Reflections

When Tragedy Isn’t the Only Story to Tell

Author Cole Brown on the creative renaissance happening right now in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Gursha Food Truck, stationed at the newly rebuilt Meskel Square mega project, is one of the first few food trucks serving fast food in the city. 29 June 2022
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TO UBER DRIVERS, dates, and deliverymen, my home is a structure of stucco and stone in, at various times, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, D.C., or Sydney, Australia. But the place I’m tied to by something other than postage — my true home — is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Upon leaving the country in 2018, I said my goodbye to Grandpa Deme as though it was my last. He was feeble then. I expected to return to visit within the year, but a single day can be a lifetime for the bedridden. Grandma Marta was still able-bodied, but her mental faculties showed signs of wear. Who knew what my time away would bring for them both?

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What followed was a pandemic, and political unrest, and life, keeping me away from Addis for nearly four years. I came to fear change and my powerlessness in the face of it. Fear of my grandparents’ decline. Fear of Covid blanketing every corner of the country, including Grandpa Deme’s hospital room. Most of all, fear of man.

In November 2020, fighting erupted between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the national government over historical ethnic tensions, and continued until a ceasefire was declared in March 2022. Googling Ethiopia produced an endless torrent of the victims — often women and children — alongside headlines proclaiming famine, torture, and ethnic cleansing. But the whole story was hard to grab hold of.

I knew the story I saw on the faces of ever-so-enlightened strangers when I told them where home was: ‘My gosh, you poor thing.’

I knew the story from Western media, which sided firmly with the TPLF. That is, until a joint U.N. report alleged atrocities on both sides, which prompted an admission that the lines between good and evil weren’t so clear. I knew the story from relatives on the ground, who were slow to criticize Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, but couldn’t sidestep his alleged crimes. And I knew the story I saw on the faces of ever-so-enlightened strangers when I told them where home was: “My gosh, you poor thing.” The only consistent narrative? Tragedy.

That story was too heavy a load to carry from afar.

In January 2022, I went home, offering to escort Grandma Marta back after her visit to America.

On the plane, I squirm as she introduces herself to the stewardess for the fifth time, explaining again her work as a senator way back when and the benefits that she, the stewardess, still enjoys from it. “You should know your history,” she scolds. Grandma Marta is just as generous, strong-willed, and captivating as ever, but her memory is a broken cassette.

We land at Bole International Airport, and I lug her crates of American goods through the new terminal. Construction began before I last left, but the site was still an ugly rubble pile, then. From that tan tangle of scaffolding rose a grand steel forest with a high-hanging glass canopy. It is clean. It is beautiful. Not all change is bad, I think.

On the ride to Grandma’s, I notice how the cityscape has erupted. Everywhere, the concrete skeletons of soon-to-be high-rises sprout like weeds. It looks like people here are hurrying to build an entirely new city before the current one sours. I stare to catch it growing taller.

On day one, I connect with my uncle at Addis Fine Art. I discovered the gallery in London months before by stumbling into its booth at the Frieze Art Fair. The owner sold me on the excitement and promise of Ethiopia’s contemporary art scene. I promised a visit. The Addis outpost occupies two adjacent spaces in a soaring, marble-appointed building. All the artists presented here are Ethiopian. A wall of absurdist portraits by Wendimagegn Gashaw Demeke captivates me. His faces cover the gamut of emotion: shame, humor, grief, irony. The figures have high cheekbones and big foreheads. They look like me.

Before dinner, we stop at Mamo Kacha cafe for a macchiato. The place is brimming with beautiful people chatting in animated cries or languid whispers. I can tell my uncle is a regular from the way the barista smiles. A group of four fashionable women with dark eyes and classically elongated Ethiopian frames stroll in, laughing carelessly. We smile at them.


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We go to Entoto Bistro that night. The new restaurant shares a space with another art gallery, as well as a cafe and artisan shop. As we wait for our table, we scan the wares. Traditional Ethiopian crafts line the walls: straw baskets, masks, and crucifixes, all ornate and handmade, presented like the fine relics they are. A friend joins us for dinner and points to the Addis movers and shakers dotting the dining room — an executive here, a cabinet minister there. My lamb is tender and delicious. My uncle’s Bolognese is as good as any I’ve ever had.

The following day, I pile into a rented touring van with three strangers — a young Rastafarian, a U.S. army vet, and a former Los Angeles nightclub promoter — for the drive south to Project Mercy in Yetebon. In 1993, Grandma Marta and Grandpa Deme built a community school and clinic in a small country town. It has since expanded to include multiple schools, an orphanage, a farming and cattle breeding project, and a medical college, among other projects. Through years of visits, I matured alongside the kids living there. I can’t come home without visiting the grounds.

I notice how the cityscape has erupted. Everywhere, the concrete skeletons of soon-to-be high-rises sprout like weeds.

I get to know the other passengers. The veteran met his wife in Ethiopia — it’s the first time he’s returned since her passing, he tells me with a glimmer in the eye. The promoter left behind a fast life in Los Angeles to move here for good. “What is there for me in America? Nothing out there is real. This is real,” he tells me. The Rastafarian flirts with doing the same. He’s lived in London most of his life but has felt Ethiopia tugging at him for years. Each speak about the place with a spiritual reverence. They’ve found home here.

In breaths between our conversation, I scan the scene outside. When I first journeyed to Yetebon nearly two decades ago, we spent most of the many-hours-long trip rattling along dirt roads. The most luxurious tukuls, or round mud homes, we passed had corrugated tin roofs and nearby outhouses. More often, they looked to be disintegrating back into the earth.

