When I captured the images and stories during a three month stay in Adigrat, Ethiopia I was being reintroduced to a city I once saw and experienced as "old fashioned and traditional" compaired to Addis Ababa or Mekelle. I was in aw at how quickly things changed there. As people began to resettle after the end of the border war and families began to reunite, it seemed as though the Ethiopian government also found interest in the small city. The development appeared to be happening quickly but the people didn't seem included. The project began as a look at a new city (physically) with old habits of living still existing in the people.
This project is ongoing and will evolve many times over. For more background on Adigrat and why I am choosing to pursue this project beyond the images, please read my research below:
The City of Adigrat is located in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, 25 miles south of the Ethiopian/Eritrean border and is considered an important access to Eritrea and the Red Sea. The cities population is 76,000 and can be considered a medium sized city.
Adigrat was the capital of Tigray in the early 1800s and played an intricate role during Dejazmach (Ethiopian title similar to the ranks of Governor) Sabagadis Woldu rule of Tigray (including what is now considered Eritrea). After the fall of Woldu’s reign, Adigrat continued to be a strategic point in the nations history including during the second Italian-Abyssinian War in 1935, the Ethiopian Civil War, and later the Ethiopian/Eritrean border war. In 1958 the city was named one of the 27 first class townships in the nation.
In the 1970s many students in Adigrat organized to form anti-government protests and demonstrations, in support of a socialist uprising and military coup of the long reigning monarch rule.
Ethiopia’s major highway, Route 2, spans from Addis Ababa to Asmara, Eritrea and cuts directly through Adigrat. The Derg used this as a focal point to execute strategies and export materials in attempt to occupy surrounding areas. Because of this, the regime heavily policed the cities boundaries. They implemented commercial and transportation restrictions, which affected the cities markets, as the economy was dependent on merchandising and trade. They also made it difficult for local business owners to obtain licenses and continue to participate in local markets. The population became depended on rationed materials and were struggling to find work that would provide for their families. Many people fled the city for the same fear many other Ethiopian people nationwide were fleeing their communities, for fear of being captured, torchered, and killed.
By 1989, government troops and officials left Adigrat, leaving most of its existing systems and infrastructure destructed and unusable.
During the 1998-2000 Ethiopian/Eritrean border war, the city was less of a focal point of tactic, as the locations of occupation were occuring in border cities in the north like Zelambasa and Badimae. Adigrat became more of an important location for displaced highlanders to find safety and shelter from the violent battles occurring in their communities. It was estimated that 60,806 families were registered as war-affected internally displaced people (IDPs) with a large number of the IDPs fleeing to Adigrat and surrounding towns (1).
Through its history, Adigrat has been a location that both pulled and pushed many different communities. Post border war, the pull factors spanned from border war caused displacement to environmental impact on food production as surrounding regions experienced low rainfall and drought. As time progresses and infrastructure development is occurring at a rapid pace due to Ethiopia’s fast growing economy, the city is experiencing a new wave of displacement and migration.
Post border war, the streets of Adigrat were lifeless and had little social activity. The UN and the Ethiopian military still had a heavy presence in peace keeping efforts, setting up checkpoints throughout the city. Overtime, checkpoints began to disappear, the hostile interrogation of soldiers began to lessen and people began to move freely once again. Economic activity began to pick back up, and the residents of Adigrat wanted an opportunity to rebuild their city.
Adigrat resembled most secondary Ethiopian cities at the time of redevelopment. There were small shops that were found in between residential blocks, resembling a bodega in an American city, that offered small but essential ingredients, treats, and toiletries one might need to obtain between visits to the larger city market.
The city had one large market that offered a variety of produce and meats, often harvested outside of the city or result of trade with highlanders. Many farmers in the outskirts of the city and surrounding highlands depended on the sales of their items to gain monetary funds that would be used to purchase necessities for their farms/homes, tuition for their children’s schools, and also an important way to obtain enough money to travel and seek better health care than what was being provided in the secondary city. People are still heavily reliant on this system of trade to afford necessities for their livelihood.
As time progressed post border war, roadways and other infrastructure demolished by years of war began to be reconstructed. This encouraged more regional activities, as Adigrat remained dependent on merchandising and trade. A new market emerged during these times as well. Adigrat began to experience high levels of tourism, especially those of the diaspora that were visiting in flocks to see their families and communities that were unreachable through the many years of conflict. This sparked the development of hotels, restaurants and other commercial businesses that would attract more tourism into the city.
