Partying in the Suburbs
“Which roundabout?” asks John into his phone (again), “The first, second or third?”. We can’t hear Tigist’s reply but John’s startling patience continues – we’ve been at this for nearly half an hour. “Is that the one at the end of the railway construction?” he asks again, as I slowly keep driving round a huge roundabout at the end of the railway construction. The roundabout is piled high with concrete sleepers, coils of cable and piles of unidentifiable junk.
“You’re by the ring road??” he asks, slightly aghast, as the ring road is a dozen or more kilometres back the way we’ve come. It shouldn't be this difficult – there is after all only one main road out here east of Addis and after the third mini-town of new and partially constructed blocks of flats it just stops in the middle of nowhere. A few more questions later we decide Tigist must be at the second roundabout not the third; that she’s calling the CMC road the ring road; that “CMC Square” must actually be round; we must have driven past it (possibly twice), and that she’s looking at a different branch of the Wegagen bank from the one we can see. We head back the way we came (again) and after identifying two of Tigist’s landmarks (a lot of sheep and someone selling bananas) we see her – resplendent in traditional dress and sporting both a huge smile and huge sunglasses that she carries off with some success. She squeezes into the back of our already full little Toyota and tries to greet us in a typically Ethiopian way which for me strapped into the driver’s seat was quite a challenge but I think our cheeks met at some point. A few minutes later she’s navigated us into the middle of what can only be described as a vast building site and we park - some 2 1/2 hours after leaving Bingham. Tigist leads us up several flights of (unfinished) stairs to a flat that’s surprisingly finished given the surrounding devastation. Here we meet her mum, dad and family and settle in to enjoy the celebrations. Tigist is one of my clinic nurses and it’s her nephew Aaron’s first birthday and that means a big party. Audra, John, Chris and I are shepherded to the most comfortable seats and the next few hours are a cultural revelation. Much we were already familiar with – the greetings, the food, the soft drinks, the coffee ceremony, the seemingly random comings and goings of numerous people and the traditional dress. Aaron, being just one, is befuddled by it all as is his older cousin Moses. Tigist’s dad, as the patriarch of the family, sits in lordly fashion in the midst of it all being waited on hand and foot. Tigist’s mum bustles confidently about, orchestrating the proceedings. After a while we are politely moved off the sofas so the family can gather and take hundreds of photos that involve party hats, false noses, a cake with a couple of fireworks sticking out and icing being smeared on various faces. Ethiopians sing beautifully and (unlike most British men) completely unselfconsciously but we have discovered that they simply can’t sing “Happy Birthday To You” in tune although they try. After cake and more coffee we eventually take our leave having discovered another aspect of this amazing culture – you really go to town on your child’s first birthday. This is understandable – with an infant mortality rate of 59 per thousand live births making it to your first birthday is an achievement. (Compare this to a rate of 4.5 in the UK – over 12 times lower).
We had visited one of the areas where the Ethiopian government has embarked an a programme of building high-rise accommodation and it’s quite boggling. The whole city is littered with half-built tower blocks and out in the distant suburbs where this party was held it is truly astonishing. I’m sure if you put together all the incomplete buildings we saw yesterday on our foray out east you would have a town not much smaller than St Albans. But in a city designed for 500,000 with an actual population of around 5 million more accommodation is desperately needed.