Musings on life in Ethiopia for a middle aged IT professional...or "Dilbert goes to Africa"

I will be working on a major upgrade to the Budget and Expenditures application for the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance during most of 2009 (I have been in Ethiopia since October, 2008). What follows are some somewhat random thoughts about life on a new continent.

Send me comments or feedback at JohnJeunnette (at)

Blue Donkeys
Human beings are restless creatures. We just can't stay put for very long. When a large group gets together in one place (like a major African capital) there are folks coming and going all the time. So how do those folks move around when the distances to be covered are considerably more than the distance between houses in a village? Walking works for many tasks and destinations but what do you do if you want to get your newly purchased goat across the river and through the woods to grandmother's house?

Just for reference, the city of Denver has a population of about 600,000 people and an area of 401 square kilometers (the metro area includes 2,500,000 people in 21,793 square kilometers). Addis Ababa has a population of something like 2,800,000 people in an area of 530 square kilometers. A "problem" with public transportation in the US is that people are too spread out. Addis has just the opposite issue to deal with.

Relatively few people here own cars. They are expensive to buy (there is a 100% import duty so any car immediately costs twice as much as the sticker price), expensive to operate, and many people don't have a place to park the thing. Most people walk where they need to go (it seems to me that everybody is walking somewhere because there are so many pedestrians). Sometimes the walking involves herding goats or donkeys or just carrying what you own on your head. The lucky ones get to ride and carry stuff in a variety of vehicles for hire.

The "public" part of "public transportation" tends to be blurred into a great deal of private enterprise here in Addis Ababa. Some specifics:

  • There is a "Lion Bus Company" with the biggest, ugliest, orange and yellow buses I have seen anywhere (see the picture below). (For some reason, they always seem to be full of people any time of the day that I see one go by.) These buses follow defined routes and, I think, have some sort of schedule. I have never tried to actually ride one but my understanding is that they cost something like 2-3 Birr cents (the current exchange rate is 11.2 Birr to the US dollar so we are talking about an amount significantly less than a penny.

  • Next up the scale in comfort are the mini vans, or "blue donkeys". They are privately owned and operated (within some rules and regulations) and there must be a million of them here. ("Million" is a bit of an exaggeration but you have to remember that relatively few people own private cars so the percentage of blue and white mini vans and taxis on the street seems pretty high compared to other cars.) Anyway, blue donkeys hold eleven to twelve passengers, a driver, and a "conductor" (not sure what else to call the guy...he calls out the current destination and collects fares). (As a side note, in Addis the number of people in the van at any one time seems to be limited to the number of seats (11-12). I have counted up to twenty people in the same size vans in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here they turn you away if there is not a seat. In Kathmandu they just squeeze everybody a bit tighter together.) Anyway, mini vans cost about .65 Birr per "segment" (1-2 miles) (6 US cents).

    A "segment" tends to be the distance between transit hubs across the city. For example, my house is in an area called "Old Airport" or "Mekanisa". If I want to get to my office across town near a traffic circle called "Sitist Kilo" I walk down to the main north-south road between Mekanisa and Sar Bet (the construction project I talked about a few journal entries back) and try to catch a mini van going to "Mexico Square". Most of them are full as they head up the hill so I usually end up walking to Sar Bet and wait for one to come along that is letting a passenger out. Eventually, I get in, pay my 6 cents, and ride to Mexico Square. At Mexico Square (a big transit hub), I have to remember, or figure out, where the mini vans hang out that are heading the direction I want to go. In this scenario, I walk around a corner, east a couple of blocks past the mini-vans going to Bole Road and look for a van filling up heading toward "Arat Kilo" (the van drivers tend to wait to leave the staging points until the van is full to maximize revenue). This ride is a bit longer and costs 13 cents. We travel up hill past the Hilton Hotel (an important place...I'll explain in a future journal entry), the presidential palace, and the prime minister's palace, arriving at the Arat Kilo transit hub about three blocks from my office. At this point I usually walk but I could grab another van heading north toward Entoto if I want a ride up the hill. Total travel time from my house to the office is about forty five minutes. The total distance is about eight kilometers. The total cost is about 20 cents (US dollars).

  • If you don't like your neighbors, are out late at night after the number of mini vans has dropped off, or have a specific place you would like to be sooner rather than later, you can take a "contract taxi". They are also blue and white and tend to be 1970's vintage Russian Lada sedans. (About the size of a US subcompact.) They are also privately owned and operate within some loose regulations. The "interesting" feature is that they do not operate with a meter but you negotiate for the fare sometime during the ride. (It is probably a good idea to do it before you get in but if you want to do it along the way that is your choice.) They tend to be a bit more expensive than the blue donkeys. The same cross town ride that costs 2.10 Birr (20 cents US) in a mini van will run 40 to 50 Birr (4-5 US dollars), or if you are really good at negotiating, just stubborn, or have an Ethiopian with you to do the negotiations you can get it down to 20 - 30 Birr.

    I'm not sure what "1970's vintage Russian Lada sedans" may mean to you but if you read enough cold war spy novels you can picture a soviet-era car built like a Yugo and about as comfortable as a small tank. It is truly amazing that some of these vehicles are still operating. They range from true buckets of bolts (with bits and pieces falling along the road) to well-cared for, loving appointed, blue and white shrines to automotive excellence (ok, don't get carried away John). Anyway, you get the idea. Part of my taxi selection process involves staying away from cars that look ready to die but you are pretty much taking your chances every time to get in one of the things. (Which is true of the mini-vans, too. With fourteen people in them they are always overloaded.)

  • If you want a typical big city taxi ride there are metered taxis (they are an odd dark yellow with a green stripe) that, I hear, are about twice as expensive as the blue and white taxis. I think they may have a limited service area and tend to run between the airport and the major hotels. They may even be radio dispatched. I've never ridden in one.

  • At the very top of the transportation heap are the hired or leased cars that come with a driver. They are available for one-day to permanent arrangements. The vehicles range from your average stretch limousine to old, but well cared for, Toyota Corollas. (In the sense of full disclosure, we have a leased car (an old, but well cared for, Toyota Corolla) and driver that takes us to and from work Monday through Friday. We use it once in awhile on weekends but mostly I ride blue donkeys if I need to go somewhere. Having the car and driver just makes things much easier to deal with on work days.)

As US transit companies are cutting back service to save money I can't complain about the frequency and availability of the mini-vans. They are chaotic and rattle traps but they get you (and lots of your closest friends) where you want to go pretty efficiently. As we ride along, I realize how different my life is than the rest of the folks in the van. I just wish the tires didn't blow out in the middle of the road.


Other Entries:
December 2009
   12/27/2009:   Snowboarding in Breckenridge
November 2009
   11/22/2009:   The Great Ethiopian Run, Take Two
   11/14/2009:   Mule
   11/01/2009:   DV2011
September 2009
   9/27/2009:   Meskel
July 2009
   7/31/2009:   People
   7/12/2009:   Traffic
May 2009
   5/03/2009:   Bubble wrap quest
April 2009
   4/18/2009:   Options: Electricity
March 2009
   3/22/2009:   Italian Connection
February 2009
   2/14/2009:   Eucalyptus Trees
January 2009
   1/31/2009:   Story
   1/25/2009:   Security
   1/21/2009:   Obama and Lions
   1/13/2009:   Orienteering in Addis Ababa
   1/07/2009:   Merry Christmas and Goats
November 2008
   11/30/2008:   Ethiopian Road Construction
October 2008
   10/05/2008:   Ethiopia Introduction

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