Much of the redevelopment efforts were being spearheaded by the local population. Funds to support the projects were also coming heavily from family members abroad who sent large amounts of remittances to support their families through resettlement. This helped in reconstruction of the city but also offered employment in new and revitalised markets. As the city began to expand and urbanization became an appeal to many, including farmers, the population began grow rapidly and the city’s boundaries began to expand.
Schools were reopened and university became much more accessible to this generation than the past ever had. Education for younger children began to be more prevalent to staying home to help with work on their families farm.
Along with population growth, the culture of the city began to globalize. This was occuring at a slower pace than other major Ethiopian cities like Mekelle or Addis, but nonetheless it was occuring.
Prime Minister Zenawi took major interest in rebuilding the image, infrastructure and economy of Ethiopia. Zenawi used a top-down approach to build systems and networks that would send the nation on the fast track to economic success (2). Though he was able to do so, much of this was done without the participation of local Ethiopian communities.
Adigrat was no exception. In order to sustain capital growth and keep up with the fast growing national economy, Adigrat began standardizing and centralizing the city’s systems, specifically through heavy investment on infrastructure development of utility systems including sewage, gas, water, telecommunication, and various electrical systems. The standardization and centralization of these networks and systems was necessary to support the movement of goods and growth of production but Zenawi’s top-down approach proved to be detrimental to existing markets and local economies and its workers.
This is based from a 2013 interview I did with a family that recently migrated to Adigrat. Please feel free to watch the entire video and story here: https://vimeo.com/77989652
In 2004, Desta, her husband and oldest daughter packed up their belongings, boarded up their home and moved from the northeastern highlands of Tigray to Adigrat in hopes for better and more stable work opportunities.
Before Desta and her husband were married, they both survived the conflicts of the border war and were the few who were able to stay in their homes in the Irob woreda (woreda meaning state). Though the war was no longer affecting their daily life, the young couple experienced hardship in other ways. Her husband desperately sought work in his rural village to not only obtain a plot of land but purchase the materials needed to build a home for his new family. He also needed to stock and graise the land to yield food. He was able to find a bit of work at construction sites around his community, as they worked to rebuild destructed roadways and infrastructure around the region.
Once Desta and her husband could move to their new home, Desta began experiencing health problems that often left her in incoherent states. When the couple found it impossible to seek medical attention in their community in the way they needed it, they quickly realized living in the secluded area could lead to very dangerous situations for her and their then 2 year old daughter.
Like many Irob people, they moved down to the lowlands for better healthcare, work, and educational opportunities. Desta and her husband had very limited education, as school in their region only went to 8th grade. Once kids reached that age, they often quit to help their parents in the field or their parents would send them to Adigrat to pursue higher education. This often required connections and the funding to support at least one of their children but many found a way to do it even on a farmers salary.
When first arriving to Adigrat, Desta and her husband's education level was not an issue. They were able to find a one room home that was apart of a conchello (a gated home with several families residing in different rooms. The shared common spaces included an outhouse for toilets and showers, a space for cooking and often a community garden where small crops can be yielded).
In desperate attempt to find work as the couple was expecting their second child, Desta’s husband called his older sister, who at the time was living in the United States. She, herself, was displaced and later found refuge in the U.S. during the Derg regime. This situation is often common amongst the Irob people. His sister was able to provide start up funds for a small shop. They built the shop out of their one room home and it became an important means for their survival.
After six months of struggling to maintain business, while paying monthly fees to the government and high rent cost for their retail space, keeping the store open became very difficult for the family. They considered many options including closing it down to spend more time looking for better ventures, but after much deliberation decided they wanted to keep trying, especially since their American family was contributing.
Desta’s husband, like many Ethiopian youth were beginning to feel how slow and unequal the top-down approach to development was in regards to their community.
They watched Chinese construction workers, investors, and developers transforming the local markets and street infrastructures. They also brought influences of neoliberal markets and consumer mindsets that once were not there. As many were excited to see such modern changes, especially after years of mistreatment, displacement, and war they also felt the pressure of the income inequality and opportunity for upward mobility.
Desta’s husband and hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians fled to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Israel and other Middle Eastern/Arab countries, desperate to find work. The journey to these countries were harsh, expensive, and sometimes life threatening. The Ethiopian workers were accepting jobs other citizens of that nation did not want to take on like being a housekeeper or working on intense and dangerous building construction projects. Despite enduring intense physical and mental abuse at times, the workers were able to send enough money to their families to build homes, establish businesses, and provide for the capitalistic lifestyle that was being sold to them through the new consumerism mindset.
