Ethiopia's 'cupcake divide' in Addis Ababa

By Mary Harper
BBC News, Addis Ababa

Image source, Thinkstock

Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa, but while a growing middle class aspire to symbols of modernity - such as cupcakes - for most, this new Africa is not a reflection of real life.

Red Velvet. Caribbean Breeze. Vanilla Fever. Brunette. The choice was overwhelming.

I was standing at the counter of a cafe in Addis Ababa and I was looking at cupcakes. Piled high with icing in unnatural shades of turquoise, lime green and a devastating pink.

The Cupcake Delights Bakery, as it is called, was full.

Smartly dressed Ethiopians sipped tea and nibbled on the colourful cakes.

An Indian woman swept in and placed a large order. Chinese men in business suits asked the waitress to bring them fresh fruit cocktails.

Across the road, a place named The Beer Garden was also popular with the Chinese.

Image source, Mary Harper
Image caption,
Beer is served in five-litre towers in this German bar

This German-owned establishment brews its own beer, which it serves in tall plastic five-litre towers, with taps at the bottom for pouring purposes.

Chinese workers crowded around the tables, their faces getting redder, their voices noisier, as their bellies filled with alcohol.

It is partly due to the Chinese that Addis Ababa has in recent years changed out of all recognition.

Like in so many parts of Africa, China, keen to get its hands on the continent's abundant natural resources, is in return building roads, railways, bridges and tower blocks.

Every time I go to Addis Ababa, more tall, sparkling buildings take me by surprise and confuse my bearings.

This time, in amongst the concrete shells of impressive new constructions, I saw an advert for "skyscraper window cleaners".

Modernity has brought with it some interesting new job opportunities.

Addis Ababa is simultaneously highly globalised and seemingly stuck in a highly traditional, highly Ethiopian way of life and doing politics.

The city is currently in deep mourning for Ethiopia's longstanding leader, Meles Zenawi, who died in August.

This was a man who, despite being one of the West's great allies in Africa, found it difficult to tolerate opposition - whose human rights record was poor, but whose people do not seem to be able to let him go.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Ethiopia is still mourning Meles Zenawi, who led the country for 21 years

His funeral resembled a medieval pageant, with giant umbrellas, white horses in black cloaks, and tens of thousands of weeping mourners following his coffin through the streets of Addis Ababa, as rain beat down on them from the grey skies above.

But back now to the other world of a modern African city.

My afternoon of cupcakes and beer was followed by an evening of music.

The Jazzamba Lounge - which opened a few years ago - is in the old ballroom of what is described as the oldest hotel in Addis Ababa. And it was here that I found another bit of almost post-modern globalisation.

As I sat eating a perfect Italian pizza, I watched a salsa class in full swing. Cuban music soared into the night, as Ethiopian teenagers sashayed around the dance floor, in the red and gold of the grand old ballroom.

Outside the Jazzamba Lounge, there was wild activity.

In one little nightclub a crowd - almost exclusively male - danced to reggae.

In another, I was confronted almost immediately with a gyrating bottom, as a prostitute swung her assets to a man seemingly more interested in his beer than her backside.

Outside, there were beggars break-dancing in the dust.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Addis Ababa's middle class aspirations remain a dream for many Ethiopians

Yet another bar seemed to cater for large European men, squeezed up against delicate local girls young enough to be their daughters.

In the small hours of the morning, I was driven home in a battered blue and white taxi.

Even at this hour, women with babies clamped to their sides tapped on the windows begging for money. People in tattered robes crouched in long lines outside government buildings, waiting for I know not what.

This new Africa I saw in Addis Ababa - and have also seen in Nairobi, Dakar, Abuja and elsewhere - is exciting and hopeful, but it is not the whole story.

Yes, the Chinese, the Saudis, the Indians are all rushing in.

Yes, there is a growing middle class that frequents shopping malls, coffee bars and pizza restaurants - much like the middle classes of Europe and the US. But scratch the surface and another world exists.

There are between 85 and 90 million people living in Ethiopia - and most of them cannot even dream of cupcakes, let alone decide which one to choose in that charming cafe I visited in Addis Ababa.

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