Ethiopia: A country suspended in time?

By Alpha Abebe

Image Copyright: Alpha Abebe

In development studies, it’s become rather stale to critique Walt Rostow – the grandfather of neoliberal ideology – and his 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. We’ve seemingly moved past the tempting notion that a country’s health can be measured along a linear path of economic growth. And it should go without saying that it is no longer useful or appropriate to talk about societies as “backward and traditional”. And the concept of ‘modernity’ –the idea that certain countries somehow exist outside of time and are waiting to catch up with the rest – is ironically outdated itself. However, one has to wonder whether mainstream representations of Africa have moved far enough away from these stubborn tropes.

I was left wondering this very thing after reading Mary Harper’s recent piece for BBC News Africa: Ethiopia’s ‘cupcake divide’ in Addis Ababa. From the title and content of the article, one gets the impression that the author was dumbfounded to stumble upon traces of 21st century existence in the middle of Africa. Her article is framed as a commentary on the rapid industrialization in Addis Ababa, juxtapositioned against the country’s chronic poverty and political uncertainty. However, this story is buried beneath a rather colourful depiction of Addis Ababa, a city apparently suspended between two centuries and trying to decide which to settle in:

“… Every time I go to Addis Ababa, more tall, sparkling buildings take me by surprise and confuse my bearings.

This time, in amongst the concrete shells of impressive new constructions, I saw an advert for “skyscraper window cleaners”.

Modernity has brought with it some interesting new job opportunities.

Addis Ababa is simultaneously highly globalised and seemingly stuck in a highly traditional, highly Ethiopian way of life and doing politics.

The city is currently in deep mourning for Ethiopia’s longstanding leader, Meles Zenawi, who died in August. This was a man who, despite being one of the West’s great allies in Africa, found it difficult to tolerate opposition – whose human rights record was poor, but whose people do not seem to be able to let him go.

His funeral resembled a medieval pageant, with giant umbrellas, white horses in black cloaks, and tens of thousands of weeping mourners following his coffin through the streets of Addis Ababa, as rain beat down on them from the grey skies above.

But back now to the other world of a modern African city.

My afternoon of cupcakes and beer was followed by an evening of music. The Jazzamba Lounge – which opened a few years ago – is in the old ballroom of what is described as the oldest hotel in Addis Ababa. And it was here that I found another bit of almost post-modern globalisation.

As I sat eating a perfect Italian pizza, I watched a salsa class in full swing. Cuban music soared into the night, as Ethiopian teenagers sashayed around the dance floor, in the red and gold of the grand old ballroom.

Outside the Jazzamba Lounge, there was wild activity.

In one little nightclub a crowd – almost exclusively male – danced to reggae. In another, I was confronted almost immediately with a gyrating bottom, as a prostitute swung her assets to a man seemingly more interested in his beer than her backside.

Outside, there were beggars break-dancing in the dust…”

Modernity, post-modern, stuck, traditional, medieval … these are some of the words used throughout this article that breathe life into a discourse many have fought hard to kill. Even if one were to subscribe to this worldview, it is incredibly misleading to describe the opening of a new jazz lounge as a signifier of ‘a modern African city’, as if to completely gloss over half a century of Ethiopian jazz music (which ironically has influenced generations of ‘modern’ Western musicians). And “beggars break-dancing in the dust”!? Well that critique just writes itself.

There is much to analyze, comment, marvel, and report about in Africa, but surely we can do this in more creative and less damaging ways. This plea is echoed in Binyavanga Wainaina’s tongue-in-cheek essay How (Not) to Write About Africa, a narrated version of which went viral on YouTube. Is Ethiopia a highly complex and rapidly changing place? Yes. Is it wrought with contradictions and challenges? Yes. Are there less sensational and more nuanced ways of describing this? I think so. And perhaps this is the optimist in me, but I think the world is ready to listen to that story for a change.


Filed under Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

3 responses to “Ethiopia: A country suspended in time?

  1. jrpweis

    “Yes, there is a growing middle class that frequents shopping malls, coffee bars and pizza restaurants – much like the middle classes of Europe and the US. But scratch the surface and another world exists.” As if another world doesn’t exist in Europe and the US? I write this from Washington DC. Contrast the neighbourhoods within the district, the very seat of American power, and tell me there is not a divide. Of course I’m not the first to acknowledge this, but it’s frustrating to have this so deeply problematized only when in Africa. That someone can be so “shocked.” What does Mary Harper think when back in London?

  2. dejazmach

    “Modernity, post-modern, stuck, traditional, medieval … these are some of the words used throughout this article that breathe life into a discourse many have fought hard to kill.” What in the world is wrong with these words? and which discourse are you talking about?

    You also say: “And the concept of ‘modernity’ –the idea that certain countries somehow exist outside of time and are waiting to catch up with the rest – is ironically outdated itself.” I don’t think thats the right depiction of the phenomenon or word. You maybe talking about modernization theory, which is a whole different matter..

    Whilst harper’s narrative is generally a bit tasteless I cant say i disagree with her point about the coexistence of two different worlds in Addis and generally Ethiopia(i.e. modern and traditional). and it is after all a BBC report not ethnographic research

    • Thanks for your thoughts dejazmach. You’re right, independently and without historical context those words are benign. However, when looked at collectively within the context of this article, but more importantly — the history of Western discourse on Africa — they are far from it. To think that this article exists outside of that historical context would be a mistake. As for ‘the concept of modernity’, again I am talking about it within the context of development and African studies in this article – and you’re right, it would probably be more precise to cite modernization theory but I do see the two as linked. Like I’ve tried to communicate in the article, I am not denying the contradictions and complexity found in Ethiopia… but I refuse to believe that we can’t find more tasteful and informed ways of describing this (as we seemingly have found for other parts of the world). “…and it is after all a BBC report” — this is not a flyby commentary that was published, it’s an article written by an accomplished and respected journalist in one of the most widely read news outlets in the world. Words matter.

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