Addis Ababa (Jan Morris, A Writer’s World, 2003)


“Addis Ababa, too, is in an indigestive condition, and having some trouble with its juices, but it possesses nevertheless a certain leonine dignity.


I cannot call it a handsome city. Its pattern is formless and straggly, its architecture ranges from the mud shack to the pseudo-Corbusier by way of a thousand baroque and Bauhaus aberrations.


It is a city without much focus, slums and palaces intermingled – ponytailed misses streaming out of the Lycée, palsied beggars crawling on blistered knees through the market.


It offers no shock of vicious contrast, for its separate elements are too intimately fused, but physically it is a faceless kind of place, a little blurred perhaps, a little splodgy.


Among African cities today Addis Ababa is one of the cleanest, one of the least squalid, one of the calmest. This is partly politics, for it is the capital of a patriarchal autocracy not at all encouraging to the effervescence and high jinks; but it is mostly geo-history.


Addis compensates for what it is by being where it is, and when. Around it the delightful Shoa highlands lie like a Wiltshire invocation, and groves of junipers, larches, figs and eucalyptus trees sidle into the heart of the city, like the magical forests that invest Kyoto. A glorious half-Alpine climate gives a sparkle and a sting to this capital, keeps it free from sludge and stinks, fructifies its shanty slums and humours the wild polychromatic abstracts painted on the walls of its newest apartment blocks.”


(Jan Morris, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday with a new publication—brilliantly serialized on BBC4—visited Addis Ababa in the late 1960s)