A New Flower that Keeps Blossoming

Legend has it, Empress Taitu Betul, the famous wife of Emperor Menelik II, after a relaxing bath at Filwoha hot springs, stepped outside to find a beautiful novel flower completely unfamiliar to her eyes. She did not know what to call it, so she decided to name the entire surrounding area after it – simply “New Flower.” Her husband was even more obliging; New Flower, or Addis Abeba in Amharic, was proclaimed the capital city of Ethiopia.

For more than 250 years, the capital of the country was Gondar. Located to the north of Addis Abeba, Gondar was founded by another emperor, Fasiladas (who built a famous castle there), as the first ever permanent city. A long time before Menelik was even born, Gondar has served as a crash course to how fast a city can grow ones it finds itself the seat of an administrative government.

Growth and prosperity did not come to Addis Abeba until the 1910s. It was an area famous for its thick forests, especially eucalyptus trees, strewn over hilly terrains. It was not, granted, a very amenable place to live in. At the same time, the newly established city also had a fantastic climate, with temperate summers and gentle rainy seasons.

Taitu had a moderate house right next to the Filwoha hot springs. It was rebuilt and transformed to the Imperial Palace Head of States residence now. Other members of the ruling party also moved to the new and aptly named capital. Addis Abeba became the city of the rich and powerful; a city of nobility. But the greatest boost to the city’s allure came with the construction of a terminal railroad stretching from Addis Abeba to the port of Djibouti.

The rest is history. With a single direct route to a very important port – a lifeline of the country to this day – Addis Abeba rose to become the commercial hub of the country with surprising ease (the fact other cities were derelict might have helped). There was an influx of people, most of them farmers who came looking for land (which explains where all those forests went).

Although the five year occupation of the country by Mussolini’s Italy might have been grim for the Ethiopian people, the city might have benefited from it. Italy declared Addis Abeba the capital of East African Italy. Major projects were undertaken, perhaps because the Italians believed they were here to stay. Buildings were built, roads were paved and drain systems were introduced to a degree never before seen.

This type of infrastructural activity had such an impact on the country, and the city, that modern Ethiopian construction lingo is actually Italian. The major beneficiaries of this Italian ingenuity were perhaps the neighborhoods who to this day bear Italian names like Kazanchis, Merkato or Piasa. The reign of Haile Selassie I brought about even greater changes.

At a very important juncture during the Emperor’s reign, the city was named the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, now African Union (AU). Addis Abeba continues to serve in this capacity, even at a time where there are more affluent cities in the African continent like Johannesburg or Cairo. At an important AU conference, where a replacement for the seat of the headquarters was proposed, history redeemed the city.

Only over a year or so ago, there were several protests around the Oromia region, where the capital is located deep within, over a proposed “Master Plan.” The government responded with scraping the proposal, in an effort to calm tensions, but the basis on why the scheme was proposed in the first place remained unsolved.

Let me relate a personal anecdote. I have a cousin born and raised in Gondar. He went to the state owned Hawassa University and got a degree in Water Engineering. He graduated only last year, and after a month-long stint in Gondar where he tried to look for a job, is now living in Addis Abeba. He plans to find a job and continue to live here; yet another victim of Addis Abeba’s allure to youngsters and an ideal example of the overwhelming youth influx to the city.

At the current rate with which adults are migrating to Addis Abeba, the city will need to create thousands – if not tens of thousands – of jobs every year. This means an ever growing number of companies have to be opened, either by local or foreign investors. More companies mean more offices and more offices mean more buildings or land. Alas, the dilemma.

Of course, Addis Abeba is a very big city. New real-estate suburbs are popping out around places in the city where no one thought possible. Roads continue to be paved, crisscrossing the capital in asphalt trails. The result is a more diluted, ever more diversified city, as opposed to the dense settlement of only a limited number of neighborhoods. There is only one future for Addis Abeba – change. Like all other capital cities – London, New York – Addis Abeba is where change comes to first. A city more mature and tolerant than all others: the pulsating heart of the country and a final destination of the young.

Many people talk about changing the country, bringing about a political or social evolution. But if there is ever an “evolution,” any type of progress, it will probably come from Addis Abeba.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com

Published on Mar 11,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 879]



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