Homage to Entoto Park How the Old “Town in the Forest” is turning into a newly flowering tourist hub
Ethiopan Herald, by Mulugeta Gudeta
Entoto is the name of a chain of hills north of the capital Addis Ababa. Entoto evokes not only the image of any hill. It is rather a name that is exclusively attributed to a chain of hills that look like a gateway to the Ethiopian capital in the distance. Entoto has indeed served as a gateway to Addis Ababa for many decades. As times change so do the functions of specific places like Entoto which is now serving not only as an old gateway but also as a new park that connects the capital with a forest turned into a park. This is the point where Addis Ababa stretches its hands to reach the place where it gets clean air, eerie silence and calm away from the bustling city center. Entoto has been Addis Ababa’s head and now it is also becoming the city’s lungs.
The impressive growth and modernization of Addis Ababa is proceeding at such a breakneck speed that even residents who spent much of their lives in the “New Flower” are bewildered if not shocked by the speed and tempo of change in a city that was once dubbed a “town in the middle of a big forest”. Addis Ababa is now turning into a forest of steel and concrete dotted with some of the state-of-the art structures that dominate the city’s skylines.
Members of the Ethiopian Diaspora who come on a visit here often say that the Ethiopian capital has indeed changed beyond recognition. Some of the visitors find it hard to locate the old neighborhoods where they grew up and have long disappeared under the irresistible march of renovation schemes that tore apart old neighborhoods, split communities and drove thousands of slums residents out of a city that is assuming a new look and a new identity as a metropolis and a melting pot of cultures, customs and dreams.
Even Emperor Menelik the first architect of Addis Ababa’s modernization who brought Indian and Greek town planners some 125 years ago and ordered them to build some of the finest villas in the heart of the budding town, would find it hard to believe that this is the city of his wildest dreams. Addis Ababa has indeed grown beyond Menelik’s pastoral imagination, Haile Sellassie’s European-inspired fancy, the Derg’s Soviet-inspired socialist realism and EPRDF’s market-inspired and Chinese-funded modernization drives.
When Menelik rode on horseback down the Entoto hills together with his aristocratic entourages and courtiers, he did not know he was going to lay the foundations of his imperial capital which is destined to become the capital of Africa. He did not fathom that the “New Flower” was going to serve as a magnetic field for diverse peoples who made the difficult journeys from the peripheries of his nascent empire to the center of a promising capital where traders in traditional markets used salt bars as means of exchange and aristocrats looked at very piece of modernization as the work of the devil or the product of evil inspiration. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa continued its slow but inevitable travel in time towards a future that was pregnant with still many surprises.
When Menelik founded his capital, topmost on his mind was the nagging problem of water and firewood, the two most indispensable elements that made rural life free from worries. At its founding Addis Ababa was mostly a carpet of green trees and fertile meadows where river water as clear as crystal flowed in every direction. Water and firewood were readily available and the long search for a permanent seat of government came to an abrupt end. Ankober, the former seat of imperial authority was left behind and quickly forgotten.
Entoto Mariam or Saint Mary of Entoto which is still perching on top of the hill where the emperor made a brief stay was becoming history and the New Flower became the new obsession, the new dream and the new fantasy. European inspired modernization started to make an aggressive inroads into the traditional fabric of a migrant society deeply anchored in the traditions and ways of life of the distant regions from where the new residents of Addis originated. Old things started to fall apart and the contours of the new things to come were barely visible.
Some places, like some individuals, may have a second chance at life. Until recently, Entoto was famous for its church where the remains of the emperor and his consort were laid to rest. It was boasting of and important museum that shelters the entire relics of a bygone era that drew visitors from every part of the world. The hilltops were covered with bushes and eucalyptus and women carrying huge piles of firewood walked down the escarpment at slow paces and sold their burdens in the neighborhoods at the foot of Entoto. Generations of wood carrying women thus built families raised children and lived difficult lives that ended in miserable deaths. Now things are apparently changing for the better not only for these women but also for the communities around the new park.
Last week, Entoto was rediscovered as if it came back from the dead with a new lease on life. It was reinvented as a park that looks like the landscape at a Swiss resort town, complete with modern structures, a road meandering down the hill, trees that are assuming new shapes and new looks and recreational facilities that made the area rather look like a Disneyland combining a touch of modernity with imagination and traditional craftsmanship.
The idea behind the new Entoto Park is equally beautiful. Making the park the venue for tourists and earning incomes that will be used for embellishing other parts of Addis Ababa and at the same time providing jobs for many youngsters has a touch of creativity if not genius in these difficult times when parks may look unaffordable luxuries and jobs are scarce.
The Addis Ababa beautification or reconstruction projects to which the Entoto Park is a part of a bigger vision, have their critics as well as their supporters. Critics may see in the projects too much money spent on something that is fanciful or of little use for most people whose hectic lives would not allow them to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the park as they are preoccupied with much mundane concerns of sheer existence.
Supporters of the projects see in them a symbol of the revival of old glories and a modern initiative that will have economic benefits for the communities around the Park. No doubt that Entoto Park will soon become a destination for local and foreign tourist who will find something enjoyable in a city that was along the target of criticism for its lack of parks and public places.
The Park is going to set a good precedence in that it is going to provide a new look to the ever growing capital. Below the steel and glass structures that are adorning the city, new pockets of greenery, tranquility and peace will establish a new balance between nature and human life. That is the reason why in Western megacities like New York, Paris or Moscow, vast areas of greenery are dotting the skyscrapers thereby providing residents opportunities for sports and other recreational activities that are indispensable for a healthy city life.
Entoto park with its ragged landscape and cool climate, is going to become the venue for sports tourism where foreigners will enjoy the cool highland climate as well as the challenging ascent of a steep topography that has long become the place of choice for the training of elite athletes as well as young aspirants. From now onwards, tourists who will come to visit the museum inside Saint Mary’s church will think about taking their sports gears with them and spend a refreshing time at Entoto Park, they may not need cars to make the steep descent to Addis Ababa proper. They will have to simply jog their way down and experience something that is not only healthy but also unavailable elsewhere around Addis.
In the last 125 years of its existence, Addis Ababa has gone through many changes, renovations or modernization periods. During this long period, Addis has seen the rule of two emperors, and three military and civilian leaders at the helm. Each of them have left their marks on the capital that has now become one of the most important cities in Africa but also in the world. And now an old town in a big forest is fast turning into a flowering tourist hub. Who could have imagined this some 125 years ago?
Source Ethiopan Herald