I started to be nervous on the final decent of the Ethiopian Air Lines Boeing 777. The last time I was in Addis was the day I left Addis itself. That was 15 years ago although it felt like 150 years. Then, I was an ambitious young man in his mid-20s. I was going back with some gray hair and few extra pounds, thanks to the burgers in Mid-West, from Detroit to Cleveland, where I spent almost 12 years.
The airport was filled with many people but almost a third were my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and friends. It wasn’t until few days later that I realized how emotional I was to see family , friends and Addis itself, after a decade and half. The cameras and iPhones had captured the moment.
Addis has changed in many ways. It’s sky line is dotted by tall buildings. There are glamorous coffee shops, restaurants, hotels. The recently completed train tracks have given it another dimension to its growth. Driving by my old neighborhood, Sengatera, I witnessed the high rise condos in place of once a shanty neighborhood where we grew up playing soccer.
Pure and simple, Addis is a city in renaissance.
And that is until you take a ride to some of the remaining downtrodden neighborhoods. The shortage of electricity and water can be frustrating. Poverty was not new to me. I saw it up close in Detroit and East Cleveland but what worried me the most was the gap between the rich and the poor, as wide as imagination itself.
One Sunday morning I took my nieces and nephews, who were excited to put name and face together of their uncle, to a nearby building with play stations for children. This was unheard of back in 2000 when I left Addis. That was when the people of Ethiopia were 65 million, before the 30 million or so new faces were added. It was a four or five story building with gym, coffee shops, playing stations for children. The owner was as surprised to see me wondering around how this business was transforming the neighborhood with healthy choices such as gym and kid’s games among its business unlike the many bars I witnessed. In the 15 years I called North America home, an old friend and his business partner had toiled day and night to build this business. I was so happy to see one of my own making a change. From there we went to one of the cultural dining halls in the city center. It was lent. The vegetarian dish everywhere I went was amazing. We feasted on injera, lentils, greens, you name it. We danced to the beats of Amarigna, Tigrigna, Guragigna, Oromigna and other cultural songs. My nephews and nieces were so good at all the cultural dances that the band invited them on the stage. I was delighted to see them happy.
In another day at St Paul hospital, one of the teaching hospitals in Addis, I witnessed how a dedicated young physician was trying to help the far too many patients that were lined up. I visited the dialysis unit, the upcoming transplant center, met the many energetic and ambitious physicians who are trying to improve the lives of patients with kidney disease.
It was hard to finally leave. The children won’t stop crying. They thought perhaps they won’t see me again in another 15 years. They perhaps don’t realize how much they helped me re-connect, ask myself on what tangible things I have contributed to their future. What have I really given back to Sengatera, to Addis, to Ethiopia?
To those of us who call both Ethiopia and the US home, it was a wake-up call to do more…