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Urban Renewal in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Cady Gonzalez (PhD Candidate, Anthropology) on her Research

Research post written by Cady Gonzalez (PhD Candidate, Anthropology)

I recently returned to the US after completing nearly 12 months of dissertation fieldwork in Ethiopia’s capital city as a Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellow. My ethnographic research in Addis Ababa looks at an urban renewal initiative aiming to rehabilitate rivers and stimulate riverbasin economies that speaks as much to issues of managing urban growth and urban natures as it does the political project of state building. Like many of my colleagues and friends, I experienced a rushed and early departure due to the global public health pandemic. Fortunately, my research period was minimally impacted as my year abroad was coming to a close at the end of March.

I first came to Ethiopia in summer of 2016, on a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. At the time, I hoped to research among coffee growing communities in the south of the country, but language study requirements restricted me to the city. Being stuck in Addis Ababa meant that I had to completely rethink my research strategy, or in Erving Goffman’s words, I had to open myself up to any overture. What better way to do that then to brainstorm over a cup of traditionally prepared, strong Ethiopian coffee, called jebena buna? After a red-eye flight, I found myself sipping my first cup in a narrow urban green area, between a bustling city sidewalk and the towering wall of Addis Ababa University’s campus border. The enticing smell of roasting coffee and burning incense had lured me to this enclave, which one of its patrons later explained was a small public park built by the municipal government to provide pay-per-use toilet services along with refreshments. The object of study for my MA research remained coffee, but within the context of polluted streets rather than the foothills of high-altitude forests. I explored how the social life and hospitality of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony within the context of development projects, acted as a tool to govern bodies and bodily processes, namely open defecation.

Returning to Addis Ababa in Spring 2019, three years after the inauguration of the public toilets, I found the project changed. While the initiative attempted to tackle a myriad of sustainable development goals, its emphasis on sanitation had receded and the project’s governance was under transition from the water and sewage department to the city beatification and recreation authority. Underpinned by a desire to clean and green the dirtiest areas of Addis Ababa, the project would continue to be sustained by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s focus on human-centered, green urban planning. Public toilets constructed along the river were swept up by his personal vision for river rehabilitation and the design, implementation, and conservation of urban-natures.

In other words, I found the city not just under construction, but also under renovation, and city residents were expected to take part. Sunday mornings were reserved monthly for neighborhood cleaning, car-free days were scheduled to reduce pollution and a national tree planting day in July aimed to set a world record for the number of saplings planted in 24 hours. Medians along highway corridors were beautified with clay flower pots and shrub trees. Tree removal during road construction resulted in pockets of land amidst construction zones converted into nurseries, where uprooted trees—from seedlings to mature canopies—were watered and nurtured through IV drips.

Although underway since the 1990s, Ethiopia’s urban cleaning and conservation projects have not unfolded according to any uniform logic. In Addis Ababa today, processes of greening, cleaning and caring are part and parcel to Dr. Abiy’s guiding political philosophy medemer—literally meaning to “add up” or to “add to.”  While medemer rhetorically espouses ideals of unity, love and care, its practices of discipline, eviction and taming undermine the social synergy it seeks to generate. Taking the public toilets and their green areas as my point of departure, I spent the year exploring the ways cleaning and caring for a home, city, and nation speak to double-edged processes of controlling others and “living together.”

I spent significant time “hanging-out” at public parks and riverside slums, wandering the hallways of municipal offices, and engaging with urban planners and architects. For the first six months of fieldwork, I walked or rode public transportation past the park above. While the chain-link fence was unlocked, I along with much of the neighborhood was skeptical about the terms of use. Was it open? Was it free? Was it safe? Very rarely was anyone inside; that was until one of the gardeners began to paint the concrete retention wall in a vibrant, geometric pattern.

Once attuned to color’s effects on urban-nature relations, I found the use of art as mirror, critique and provocation to be salient throughout the city due to the political emphasis on beautification. I leaned into my own artistic inclinations to also engage with designers and artists by way of design studios, art competitions and art educational programs—each of which held river rehabilitation, waste management and the design of urban-natures at their gravitational center.

What urban renewal means and entails today for Addis Ababa is fiercely debated and feeds into tension between new and old, and short- and long-term city residents; religious and ethnic groups; and municipal, regional and national governments. My research shows that it is critical for environmental and political stability to understand how urban-natures and their connected cleaning and greening campaigns, become a right, a source of anger or an object of manipulation and negotiation.

As I begin to revisit my fieldnotes and reflect on my winding research trajectories, my gratitude for my advisors, colleagues and friends is endless. Their encouragement to trust my instincts inspired and fueled creativity throughout the research process and when work felt stagnant, their insistence to “be a sponge” was reassuring. I am also so thankful to have had the support of the Center for African Studies, Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program and UF International Center’s Office for Global Research Engagement throughout this research process. Without them, long-term fieldwork would not have been possible.