I had arranged with Biruk, my friendly neighbourhood student cum taxi-driver, that he should take me on a relatively informal tour of the city. During my previous brief trip, I had already taken an organised tour, so had already visited the major tourist attractions – the museum (containing Lucy, another candidate for mankind’s earliest ancestor), the park overlooking the city, the market. What I had in mind some lower key places, giving more of a flavour of the real Addis.
Unsurprisingly, given such a vague brief, Biruk struggled a little to know what I wanted, so when I mentioned churches, this gave him an obvious set of destinations, and we visited three or four. Having read that some Ethiopian churches were spectacular, I fear I was a little disappointed. They were certainly hives of activity. There was a lot of commercial activity going on, most notably at the first and largest, St Gabriel’s, with stalls selling memorabilia, religious books, parasols, and small children attempting to sell candles. And there were a lot of people who were there for devotional reasons. Prayer in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, seems to involve a lot of kneeling, and kissing the ground, the fabric of the church, the doors.
But so far as I could tell, and as Biruk indicated, they were not open (or at least not open to me.) And as buildings they were not of great interest, greatly resembling each other – a square footprint, onto which a circular structure, topped by a dome, was built. And since I was unable to see what they looked like on the inside, it was all a bit perfunctory; we would park, walk into the grounds, walk around the outside, and return to the car.
The one church I did appreciate more was St George’s, for a variety of reasons. It was far less busy and frantic. It was cool and shady, with plenty of trees. In celebration of some festival or other, the place was decorated with brightly coloured flags and bunting, using the ubiquitous Ethiopian colours of green, yellow and red. And it all seemed far more like a normal, worki9ng church, with a class of small children sitting in a circle, being led in some devotional chanting.
The other lifeline I threw out to Biruk came when I spotted a road-sign indicating the way to the National Theatre (which I suppose corresponded to my own personal church.) I expressed a desire to see it, and off we went. There were some lively theatre posters on display outside, suggesting that it was open for business, but the building was disappointingly shabby, and when I peered in through the grimy front doors, it seemed, like so much else here, to be going through some renovations. I had hoped that during my stay here, I might be able to see some local theatre, but that seems increasingly unlikely. My hosts live in scattered parts of the city, and in any case none of them has their own car, and in any case I do not think they have a great deal of disposable income to spend on hospitality. But never mind.