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 Ethio¬pian 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?
Of canvas and coffee
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.
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 streets
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.
We spent about 12 hours walking around this city of 350,000. Countless artisans, selling mostly to Tanzanian tourists, give the place a sort of Brooklyn vibe. We stopped by the stand of a friend of Raphiele’s, who sells jewelry made mostly from bike parts; he turns brake parts into rings and chains into bracelets. Ryan bought a shiny bracelet for $4. Nothing cost more than $5.
Arusha is home to the East African Community headquarters and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. We walked past a sign for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and I remembered that this is where they hold and try the genocidaires.
It’s where the accords ending the Rwandan civil war were signed. It’s also where the Arusha Declaration, an African statement of human rights, was drawn up in 1967. That document memorably says, “The development of a country is brought about by people, not by money. Money, and the wealth it represents, is the result and not the basis of development.”
Like many East African cities, Arusha is big on cafes, and when Raphiele heard the slight squeal I tried to suppress when I saw coffee bushes outside one of them, he asked whether we’d be interested in seeing a plantation. So we hopped in a cab, and about 10 minutes and $3 later, we were on the outskirts of town in the middle of thousands of bushes of unripened coffee cherries on a plantation by the side of the road. The sun was setting and Mount Meru, the continent’s fifth-highest and most picturesque mountain, loomed on the horizon.
Deciding to walk back to town, we came upon the Arusha Coffee Lodge, an upscale hotel in the middle of its own coffee plantation. In the manicured courtyard, we had a cup of the coffee that was grown about 20 feet away. The small nocturnal mammal known as a bush baby staring adorably down at us from a nearby tree gave me a hint as to what all the safari enthusiasm is about, but the sun was down and a chill was rolling in, and I was happy to be able to call a cab and be back at our hotel before the last butterscotchy charcoal notes of the coffee left my palate.
City bar vs. Zanzibar
Just as Arusha and Moshi are, for most tourists, gateways to Mount Kilimanjaro and the national parks, so Dar es Salaam is where you catch the ferry to Zanzibar. But we weren’t going there. We had one full day in Dar, and two nights, both of which, it being Ramadan in this mostly Muslim city, we spent walking through the Kariakoo, the huge market area with its late-night street food scene, featuring roasted meats, or nyama choma in Kiswahili.
During the day, the roads are filled with bustle. At night, the still well-populated neighborhood takes on the pace of a boulevard or rambla, with families and groups of two or three men strolling, talking, often hand in hand or with arms wrapped around each other.
We found a brightly lit ice cream parlor/bakery called Azam that was drawing crowds. Though the ice cream was mass-produced, it was good Ryan had a nicely subtle scoop of saffron and I had two scoops of kulfi and the scene was a reminder that no matter how exotic the locale, some things never change. Like the frantic, joyful little dance that kids do when their parents take them out for ice cream.
In the daytime, we discovered that Dar has a long white-sand urban beach near the ferry terminal. The early-morning Mzizima fish market is supplied by wooden dories that the fishermen had pulled up on the beach and were dozing in, while others sold clothing from boats a few yards offshore. There were seashells everywhere, varied and undamaged, the best I’ve seen on any beach. But if you don’t feel like hunting, there are stands all over the area selling them inexpensively.
Later in the afternoon, we went up to Oyster Bay, an upscale residential neighborhood with another beautiful beach that has been attracting mostly expats since at least the 1930s, when Roald Dahl of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame lived there. At a beachside cabana, we struck up a conversation over a beer with a young Salaamer who’d just finished his day’s search for electrician work.
He didn’t have anything planned, so we decided to walk and talk. We told him about some of the cities we’d been to, and he told us about Dar. After a couple of hours, he hopped a ride back to town with us in a tiny three-wheeled cab called a tuk-tuk, and we went our separate ways.
Walking and talking
On our last day in Addis, we spent some time in the Mercato, Africa’s largest outdoor market, where the people were far too busy buying and selling and hauling to bother picking our pockets. Later, we were walking around the Piazza district when a man who looked to be in his 70s came up alongside us. In English, he introduced himself as Abraham, and his 50-something daughter as Moona.
As we walked on together, he told us that he’d once been a sailor with the Onassis shipping company and that he had a picture of himself with Aristotle at his home just outside the city. He and Moona were selling laminated maps of Ethiopia. I still hadn’t learned the names of the provinces, so I bought one for 200 birr ($10), probably four times what it was worth, but maybe half what I’d pay at home.
We shared travel stories he’d been all over the world and then Moona cut in and said something to Abraham in Amharic. They led us over to a sidewalk cafe, and we ordered four macchiatos, which I’d learned by then is the preferred caffeine delivery system in Addis. When the bill came, Moona took out her money. When I protested, she protested back.
“No, please,” Abraham said, waving my wallet away. “You’re our guests.”
I may yet learn to see the charms of looking at big cats in the company of rich bucket-listers, but as long as there are people like Danny and William and Moona and Abraham walking around town in chatty moods, I’m in no rush.
Archer is a writer based in Toronto, Canada.