If we skip the city in favor of the more obvious tourist attractions — the stone church ruins of Lalibela, 200 miles north of the city, or the Dallol crater, 130 miles east — we wouldn’t see the gorgeous late-modernist Kennedy Library at Addis Ababa University, which Robert F. Kennedy opened and dedicated in 1966. (You’ll have to admire it from the outside, though; it’s for students only.)
Sadder still, we might miss how central the coffee ceremony, jebna bunna, is to everyday urban life in this aggressively friendly city. You may have seen versions of it in Ethiopian restaurants at home. But having experienced it here, in coffee’s birthplace, where it’s at least as much about talking to your geisha-like server and your fellow caffeinators sitting around her on little stools, I can tell you that it’s not something you want to pass up.
We saw the setup half a dozen times in our walks around town — in malls, the lobbies of office complexes, in restaurants — but with groups of mostly men perched on little stools in avid conversation with the hostess and one another every time, it seemed as if it might be crashing a party to join.
It wasn’t until we got to the airport on our way back home that we decided to sit, and were instantly sorry that we hadn’t been joining in all along. As our hostess ground the beans she’d been roasting, handed us small bowls of the traditional jebna bunna popcorn and added more frankincense to the censer surrounding our little party in a halo of piney citrus, we said hello to three businessmen from Kampala and Khartoum who were already into their small cups. We swapped impressions of Addis, and then spent a lively 10 minutes after the businessmen had left trying out our meager Amharic vocabulary on our mistress of ceremonies. I saw now why everyone was so sociable around these parts.
DANCING IN THE STREET
It’s not just the ancient and complex and mostly happy culture of Ethiopia that repays your attention to Africa’s cities. Tanzania is barely 50 years old, but it’s got stories to tell.
In the city of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, Ryan and I occasionally came upon roadside music and dancers. Wherever they set up in the pleasant, 60-degree, high-altitude Tanzanian summer, small crowds would gather. Stopping at one such gathering, we realized that these groups of boys were hired to attract attention to TV and stereo equipment sales by performing and dancing to the Tanzanian hip-hop fusion called bongo flava. Sung in a combination of Swahili and English, this music takes elements not only from American hip hop but also from reggae, dancehall, 19th-century Zanzibarian taarab and dansi, sometimes called Tanzanian jazz. And the dancing? Picture Tupac in a boy band that learned to dance from a Grandmaster Flash-era break dancer who ended up touring with Janet Jackson.
You can keep your giraffes.
We spent our one full day in Arusha with Raphiele, a 20-something friend of a woman we’d met in Moshi, the other major town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, near the Kenyan border, where we’d spent a couple of lazy days. They were both trying to set up tour guide businesses, and although Raphiele was going to concentrate, like everyone else, on safaris to nearby Arusha and Serengeti National Parks, when we said that we just wanted to look around his home town, he said he’d give taking us on a tour a shot.