A sensory experience of Addis Ababa

Woven grass mat

March 23, 2016 – About two weeks ago, while attending a conference in Addis Ababa, I got an opportunity to sample Ethiopian cuisine as well as explore the country’s extolled garment market.

In this rugged, landlocked country split by the Great Rift Valley, you get used to the sound of construction. Ethiopia’s infrastructure binge shows no signs of slowing down. From Bole International Airport where engineers are working on giving the airport a face-lift, to the upmarket streets where your view from the hotel is that of the city’s concrete jungle.

Away from the roaring cranes is a city rich in history. From the famous monolithic rock-cut churches in Lalibela town to the Yekatit 12 monument, which is on the roundabout Siddist Kilo.

On the last day of my trip, I chose to tour Addis. However, I needed a guide and interpreter because the majority of Ethiopians only converse in their own languages. This limited my tour to simply visiting the garment market and sampling the town’s food culture.

By 9am, the concierge at the hotel where I was staying had called a taxi for me. The taxi driver cum guide, Lemma Belete, agreed to drive and show me around.

Our first stop was Shiro Meda, a garment market, where hundreds of vendors line the busy Entoto Road and sell netela and habesha kamis — traditional shawls and dresses — from central and northern Ethiopia, most often made from shemma, a cotton cloth that is handwoven in long strips and sewn together, with a decorative border.

“Most Ethiopians come here to buy their traditional clothes. The craftsmanship depends on where you buy the dress. If it is from the high end shops across the street (pointing at some pastel-coloured mini-boutiques), the embroidery will definitely be better but will come at a price,” Lemma tells me.

“You have to be keen on the craftsmanship, lest you go to your country with something bogus,” he adds.

To get the most from Shiro Meda you have to compare prices. I realised that having a local guide helped me get the best quality gabi (a traditional handwoven Ethiopian blanket) at an affordable price.

“If you do not compare the prices, you will end up buying at an exorbitant cost,” Lemma tells me.

Prices vary depending on how complex the embroidery is, the quality of the cotton and the weaving. Lemma explains that the best cloth is more tightly woven because of the higher thread count.

The market also sells souvenirs and accessories.

As we leave Shiro Meda (having bought three habesha kamis and a gabi) Lemma convinces me that I need to sample Ethiopian cuisine.

“When looking for the best traditional meals, Habesha is the first choice,” he says.

Habesha is a well known cultural restaurant in Addis located on Bole Road. At the heart of every Ethiopian meal is injera and tibs. Injera is a traditional flat but spongy sour bread made of teff grain served with sautéed seasoned beef strips or mutton, vegetables, whole boiled egg and chilly.


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