On the Road to Bole, by Terrence Lyons

The road to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is filled with billboards selling cell phone services and other local and global products. Below is an example for Dukem restaurant:

Figure 7.5 Dukam Restaurant Sign, Addis Ababa (1)

The billboard is fairly typical of roadside advertisements in Ethiopian cities, with images of a traditional coffee ceremony promising home-style “Ethiopian” cuisine. What is notable is that the restaurants are located 7,000 miles west in Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland. Why would Dukem advertise on the road to Bole Airport?

Ethiopia is an overwhelmingly rural country but there are two significant Ethiopian cities – Addis Ababa and Washington DC. Many professionals in Addis Ababa have a relative or two somewhere in the United States and often in the greater Washington area. Increasingly diaspora Ethiopians from Washington travel back to Ethiopia to visit family and invest in businesses and real estate. The real estate boom in Addis Ababa is fueled in significant measure by diasporan investments in modern condominiums that have reshaped the city’s skyline. There are a significant number of high-end restaurants, hotels, and spas that cater to this transnational community. This is the clientele that Dukem is trying to entice to its restaurants on the other side of the Atlantic.

The overall size of the Ethiopian community in the United States has been estimated as being composed of 73,000 Ethiopian-born residents. If second and subsequent generations are included, the total rises to 460,000 according to some estimates. Precise numbers are hard to gather but most Ethiopians insist that the community in Washington area alone is between 100,000 to 250,000. 18th Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood served as the cultural and political home of the Ethiopian diaspora until real estate prices in the 2000s drove many businesses toward U and 9th Streets, where Dukem and many other restaurants are located.

The diaspora has created a wide range of organizations, maintains dozens of websites and influential blogs, and broadcasts a number of regular radio and television shows on cable networks and the internet. A number of Ethiopian Orthodox churches have been established across the region and the Ethiopian Yellow Pages (published in Washington) help Ethiopian-owned businesses and professionals support one another and foster a thick web of diverse links. A recent BBC story documented some of these enterprises.

The Ethiopian Yellow Pages includes information not only on diaspora businesses but includes businesses and services in Addis Ababa, further signaling the deep links and lack of social distance between these two cities. Ethiopian grocery stores stock not only injera and spices but also CDs from Ethiopia, inexpensive phone cards to facilitate keeping in touch, and money transfer services. The Ethiopian Sports Federation on North America (ESFNA) has a soccer league with dozens of teams and an annual tournament that draws tens of thousands. The trounament is an opportunity to renew old friendships, build solidarity, and listen to prominent keynote speakers and major diaspora musicians. In 2012 the movement split into hostile factions, with one group holding its games in Dallas and the other at RFK Stadium in Washington DC.

Globalization, particularly in terms of human mobility, has reduced the significance of space in shaping social, cultural, and business ties. Washington and Addis Ababa form an overlapping site for Ethiopians to meet and engage in business and social life across the continents. Dukem and the Ethiopian Yellow Pages both offer services to Ethiopians who live in Ethiopia, in Washington, and increasingly moving between multiple locations.

These thoughts draw upon Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandaville, Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas and Networks (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Photo courtesy of James C. McCann from his book Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (2009).