By Winta Assefa
It’s almost been six years since I moved to this wild, lively city. But Addis Ababa always has a way of surprising me, and nobody could have given me a heads up on some of the things I would see on the road here. In the words of William Zinsser: who could invent all the astonishing things that really happen?
Depending on where you live, the tales I list here could sound like a horror story or a five-year-old’s description of a bad day at preschool. Still, this isn’t a comprehensive list. It doesn’t include all the instances strangers tried to help me find a place or avoid being robbed.
The sum of these colorful events and condensed clusters of people makes for an exciting place to live. Though the pandemic changed the way a lot of things run, here are a few incidents that I kept a record of over the years:
1. Lions on streets
The Anbessa bus is something of a city icon by now. But those vehicles are also moving containers which turn people into wiggling sardine packs.
Each of those buses has a folding door that looks flimsy from afar but can easily handle three or four people’s bodies being pressed into it. The bus has railings for the dozens of standing passengers. But I’ve gotten in there at times when you couldn’t lift an arm far enough to hold on to one. When it gets that crowded, I don’t think you need to hold on to a railing-everybody can act as everybody else’s airbag in the event of a minor accident.
“I hold the bag from the front and wrap a large shawl around my body. I’ve been asked whether I was carrying a baby a couple of times–and in a sense, I was.”
One tip that I have for those of you who’ll need to take crowded buses and minibuses is to disguise your valuable items as something else. For example, when I carry a laptop with me, I try to hold it like women hold their babies: I hold the bag from the front and wrap a large shawl around my body.
I’ve been asked whether I was carrying a baby a couple of times–and in a sense, I was.
2. Other options
One thing my cousin taught me was that different members of society opt for different public transportation options. Many people refuse to ride a ‘Higer’-a smaller, less iconic bus-or Anbessa, even when that is their only choice in sight.
Sometimes, people’s utter rejection of those routes can be comical. There could be long queues in front of minibusses that are yet to show up, redaats calling for the half-empty Higers beside them, and the people in lines would still not be tempted. It makes no sense to me.
Even if there is a higher chance of getting robbed, I usually just need to get from point A to point B fast.
There was a time a friend and I got window seats in a Higer bus, which ended up getting packed as usual. It would’ve been too annoying to squeeze through all of those people while carrying our laptop bags. Nobody else was going to get off at our destination, either.
So, I suggested that we jump out of the window instead. We did.
He held on to his laptop bag, lifted his feet to the window’s edge, and jumped on to the road. I did the same. When we walked over to the door to pay the redaat our bus fare, he seemed really confused. I don’t think we’re going to do that again.
Now, since the introduction of the social-distancing rules, nothing’s the same. But it’s not like I could say that I miss things like being sandwiched between two strangers in a two-seat minibus.
3. Dangling live wires
We have electricity wires hanging above the ground here. They’re attached to anything, from leaning wood poles to metal columns.
We also tend to have mountains of wobbly goods stacked on fast-moving trucks all over the city.
These two facts alone sound ominous enough. But one day, while waiting for a minibus in the middle of a queue in Mexico – a district in Addis Ababa, not the country – the top of one such mattress-loaded truck ran into some drooping power lines.
It got stuck there.
When it became clear that he couldn’t just free himself from the trap by pushing the gas pedal harder, the driver stopped the vehicle in the middle of the road.
He climbed the mattress-mountain, and – with his bare hands – pulled the wires free from the mattresses.
It was a suspenseful scene. Most of us were still standing in line, waiting for our minibus to come. The mattresses may have served as some sort of electrical insulation. Or perhaps, the driver hadn’t touched both wires at the same time.
I’m just grateful not to have witnessed something else.
What came next should have been filmed.
The truck had moved on, vaguely pleasant boredom started setting in again. Then we heard a loud static noise. We turned around and saw blue sparks coming from where the wires were hit. Smoke was coming out of the generator nearby, and we were too close to those wires to walk away coolly.
So, we started running in all directions. But we never left the area: we still had to go home when it was all over. Besides, the sparks began to fade away, and the suspense waned soon enough.
The odds of the live wires breaking in half, falling on one of the people there, and starting a long electrocution chain looked slim.
It became small enough that I could talk to my friends about it on Whatsapp. They sounded terrified. I bet they were scared because they weren’t there. Almost everything sounds worse from a distance: fights, muggings, possible mass electrocutions.
That’s the sort of resilience and mental numbness the city could leave you with. You could experience something peculiar one day and forget about how much it scared you in a week.
Many of you may argue that what I just described are some symptoms of a chronic systemic problem. And you would be right.
But I bet our children and grandchildren, who may live in a safer, better-lit Addis Ababa wouldn’t come home with such wacky stories to entertain their families.