The Ring Road

Today I miss Addis Ababa. It glitters in my memory, in its haze of smog and dust. It’s been nearly three years now and the cloak of nostalgia grows thicker. I miss our friends, good coffee, the way the eucalyptus shimmers silver and purple in the mountain breeze. I live in Central Asia now, and in this peripatetic existence I lead, it seems I am always missing somewhere. It’s not homesickness exactly, but other-sickness. It’s still painful.

I need to pierce the nostalgia and immunise myself against it with memories of mundane drudge. So I return, in my mind, to the very place I miss the least, the Addis ring road. Not walking or cycling, because the pavements are polluted, pot-holed, packed with pedestrians, sprawled sleepers and donkey shit, but driving, inching into the hot smog.

The traffic crawls round Gerji. From a nearby mosque they are calling prayers through distorting speakers. The air is thick with the fumes of trucks. Blue taxi buses push and hoot, packed with dark bodies. At the roundabout the cars and trucks are bumper to bumper and still the pedestrians slide between them, lugging shopping, dragging a recalcitrant ram. The drivers push their noses out to claim their space. Nudging, oozing, opportunistic and instinctive. At my window the scrabble of a hand, tapping, pursing fingers to the mouth. “Sister, sister”. A girl with a baby on her back, saying she is hungry.

On the corner with Little Somalia the women are fierce and bright as birds in their firey orange and magenta gowns, fat faces plumped by tight headscarves. The bodies and faces of others are covered in ballooning black. An incongruous underwear shop displays tiny knickers, crotchless panties, diamante tasselled g-strings. An old man genuflects in the middle of the pavement, parting the tide of pedestrians. His blind eyes look towards the sky, and he raises both hands, palms upwards, as if weighing the burden of his condition. In the gutter a dog curls protectively around its own brown entrails.

Along the streets, the butchers have their lights on. The red and white carcasses of cows are lit by vaudeville bulbs, turning the metal booths into nightmarish Punch and Judy shows. Ethiopian housewives cook sweet corn on braziers for passers-by on the wide pavement, squatting on tiny stools. The crowds pick over plastic sheets where stall-holders display cheap clothes and jelly shoes from China. There’s a schoolboy singing for Birr in a high desperate voice on the side of the street. His mother, grey-faced, lies next to him, a blanket on the concrete. The low sun reflects off the gold sheen of the high-rise mall where the ex-pat supermarkets sell frozen peas at £15 a packet.

The snarl up clears. A young man chances his luck, making a dash half way across, leaping onto the central reservation and balancing there like high-diver before launching out again. Behind me, the sun is setting, sinking fast behind the ring of mountains that frame the city, Yerer, Wuchacha, Fury. The sky is pale blue, pink, then orange, colouring to dirty brown where it meets the land.

In the last light, I see him coming, racing out of the corner of my mind’s eye; a young man, not much more than a teenager, on a black horse. Mythic, redemptive, real, riding bareback, cantering fast along the side of the road between the cars and the scattering pedestrians. His horse is straining to gallop but he holds it back. The traffic begins to move and for a few moments we are travelling side by side. He is racing me now and laughing; I catch his eye, and grin at him, revving my engine to keep pace, until he veers into a side street and disappears. My heart pounds the whole way home.

Hardship, heat, the gut-wrench of poverty, inequality, impotence, beauty, wonder. The ring road loops the city. Today I miss Addis Ababa. I rotate my memories, the good and the bad, prayer beads of consolation.

(first published in Litro Literary Magazine,