Standing in the queue for immigration, an hour after landing, it was tempting to think nothing has changed in the six or so weeks we’d been away in the UK. The melee around the “visa on arrival” office was a vigorous as ever; the TV screen suspended high above the row of glass immigration booths was cycling the usual erroneous information that doesn’t fit on the screen – almost 5 years after we arrived for the first time it still says porters should be paid 5 Birr per bag. Then it crashed.
A Windows error appeared, and after a few minutes Windows XP re-booted. Yes – XP. (You can tell I was bored. Having been on a plane all night whilst getting little sleep and now standing in a long queue, staring at a re-booting computer wiled away the time.) The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia over on the right was displaying a big list of exchange rates. Above the list was a red LED display board that, as a year ago, rather than showing bank information was cycling through “demo mode” – variously displaying the software version, and the ways the displayed text can be changed – including being eaten by Pacman. Scattered all over the front of the bank booth are adverts for fairly unlikely services such as Internet banking, mobile banking, and “POS Service” (redundant acronym syndrome). All this in Addis? Really? Well we did once find a shop where credit cards seem to work…
But I was wrong – things were different.
After Chris and I had been to separate immigration booths (and been asked completely different questions despite having identical documents) we made our way into customs to collect our bags, all four of which were waiting for us in a pile on the floor. Bussing an Airbus A350’s worth of passengers from the far end of the airport to the terminal had taken so long the next flight’s bags were already on the belt. Bracing ourselves for the usual attempt to sneak past the x-ray machines so no-one finds all the food and medicines we’re smuggling in, we were amazed and astonished to see a new “Green Channel - Nothing To Declare” sign on the ceiling, with an open route past the man with the gun and out of customs. Not quite believing this, we pushed our trolleys through unimpeded, ignored by the officers and x-ray machines over on our left, and out into the airport concourse. Free!
A huge gaggle of people variously clutching bunches of roses and big signs with people’s names on were gathered in the car park waiting to greet arrivals, shepherded by armed federal police. For several years now no-one has been allowed anywhere near the airport terminal building to meet and greet. We weaved our way through, knowing Haile was on his way into the airport to meet us. We found him close to the car park entrance as he pulled into an empty row of parking spaces near where blue and white taxis are allowed to wait (as opposed to airport yellow taxis who can go right up to the crowds). Warm greetings were hurriedly exchanged. Chris rapidly clambered into the back, almost sitting on the bunch of roses Haile had bought for her. Fending off young men who wanted to help (and be paid of course) Haile and I manhandled the cases from the trollies on to the roof rack as quickly as we could. Jumping into the car we drove off as soon as possible. Why all the haste? Because a fierce-looking guy clutching a big metal post, chain and padlock was trying to clamp Haile’s car. The blue and white taxi spaces were the other side of the path, so Fierce Guy wanted to clamp Haile’s taxi immediately he arrived and while we were loading cases on to the roof. Let the nonsense begin.
Leaving Fierce Guy fuming in the car park and still clutching his clamp, we drove off into the streets of Addis. The contrast with the sleepy lanes of rural Cambridgeshire could hardly be more stark. Saturday mornings are less chaotic than normal, and as we drove through the city to our home in Bingham, Haile expressed a lot of positivity around recent political events under the new Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed. Apparently he now starts all sessions of Parliament with prayer, but more importantly he has made peace with Eritrea which means Haile stands a chance of seeing his father’s Eritrean family again after several decades of conflict and closed borders. Testimony to this was that, early that morning rather than flying across South Sudan, we flew down the Red Sea and across Eritrea to pass into Ethiopian air space – unthinkable a couple of months ago.
The following morning after a good night’s sleep we headed back to the airport to collect a new Bingham teacher. Unbeknown to us a famous Oromo opposition leader had just landed, and spontaneous joyful demonstrations of support blocked roads and roundabouts and made our morning much longer and more interesting than expected.
So yes, things are different. The roads are worse, the traffic just as difficult, the power cuts and water supply issues continue, but there is an air of optimism we’ve not experienced before. And there are multiple photographs of Dr Abiy plastered on many minivans and taxis. Surely a good sign.