Don’t carry any valuables when you walk the city streets. Leave your wallet in your hotel room. And watch out for pickpockets and scammers; they’re everywhere.
Such were the endless warnings I’d heard before setting out on a recent trip to Africa with my boyfriend, Ryan. And now, sitting in a thatch-roofed, grass-walled building in Addis Ababa, drinking peanut tea with Danny and William, two locals who’d approached us as we strolled through the city on our first night in town, they were coming back at me with a vengeance.
As William talked about how his mother would always make him some of the tea, known as lowse chai, whenever he was sick, I suddenly realized that we were smack in the middle of a classic Addis Ababa scam scenario that I’d seen several times online while preparing for the trip. Two or three young men approach you, act friendly, walk and talk and lead you into a bar or cafe, where you buy them a couple of drinks and then get dinged with an outrageous bill that you’re threatened with violence into paying.
The tea was good, though — it’s just peanut butter and hot water — and filling enough to make up for the breakfast I’d missed that morning. So I asked for the bill and waited for the hammer to fall.
The charge came to 36 birr — roughly $2.
I should have known. Addis was the last of four cities that we visited on a 10-day trip to East Africa, and every one of them had come with a warning: Don’t go out by yourself; don’t go out at night; watch yourself in the market. The Ethiopian capital was by far the largest of the four, so I’d figured that it may actually be as dangerous as everyone said.
But for the hundredth time on this trip, I was learning that the only people more timid than travelers in a foreign land are the people who take vicarious responsibility for their safety.
This timidity arises out of more than a false sense of danger. Most tourists stay away from African cities because they know far more about the countryside. So many have no notion of Tanzanian music, Ethiopian art or Kenyan literature, all of which are found in their most concentrated and accessible forms in cities. But we think of these cities only as safari gateways. When we dream of Africa, we see animals, not people.
But Ryan and I had come to East Africa expressly to see its cities. I’d recently read Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 piece in Granta, “How to Write About Africa,” which poignantly describes how much more interested visitors tend to be in the continent’s flora and fauna than in its humans, and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake. We’re city travelers, anyhow. We got to know Europe and Asia and South America through their cities. Why should Africa be any different?
The tourist fixation on wild Africa is a shame, because it means that we tend to miss things like the Ethiopian National Museum’s gorgeous 16th century Amharic paintings, colorful and devotional, reminiscent of medieval European iconography. I don’t know what I thought was happening in Ethiopia in the 16th century, but this certainly wasn’t it. Ryan and I stood in front of one massive canvas after another depicting the life of Jesus and scenes of martyrdom created by artists known only by their very specific areas of specialty: the Masters of the Crucifixion, the Masters of Dark Eyelids and the Masters of Christ Advancing to the Right in the Resurrection.