One of the absolute privileges of travelling in Europe is discovering its majestic capital cities. London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Berlin, to name but a few, are all names that evoke enchanting days spent admiring superlative architecture and immersing oneself in millennia of history and culture. In Africa, the complete opposite holds true: after three months of travel, I am yet to find a single capital that warrants more than 48 hours’ stay. Whilst Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Windhoek may all sound wonderfully exotic, the harsh reality is that these urban centres of congestion chaos and pollution serve principally as unavoidable transport hubs and a quick fix of modern amenities after many weeks of backwater travel.

Having looked forward to exploring Ethiopia’s historic mountain sites perhaps more than any other destination on this trip, it was with great dismay that I discovered that a combination of the vagaries of the country’s bizarre calendar and the Great Sudanese Visa Quest meant that I would have to spend six nights in Addis Ababa. Annoyed but unbowed, I decided to dedicate this time to finding two of life’s great pleasures that had proven so elusive on the rest of the continent: good cuisine and even better coffee. With a comprehensive list of my target eateries and coffee houses in my pocket and a contrived enthusiasm for exploring a city imposed on me, I set out to conquer the capital of Africa’s only country to escape full colonisation.

A seemingly fortuitous but potentially engineered encounter with two English-speaking students led to an enquiry regarding my plans for the day and an offer of a guided tour of the city. Conscious of the numerous global city scams involving tours, tea ceremonies and unexpectedly costly dance shows, I made it clear that I would not be releasing any funds for the tour, but that they were welcome to accompany me should they wish to continue our Premier League conversation.

They followed me to Menelik’s Palace; to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, where the local faithful were celebrating Easter en masse in the beautiful gardens; to the famous old railway station; and finally to the statue of the Lion of Judah – emblem of the country’s illustrious royal dynasties. Their contextual information had been very helpful, and their company and conversation enjoyable; so when asked whether I wanted to try some of their mother’s home cooking and some other Ethiopian traditions – at a cost clearly to be defined and approved – I accepted and followed them into a maze of ramshackle huts reminiscent of Africa’s poorest townships.

After negotiating several open sewer alleyways that would not have been out of place in Soweto’s worst slum, we entered the corrugated iron hut that was to be my home for the next four hours. At no more than 8′ x 5′ and with two low cloth-covered benches either side of a small cooking area, and a floor covered in green straw, this clearly wasn’t the Sheraton. Only three posters of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria and Steven Gerrard added a touch of colour to an otherwise drab interior. If this was a scam, it wasn’t upmarket. My fears were quickly allayed, however, as the first waft of injera and wat reached my excited nostrils: this is what I had been waiting for since the day I had booked my flight to Cape Town.

As the large round dish appeared from behind a curtain, my holy culinary trinity of eyes, taste buds and stomach did a collective somersault of delight: my first taste of Ethiopia’s national dish looked sensational; a steaming mound of spicy mincemeat lay atop the injera, a giant edible tablecloth of sour-fermented pancake dough. It was almost with childlike excitement and no small amount of incoordination that I attempted to pincer dough and meat together with my right hand only. Yes! The food tasted as good as it looked. When asked whether I wanted to experience a traditional coffee ceremony after the food, I nearly lifted the roof off the hut with my roared acquiescence. Seeing raw coffee beans roasted in an iron bowl before being ground by hand and transformed into the blackest liquid pleasure I had imbibed for more than three months continued the foodie ecstasy.

After my fifth coffee, a further group of friends arrived bearing plastic bags filled with what appeared to be twigs of garden shrubbery. From my guide book, I knew what was coming: it was time to chat. The leaves of Catha Edulis, a plant endemic to the Horn of Africa and known commonly as chat or khat, induce mild euphoria and excitement when chewed slowly between gum and cheek, and render any user more talkative. Good luck guys, I thought, as I was asked what my all-time all-star football starting eleven was. As each successive bunch of leaves was dispatched by the six human ruminants, so the conversation increased in intensity. How could I not include Messi? Who the hell was Paul McGrath? And why was I wearing flip-flops in the middle of the Ethiopian rainy season?

When the moment came to ask to pay, I braced myself for the worst and received an itemised list in the most unintelligible handwriting in the most unintelligible alphabet. At a grand total of $30, my suspicions of a subtle low-level scam were partly confirmed, but the reality was that the cost of feeding three stomachs and frying six brains for more than four hours was decidedly respectable, particularly when factoring in a three hour walking tour. I shook hands warmly, thanked sincerely, and bade them farewell. Beginning the long walk home to my hostel with a spring in my step and a warm fuzzy glow in my mind, I attempted to decide whether the latter was due to the coffee, chat or the warm authentic experience I had just enjoyed. Either way, I didn’t really care. Well played Addis Ababa, well played.

Locals praying on Good Friday

The Lion of Judah – symbol of Rastafarianism

Come to papa, sweet injera…

Enjoying some chat with the boys

You might also enjoy:

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *