Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Despite flying just two hours north from Nairobi, to the Ethiopian Capital Addis Ababa, it feels like I've landed in a very different country. Though it still feels very African, Addis is different from Kenya is so many ways. Right from stepping off the plane I realise that the differences between the two Eastern African countries stretches far beyond the subtle difference in skin tone (Ethiopians are very proud of the fact that they are brown and Kenyans are black!). When you arrive in Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi you know that you are in Africa. The airport is old fashioned and packed with souvenir shops selling an array of Kenyan craftwork. Once passed security and customs you are accosted by a multitude of taxi drivers wanting to take you wherever you're willing to pay for (despite the 'no soliciting for passangers' signs everywhere), even though you are just trying to find the internal departures terminal. Bole airport in Addis is just like any other airport in the world. Modern, glass-fronted, efficient, and devoid of obvious transport out of there. And that's just the beginning!

For 4 weeks I've had a certain level of apprehension about travelling to Ethiopia. Through my limited knowledge of the country, I know that, not having been colonised at all, let alone by the British, English is not as widely spoken here as it is in Kenya. In fact they don't even have the same alphabet, so the chances of blagging my way are slim. Having grown up in a time when the main word associated with Ethiopia was famine, it's difficult to expect anything more than an underdeveloped country drowning in poverty, despite the passing years. I have heard that Addis is crowded, polluted and manic, and having a limited but not necessarily positive experience of Nairobi, I am apprehensive about spending the next two weeks in an African capital city. Most of all, I'm scarred that I'll find something a bit like Kenya, but be left feeling short-changed.

After a short wait at the airport, where it seemed entire families had turned out to greet returning travellers, I was meet by Gudisa, one of the young Ethiopians training at the Running Across Borders camp where I will be spending my time in Ethiopia. Gudisa is a happy, friendly and funny 18 year old, who speaks good English, and immediately all my apprehensions disappear. When I climb aboard a minibus full of excited athletes just returning from training, I know that this is going to be an experience to savour. And during the short trip from the airport to the camp I realise that Ethiopia has it's own very unique identity despite all the similarities with it's closest East African neighbours.

Luckily, the camp is on the edge of the city, and within minutes the hustle and bustle of Addis is left behind. In fact, sometimes it's easy to forget that I'm in a city at all. Less than five minutes from the camp, are fields, forests and dirt roads where we have been running most mornings and evenings. The dirt here is gray rather than red like in Africa, and the fields are full of wheat and teff, unlike the maize dominated landscape of Kenya. While everything is transported by bicycle in Kenya, here the donkey makes transportation of goods possible. While the kids cry 'muzungu' in Kenya, here 'farangie' is what you can expect to be called. The people though are still friendly, the skies are still blue and the roads are still dusty!

Addis is a fast developing city, and I have no doubt but that the land on which I have been running will be covered with houses in 5 years time. Already, a network of unfinished roads transverse the farmland, and some new blocks of apartments are springing up in what is now open countryside. While Kenya seems to have stagnated somewhat during the 5 years that I have been travelling there, Addis is changing by the day, and a few times we have had to reroute our runs, because where there was a path yesterday, there is a building site today.

I'm surprised by how progressive the city is, and in some ways by how rich it seems. Obviously I'm not fooled by this, and can see the obvious gap between the rich and the poor, and know that the fancy houses around where I'm staying are not the accommodation of the masses. But I can see a country of hope and opportunity, worlds apart from the horrific images I remember as a child. As I quickly learned, running water, hot showers and flushing toilets are not yet commonplace, but everyone has a mobile phone and supports an English Premier League football team. There's nothing like getting your priorities right!

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