I still see several tukuls now, but I also see cinder-block rectangles with aluminum roofs. We stop in a bustling town along our way — one of many — for a banana and a Coke. When I return to the city 24 hours later, I take the newly opened Modjo-Hawassa Expressway. I wish the highways in Philly were as smooth and scenic as this. Dotting along the rolling hillside, I watch white wind turbines spin like pinwheels.

For my last meal before leaving the country, I try the wood-fired pizza from Mokodo Pizzeria. Chef Tesfaye explains how he worked at his craft for over 20 years, dropping a prosciutto pie in front of me. The sauce is rich and tangy. The crust collapses with a crunch. As someone living in New York today, I don’t say this next part lightly: Chef Tesfaye is up there with the best of ’em.

After years of fear over change in my country, the story of my homegoing is one of joy, progress, and even indulgence. Let me be clear: it is an undeniable privilege to be able to write such things. This is my story of my journey — not the story of the nation writ large.

As I write this, Ethiopia is plunging into a food crisis that puts millions at risk of starvation. That story should be told. Moreover, it should be acted upon — donations to Save the Children, UNICEF, or Action Against Hunger can help.

But who says tragedy is the only legitimate story we have to tell?

I found an Ethiopia that is trendy, brimming with creative energy and entrepreneurial might. The continent generally, and Ethiopia in particular, is undergoing a renaissance. We deserve to feel a measure of pride, even as we continue the work to improve a truly devastating reality.

Before heading to the airport, I stop one last time by Grandpa Deme’s bedside. Grandma Marta is there as always, looking concerned, whispering prayers. She perks up faintly at my arrival. He sleeps through my visit. Again, I say goodbye to them both as though it is my last. It’s hard to imagine these two 90-somethings persevering until my next homecoming. But I’ve been wrong before.

Where To Eat, Stay, and Explore in Addis

  • Sheraton Addis, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Addis Ababa

    The Sheraton has been the finest hotel in the city since my childhood. Not striving for authenticity with this pick, but if resort living is your thing — complete with luxurious pools, spas, and dining — the Sheraton is for you.

  • Dashen Terara

    The best place in Addis for authentic Ethiopian food is my grandma’s kitchen. If you can’t make it there (my condolences), Dashen is the next best option.

  • Addis Fine Art

    With outposts in both Addis Ababa and London, Addis Fine Art curates a beautiful selection of both up-and-coming and established Ethiopian contemporary artists.

  • Entoto Bistro

    If you’ve had your fill of injera, go to Entoto for Western cuisine done well. While there, check out the Ethiopian crafts at their sister shop next door.

  • Mokodo Pizzeria

    In a city with plenty of Italian cuisine, Mokodo is a cut above. Chef Tesfaye serves delicious pies in an intimate setting that makes you feel like a local.

  • Hyatt Regency Addis Ababa

    Don’t miss the Sunday brunch. It’s delicious and a single sitting, so the table is yours all afternoon — plenty of time for multiple trips to the dessert bar and recovery afterward.

  • Teklu Desta Jewellery on Haile Selassie St

    The entrepreneur behind this gem was once the jeweler for His Majesty Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. No surprise that it is still the place to find the finest Ethiopian gold and silver.

  • Mamo Kacha

    Chatting over coffee — buna, in Amharic — is a national pastime. Spend an afternoon at Mamo Kacha sipping macchiatos and solving the world’s problems.

  • Galani Coffee

    Great coffee is easy to come by in Addis. Great ice cream, less so. Galani’s homemade varieties are the best in the city.

  • Sheraton Addis, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Addis Ababa

    The Sheraton has been the finest hotel in the city since my childhood. Not striving for authenticity with this pick, but if resort living is your thing — complete with luxurious pools, spas, and dining — the Sheraton is for you.

  • Hyatt Regency Addis Ababa

    Don’t miss the Sunday brunch. It’s delicious and a single sitting, so the table is yours all afternoon — plenty of time for multiple trips to the dessert bar and recovery afterward.

  • Dashen Terara

    The best place in Addis for authentic Ethiopian food is my grandma’s kitchen. If you can’t make it there (my condolences), Dashen is the next best option.

  • Teklu Desta Jewellery on Haile Selassie St

    The entrepreneur behind this gem was once the jeweler for His Majesty Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. No surprise that it is still the place to find the finest Ethiopian gold and silver.

  • Addis Fine Art

    With outposts in both Addis Ababa and London, Addis Fine Art curates a beautiful selection of both up-and-coming and established Ethiopian contemporary artists.

  • Mamo Kacha

    Chatting over coffee — buna, in Amharic — is a national pastime. Spend an afternoon at Mamo Kacha sipping macchiatos and solving the world’s problems.

  • Entoto Bistro

    If you’ve had your fill of injera, go to Entoto for Western cuisine done well. While there, check out the Ethiopian crafts at their sister shop next door.

  • Galani Coffee

    Great coffee is easy to come by in Addis. Great ice cream, less so. Galani’s homemade varieties are the best in the city.

  • Mokodo Pizzeria

    In a city with plenty of Italian cuisine, Mokodo is a cut above. Chef Tesfaye serves delicious pies in an intimate setting that makes you feel like a local.


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Our Contributors

Cole Brown Writer

Cole Brown is a political commentator, writer, and author of the book “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World.”

Hilina Abebe Photographer

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Hilina Abebe is a self-taught documentary photographer. Her work focuses on long-form documentary and portraiture, exploring inequality, identity, history, and the significance of memory. Her work has been published by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, National Geographic, Getty Images, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Terra Mater Magazin.

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