When he stepped off the plane from the Netherlands, Issaih Tamerat, 26, said he didn't recognize his home town. In place of the once-dank airport was a new, $133 million terminal, all white and shiny steel, with high ceilings, an Internet cafe and expensive shops.
Down a newly paved road near the airport, two-story villas are sprouting up in compounds built by Ethiopian Americans who have invested their U.S. dollars in regal vacation homes and houses for their extended families.
But one of the most striking changes that Tamerat said he noticed was the cleanliness of Meskel Square, a wide parade ground in the city center. City workers were watering elaborate flower arrangements on traffic circles and cleaning up after goats that had been herded here during midday traffic. Plaques proclaiming "Your city cares about you" were affixed to gates and structures everywhere.
"It's like our city has light now," said Tamerat, clad in a bright orange leather jacket, as he lounged at the City Bakery cafe, eating ice cream with his niece. "The only thing that used to be there were street children or lingering jobless men."
Africa, with gritty urban centers such as Nairobi, Kinshasa and Lagos, is not known for having orderly, safe and clean cities. But the new mayor of Addis Ababa is trying to transform the Ethiopian capital into a regional hub for eastern Africa and a bridge to the Middle East, and make it cleaner and more beautiful, regardless of the city's struggle with poverty.
Because Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized, Addis Ababa historically was the meeting place for revolutionaries during the wave of African independence movements in the early 1960s. For that reason, it has often been called the political capital of Africa. For decades, the city has been the headquarters for the African Union (formerly the Organization of African Unity) and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. City officials said the new airport, which is said to be able to handle as many as 7 million passengers a year, is intended to draw traffic from the region.
With Nairobi's once sterling reputation tarnished by persistent crime, Addis is rising to become an alternative staging point for international aid groups and political organizations. Across the city, which has a population estimated at between 2 million and 5 million, cell phones of African bureaucrats and entrepreneurs constantly chirp and construction cranes pierce the skyline.
Addis is a jumble of architecture, the legacy of the shifting alliances in the country, which was occupied by Italy from 1936 to 1941. Monuments displaying the communist red star with hammer-and-sickle inset, gifts from Moscow during the nearly 20-year rule of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, mix with gleaming glass-and-steel banks and high-rises emblematic of Western capitalism.
"Things have changed, and the city has the potential to be the hub and crossroads of the Arab world and Africa," said Mayor Arkebe Oqubay, who has been on television and radio trumpeting his "Clean and Green Addis" campaign. "We have a responsibility to make it habitable. We have to make the city conducive for working and living. This is the most important thing if we want to make our city the diplomatic capital of the continent."
Poverty remains a dominant part of the cityscape. There are dusty, rambling slums within view of the city's finest hotel, the palatial Addis Sheraton, built by Mohamed Amoudi, an Ethiopian-born Saudi magnate. Street children, some as young as 4 years old, follow visitors down the street, yelling "money, money" as they clasp pedestrians' hands or tug at their clothing and ask for food.
"We have a lot of work to do. But poverty doesn't justify the streets being dirty," Oqubay said. "Everyone must take responsibility. With many private stakeholders coming in, conditions are improving. But the community deserves a chance for a good livelihood, too."
The mayor, who was appointed by the federal government, dismissed the former city managers and hired a staff of well-heeled Ethiopians, some of whom have studied urban development and the environment in the United States. They are assembling a recycling and composting plan, imposing fines for littering and planning to hold a special Clean and Green month, during which citizens will be encouraged to pick up trash.
Some of the tasks facing the city are not, however, as simple as cleaning up the streets. The country has the fourth-highest number of AIDS cases in the world, and more than 2 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Two months ago, the mayor opened an AIDS testing center and was the first to take an HIV test there.
Oqubay is also trying to build 5,000 classrooms, hire 3,000 teachers and move thousands of street children off the corners and into schools and homes.
"I think the mayor has a lot of problems on his hands," said B.T. Constantinos, president of the Center for Human Environment and Development, an aid group based in the capital, and a member of the Ethiopian Image Society, a group working with Ethiopians in the United States to improve the country's reputation. "But it's not only for the government, it's for civil society, business leaders and educated diaspora to upgrade the country."
Lounging at the City Bakery, where Ethiopian airline pilots, U.S.-educated researchers and the young of Addis sip coffee, Tamerat said his city was now a nice place to visit. But Tamerat, a marketing student in the Netherlands, isn't planning on moving back just yet.
"I will send money to relatives to open businesses, though," he said. "For the first time, I'm really optimistic. Our city is poor, but it's not down."