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nightlife and nightmares: addis ababa in the dark

November 29, 2010

view over addis from hilltop restaurant, shola (courtesy of the lovely tori morgan)

Every evening, a curious phenomenon sweeps across Addis – utter desolation. At seven, even eight o’clock, its streets still teem with hawkers, walkers and talkers (the role of streets in social life merits a whole other blogpost, but suffice to say, it’s large). And then, suddenly, it’s nine and there is no-one to be seen. The dot-to-dot of headlights dwindles to a few intermittent points. The streets are deserted.

That’s not to say everyone’s locked themselves away – bars, restaurants and later, clubs, all do a roaring trade, but blue-and-white taxis suddenly monopolize the roads, shuttling merry-makes to their usual haunts. The ubiquitous minibuses have stopped running. Everyone is inside.

I’m not saying Croydon or even London is a riot of street-life in the evenings, but traipse any urban high street in the height of night and you’ll encounter many people in various states of sobriety/undress/kebab consumption. (I’m also not saying I want Addis to emulate this brilliant situation, but my point is – people walk the streets at night.) The complete contrast between day and night-time Addis strikes me as odd. What IS it about the dark?

The easy answer: ‘cultural differences’. Ethiopians tend to get up, and then go to bed, earlier in the day. At Oxfam the working day is eight til half past four, for example, and a lot of the staff have fairly early curfews – expats, I think, tend to stay up later. (My ex-soldier friend also had to get up at 5 every day for three years – but that might just be martial madness).

In a (largely) season-less year, the sun always rolls around at 6-ish, and sets about 13 hours later, so this makes sense. Walking to school in the bright morning sunlight each day, I’d see farmers who’d got up before the crack of dawn to travel into Addis and sell their produce. And the farmers still in the countryside obviously, well, make hay while the sun shines. In a country where 85% of people are engaged in agriculture, it’s no wonder schedules are more sun-sensitive.

making meskel when the sun shines (selling it in addis)

When I asked Teddy, a talkative taxi driver, why the streets were so empty at night, he simply said, ‘this is Africa’. Maybe it is a pan-continental phenomenon. There’s also, though, a cause endemic to cities the world over: fear. ‘Poor people – they want things. They will attack you,’ adds Teddy, reassuringly.

While this is pretty debatable, taxis make such brisk trade (and hike their prices so much) at night because people are indeed too scared to walk. One Ethiopian friend warns me that, in my part of town, I should be indoors by seven (other areas are apparently safe until the grand hour of nine). Mugging incidences, especially on foreigners (farenjis) are on the rise, as my Coloradan colleague discovered first-hand (via rocks to the face, no less). While on balance, Addis is far better than most big cities – London included – for crime, its night-time population does seem disproportionately composed of troublemakers and prostitutes.

The 6pm curfew that used to be in place might also have something to do with Addis’ aversion to dark – though probably not as much as the night-time massacres it facilitated.

It was Maeve, who taught here in the 70s during the infamous communist Derg regime, who told me about the curfew. The Derg, she said, claimed it was to protect the people of Addis. Things happen in the dark. And some of these things – people meeting, causing trouble, maybe resisting the regime – were certainly undesirable to a regime preoccupied with control.

The worst of the things that happened in the dark, though, were undeniably those perpetrated by the Derg itself. ‘Not all the bodies lining the streets are sleeping’, Philip Marsden observed in his travelogue. To his eye, Addis was a city paralysed by fear: darkness, of course, is the perfect cover for murder. Apparently Derg agents would visit the houses of malcontents – imagined or real – and shoot them, before dragging the bodies outside. People wouldn’t know until the morning, when they would wake up and find the corpses. Maeve recounted how a vicar discovered thirteen victims who had been lined up against the wall of his church and shot.

The Derg regime fell almost twenty years ago, so who knows if the dark still conjures uneasiness on this account. Either way, there’s something sad about this nighttime city. Addis is so wonderful during the day; I think it’s time its citizens reclaimed the night. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2010 6:41 PM

    Really well-written article, Sophie!

    • November 29, 2010 7:41 PM

      Thanks so much Ross, it really means a lot to me to hear that people like what I’m writing! Hope you’re good.

      Had a perusal of your blog too – I can’t say I understand it all, but it looks very eloquent. My next post is probably going to be on the importance of football, might be right up your street! (the importance of football, I can’t believe I just said that 🙂 )


  2. December 1, 2010 6:13 PM

    I am quite shocked by how different the customs are in Addis to what I’m familiar with – and to what I expected. You give such an eloquent insight that goes beyond what Western media could tell us, and you also kinda work these threads of personal experience (cab driver!! lol) as well as deliciously dark historical stuff. I think you structured it so well in that respect. APPLAUSE. ENCORE plz.

  3. January 1, 2011 3:51 PM

    Terrific post! We interviewed an extraodinary man called Andrew Borraine, Chief Exec of the Cape Town Partnership, when we were in Cape Town for Grantourismo recently and he said getting people back onto the streets and making the streets safe first was an important part of making Cape Town a more liveable city – for locals as much as visitors. I think you’ll find his writings interesting. Take a look at his blog here:

  4. January 10, 2011 12:20 PM

    Thanks for the link – really interesting stuff. I totally agree with the importance of a city being walkable for visitors – I’ve learnt it’s really the only way to really get to know a place, get off the beaten track and meet people. and in the day at least, it’s so obvious streets are the centre of social life here…

    I especially like his stuff on legible london – even though it’s my hometown I’m one of those people who gets the tube everywhere cause they have no idea how the surface links together!



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