In most of the cities I have been too there is a clear distinction between where the middle class live, and where the working class and the poor live. And the middle class is often afraid to walk alone in the areas where the poor and working class live. They carry many assumptions about safety and ‘otherness’. This is not so in Addis. Right next to the palace is a shanty town. Right opposite the Jupiter International Hotel we are staying in (next to the Raddison Blu) is a shanty town. The people of Addis live side by side in harmony – the geography of the city dictates that. There is no sense of fear as one walks down the streets, not really. Except maybe that conditioned sense of ‘I must take care’ that is born out of living in large cities like Cape Town. In crowded places one must be aware of are pickpockets, the beggars who are very persistent and the con men who hang around the hotels.
The other evening I was with two of my colleagues waiting for the rest of the team to come. We were standing across the road from the hotel, close to some shacks, next to the minibus taxi we were all going to use to go to a Jazz concert. It was dark. A man with very beautifully twisted dreadlocks came up to my colleagues and started to speak to them. At first they ignored him, then they said they were not interested. He was pushy so we decided at that moment to wait inside the minibus. He followed us, and wanted to open the door and get in but the taxi driver sent him away. Someone said ‘He is just trying to con you guys.” And we left it at that.
He walked away, and then came back, and tried to come in again. We all started to get a bit agitated. Did he not understand that we did not want to talk to him. I could feel my own inner security bells going. I wanted to tell him, “Go away.” The American lady, being closest to the door, then raised her voice slightly and speaking very firmly asked him to leave. She was holding the door closed. He became angry. He walked to the passenger door and tried to open it. Another colleague sitting in that seat held that door closed. We were all starting to get angry, and to speak. And then one of our Ethiopian colleagues, a petit young woman leaned out of the taxi and spoke to him in the calmest, kindest voice. And he backed away, said it was all well, and left.
I later said, “You handled that so well. You were so kind.” She smiled and said, “That’s how it is here. You just need to speak to someone nicely and they will understand.” So I asked her what did you say? And she said, “I explained that you guys were not from here and you did not know how things worked, that you just wanted to be left alone. And he said okay. Just tell them to talk to me nicely.” And that was that.
The course I am on is about using art to build peace within the community. It is really about seeing and listening to people, and helping them see each other, see themselves, see possibility. My Ethiopian colleague really demonstrated how communication and gentleness are sometimes the most powerful tools we may have.