Old Neighbourhoods Deserve the Authorities’ Attention

The lack of maintenance in parts of the city that have cultural and historical importance still confronts the city. Just as unfortunate is the gentrification that seems to pay little attention to the needs and wants of the residents there, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(assegued@anfilo.com).

Two flustered Israeli tourists are sitting behind a taxi that has stopped at an intersection in Qechene, just north of Piazza in Addis Abeba. The driver, equally harassed for he has lost his way, is asking a small crowd that has gathered around the vehicle on how to get to a Jewish Temple.

The tourists, bewildered and confused, have attracted the attention of the neighborhood and everyone is trying to decipher whether such a place as a Jewish Temple exists in the small mountain helmet.

The taxi drives around for a while before an older man is found who seems to know the location. After a furious back and forth to ascertain the veracity of the information, the old man settles in the front seat, and to everyone’s relief, the driver speeds away and turns into a side street, presumably in the direction of the Jewish Temple.

Qechene is an old settlement of artisans, potters, cobblers, blacksmiths, musicians and merchants nestled in the Afro-Alpine mountain forests that once circled the northern boundary of the city. The ancient forests, now replaced by Eucalyptus groves, are part of the Gullele and Entoto Mountains where the headwaters of the Aqaqi River begin their flows southwards from springs and streams tucked away in the wooded landscape.

It is a good thing that the tourists from Israel have not come to Qechene to admire the forest habitat, the natural perennial springs, the deep-cut gorges, or the flowing freshwater of Bantyaketu River that teems with fish and aquatic creatures.  Had they done as such, they would have been disappointed because what greets visitors today in Qechene is an urban slum, crammed and crumbling houses, and a dirty opaque river afflicted with decades of neglect and abuse.

Qechene, rich in history and filled with culture and traditions, has been relegated to the bottom ranks and has been forgotten by the City Administration.

The government had introduced leasehold as a land lease system since 1993, and technically owns the very land under the citizens’ feet. Since the mid-seventies, for almost 50 years, entire neighbourhoods like Qechene have become government tenements, occupied by landless renters. In this span of time, the homes, shops and streets have been barely maintained, repaired or upgraded.

As a result, living conditions in these tenements, a.k.a municipal houses, have been steadily deteriorating and decaying. In Qechene, the neighbourhoods are as if they have remained frozen in the intervening time between the middle ages and today.

Like a scene from London in the 16th century, there are the muddy, cobbled, slippery, congested and narrow streets that crisscross the village wildly; tattered galleries of canvas shops and homes abut each other in crazy patterns; and cleft, slime and grime baked walls lean precariously at awkward angles.

The broken, dilapidated and patched roofs overlap one another in a confused array of deteriorations; fenced off compounds shelter unspeakable squalor; and the decaying neighbourhoods are overwhelmed with rot, refuse and garbage.

“Not only the nose, but the stomach is assaulted,” a 15th-century diarist recorded about 15th century London, with the nauseating odour that emanates from the open trenches, and the oozing contents of failed septic tanks and pit-latrines.

Along the streets heaps of rotting vegetables, meat and fish are mixed with trash and mud. The occasional blotted carcass of a dog that is about to explode adds to the disarray and muddle in Qechene.

After decades of failures to provide the necessary upkeep and repairs of these government owned properties, the Administration’s solution to the urban plight, created by its own neglect, is to send bulldozers and demolish entire sections of the city in a sweep.

This is usually done without regard to history, tradition, culture or social values. There are barely any public hearings, community engagements or proper notices. Essentially, erasing homes and associated intrinsic and cultural attributes of the city are done by fiat.

In the process, the citizens, never consulted in the first place, are continually impoverished by being pushed to the margins, and by being denied their irreplaceable heritage. Whole neighbourhoods are wiped out as has happened in Kzanchese, Piazza, Lideta, Dejazmach Webe Sefer and Arat Kilo.

In a July 2017 article, Reuters distinctly articulated the current situation in Ethiopia stating that, “in 2011, the municipality decided to clear all government housing in the city centre to make a modern business district. The government also extended the nationalisation of urban land and eliminated all remaining forms of transferable and inherited private property in the city.

“Renovation programs intensified in the subsequent years, often with the demolition of entire neighbourhoods. From 2009 to 2015, the city expropriated about 400 hectares of inner-city land and tore down a total of 23,151 dilapidated houses, according to UN-Habitat.”

The cultural and historical heritage of the city, indeed the country, are under assault by neglectfulness and a misguided understanding of the values that these old communities represent.

Amidst the disarray of this city, it beguiles the mind to read about the Administration’s recent announcement that it plans to construct a new city hall.

A question should be directed to the municipality – how well has the current city hall been maintained?

The city is also planning to renovate the lower reaches of the Bantyaketu River with riverside landscaping and recreational project along the river banks. One must wait to see what the Administration is planning for this important but deteriorated river.

Good governance dictates that municipal government should instead use the money to fix the infrastructure of the city that has completely collapsed. It is an annoyance to the citizens to laud a project and spend public treasures on a new building when rubbish carts are still used, as if we are still in the middle ages, to haul trash from the neighbourhoods.

There is, indeed, a Jewish Temple in Qechene, part of the mysticism of the hamlet that has engendered a whole narrative about followers of Judaism, known as Beta Israel.  They have sprouted a pilgrimage of sort by some Israelis that wish to visit the temple.

The conservation and protection of what remains of our historic neighbourhoods like Qechene must be a concern to all of us and an important aspect of our new awakening.

By AMBESSAW ASSEGUED( assegued@anfilo.com).

Published on Jul 14,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 950]



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