Unlike others, Desta’s husband was not able to provide enough to keep their shop open, but he was able to provide enough funds to send his two kids to the best and most expensive, private school in the city.
In 2013, over 120,000 undocumented migrants were forced out out of Saudi Arabia and sent back to an uncertain future. When the workers arrived they were offered small stipends to help in their resettlement efforts but this did not give hope to the mostly youth population desperate for economic opportunity.
When Desta’s husband returned to Adigrat, he like many others were desperately searching for work throughout the city but were not able to find much.
After a year, he worked to secure a loan that would help him purchase a condominium (one of the many new modern building types popping up throughout the city skyline) that will at least bring some peace of mind to his growing family as he seeks work.
The Uncertainty of Ethiopia’s Future
Although many may praise the Ethiopian government for quickly reacting to the influx of returned migrant workers, the jobs that are being created may not be sufficient enough to keep from another migrant crisis from happening again.
Many foreign investors are exploiting the deserpeation of Ethiopian people and are opening manufacturing and textile factories in the country in exchange for cheap labor. The workers are often under trained and lack the skill necessary to yield large amounts of products in a day. The factory workers are often given a base of $25 a month (3).
Lured by tax incentives, promises of infrastructure investment, and ultracheap labor, countries the Western world once outsourced production to, particularly China and Sri Lanka, are now the middlemen ramping up production here for Guess, Levi’s, H&M, and other labels. (4)
The industries who set up shop in the country are given a tax exemption for the first 5 years of business then are given tax breaks on import of capital goods and construction supplies (3). Belachew Mekuria, apart of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, says the country would like to create a total of 2 million jobs in manufacturing by the end of 2025. This ambitious goal to take one of the most impoverished nations to become middle class is difficult when workers rights are virtually non- existent. Currently, Ethiopia does not have a standard minimum wage. They allow employers to set the salary and wages at the range they see fit and workers rights to form unions or be protected by the law is very limited. Policies like this are beneficial to attract industries to the country, but are making the Ethiopian people weary of their future.
The current political state of Ethiopia shows the rage, frustration, and fear in the nation’s youth. Student led protests are erupting across the country’s universities, regarding fair land distribution and want for fundamental political change (4). Some protests have led to the jailing or killings of unarmed demonstrators and unusual forms of public harassment were used by police forces (4).
The mistrust of the government is currently high amongst the youth. Many felt the national elections held in 2012 were fixed and specifically fixed to allow the Tigrean elected leaders to remain a majority despite the fact that Tigrean people only make up 6 percent of the nations population. People of Amhara and Oromo decent have banned together and have begun attacking Tigrean students at their universities, and creating hosting environments to run them out of their towns.
Without political reform on a federal level, many of the youth will remain unsatisfied and Ethiopia’s history is bound to repeat itself.
Though the Ethiopian people deserve to be apart of the economic and political activity that is currently happening in their city, without stability, many of the people’s frustrations and fears will remain unnoticed.
Many times NGOs and other key investors overlook corrupt behavior by the national government, only to focus on the economic benefits of investing in the country. The world view and narrative of the country is being washed down by stories such as the the installation of the metro system in Addis Ababa, or the popularity of Ethiopian coffee worldwide. There are two different stories being told about the fastest growing economy in Africa and the juxtapositions are bound to clash if political reform is not made.
I plan to continue my research on this topic when I return to Ethiopia. I hope to expand my research and continue to document stories in hopes of creating a research essay primarily of video, audio, and photo. I will continue to capture the juxtaposition and now with a better understanding of the past and present relationship the Ethiopian people have with their government, I will be able to draw more context from interviews with workers in the city and draw a better conclusion in what sustainable development can look like and how it can be implemented better on a locals scale in Ethiopia.
(1) Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. “ETHIOPIA: Government Recognition of Conflict IDPs Crucial to Addressing Their Plight.” Apr. 2006.
(2) Zenawi, Meles. “States and Markets: Neoliberal Limitations and the Case for a Developmental State.” Good Growth and Governance in AfricaRethinking Development Strategies, 2011, pp. 140–174.
(3) Donahue, Bill. “China Is Turning Ethiopia Into a Giant Fast-Fashion Factory.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 2 Mar. 2018.
(4)“A Generation Is Protesting' in Ethiopia, Long a U.S. Ally.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017.
To view full research, please email saba[dot]aregai[at]gmail[dot]com.