paths. Tall modern buildings sit adjacent to corrugated metal shacks. Storefronts and signs are weathered and dirty. Piles of dirt and rubble sit next to and, in some cases, in the middle of major roads.
Poverty among the populace is also clearly visible throughout the city. Children run alongside us begging for money, and women with babies on their backs approach stopped cars. Men and women with extreme deformities sit helplessly alongside the roads. Children in tattered clothes, their bodies caked with dirt, walk the streets throughout the day.
In some ways, we’ve seen many of the things we expected to see here. However, this picture of Ethiopia is deceiving. Like that mystery animal on our roof, Addis seems more confusing and scary when you can’t see the complete picture. At first, the initial shock of its external appearance keeps a person from seeing what’s really happening in Addis. When you look closer, your eyes open to something very different.
You see people smiling and talking on those disintegrating sidewalks. You see a businesswoman discreetly hand a fresh roll from the bakery she just left to the toddler begging in the street. You realize the dirt and rubble is actually a sign of progress, the result of new building construction and the installation of a city-wide light rail system. You see the cooperation among drivers creating an easy flow of traffic, despite the complete lack of street lights or stop signs. You notice that those metal shacks are actually thriving businesses, selling everything from groceries to cell phones. You meet intelligent, motivated and kind people who are working to improve their country. You find natural beauty in the flowering trees and meadows tucked within the city and in the faces of the people you pass on the street.
In reality, Addis is not a dangerous place. People don’t have weapons and they aren’t out to hurt others. They might ask for money or offer something they’re selling, but after a slight shake of the head they quickly back away. Yes, it has immense poverty. Yes, it lacks of lot of the technological advancements and infrastructure we’ve grown accustomed to in the western world. Yes, the images can be a shock to the system at first glance. But, is it what our western minds had expected? Not really. We had anticipated the images of heartbreaking poverty, but we were ignorant to the cooperation, kindness, and progress we would see among the Ethiopian people.
On the third day we were here, just as I was beginning to see the full picture of Addis, I finally saw the big, bizarre and scary animal waking us up each morning with its loud rooftop acrobatics. Surprise, surprise…it’s just pigeons with their little claws scrambling on the metal roof.
Once I was able to see the whole picture it wasn’t so big, bizarre and scary after all.