Picking meskel

I straighten my tie, put on my suit jacket, kiss my wife goodbye and step out the door. We live in a small compound, with our landlady, it's a few steps to the main gate, past a small patch of garden, where I check on this season's vegetables – sweetcorn, broadbeans, peas, aubergine, spring onion and cherry tomatoes, all surprisingly hard to find in the shops here.

Out of the gate, I turn right a walk up the rocky, unpaved road, greeting a few of our neighbours along the way. The Finnish-French man opposite, married to an Ethiopian; the serious looking priest; our smiley next-door neighbour; the house of Chinese telecoms workers. Our house is at the end of a closed road – so we have a second set of gates with guards at the other end of the road, which means we don't need guards in our own compound, something we are incredibly appreciative of. They are mainly Muslim, and I greet them with a "selam" and they wave back.

My walk to work is about 15 minutes, but it's one of the most important parts of my daily life here. I work on abstract concepts of growth, development and transformation, but it is these few precious minutes that serve to ground me in day-to-day life in Addis, its tensions, contradictions and joys. It is my Ethiopian version of stopping to pick daisies.

Stepping over a precarious concrete drain cover, I leave the brief section of well-tarmaced road and wave to the young man in his small shop that I normally buy my phone credits from. I could follow the sealed road round, but I like to take shortcut to the right, over the bumpy, rocky terrain – it plays havoc on my thin-soled leather shoes, but takes me past the area where teenagers wash taxis and cars before rejoining the main road. It's usually here that I receive the first shout of "China!", something I've grown used to, having initially been irritated and offended by it. I banter a bit in Amharic and continue on.
The main road is known as Chechenya, named after the former war-zone – it is essentially the red-light district, lined with bars and after a certain point in the evening, heavily-made up, scantily-clad, strongly-perfumed prostitutes. This end, near the Atlas hotel, is a little more salubrious, with several nice restaurants, coffee shops and clothes stores.

I pass the laundrette where my wife takes my shirts – she handwashes most of my clothes (we don't have a washing machine) but carefully delivers my shirts to the friendly ladies at Clean Solutions for cleaning and pressing – it's a small luxury that I really appreciate. A crowd of young boys calls out out to me – listros, shoe-shiners, kitted out with a wooden box to hold polish and a cut-off yellow plastic container, filled with drain water. They are my favourite characters in Chechenya (although they can be found all over the city) – the represent an industriousness and determination that is hard to fault. And they do give an amazing shine!! I often wonder what my young nephews and friends' children would think of them, the prospect of eking out an existence at such an early age. I know next to nothing about their lives, and always wonder – where do they live? What do they think of their future? Where are their parents? I like to imagine a 'career ladder' that starts with listro, grows into runner boy, minibus steward, minibus driver and reaches the ultimate pinnacle of taxi driver. It's these daily interactions with the informal sector that remind me of how critical it is to society and life here – but also how people and society self-organise and create beauty from chaos. I promise myself that one day, when my Amharic is good enough, I will sit down with a bunch of them, maybe over some tibs, and find out about their lives.

The listros normally hang out near an office furniture store, where an old security guard smiles as a young woman washes out the entranceway with a bucket. I cross over a hazardous side road with a large hole that cars have to carefully creep over. Next up is Moyo's cafe – a weekend favourite to hang out and drink coffee. It's bright green exterior and modern, Scandinavian furniture mark it out. Even early in the morning, there's usually a mix of studious people cowering behind laptops (it's one of the few places with free wifi) and Ethiopians sharing a morning coffee. Behind Moyo's is Bait Al Mandi, owned by the same people, it serves the most amazing Yemeni kubhz (bread) and is one of our hidden gems. Sometime after Bait Al Mandi, I usually cross over the road as the pavement runs out. Not that it's any better on the other side, but I feel less likely to get run over or fall in a hole.

Just past a shiny new building where new cafes and shops are springing up, there are 3 large green skips and a team of rubbish workers, loading and sorting the fetid, stinking mass. I hold my breath as I pass, often gagging at the stench. Each of Addis Ababa's residents produce around half a kilo or solid waste a day. It is collected by teams of bin men, wheeling rusty carts from house to house. They are employed by a micro-enterprise, as primary refuse collectors – each zone of the city has one MSE. The rubbish from the Bole-Shalla area ends up here before being collected by the municipality and dumped at a site in South-West Addis known as Reppi.

For some reason, the road gets dusty at this point (and particularly at this time of the year, October, just at the start of the dry season). Early in the morning, there are often teams of older women in straw hats with a rag wrapped around their heads, sweeping the streets and collecting rubbish. They remind me of creatures from some post-apocalyptic future, clad in overalls, masked entirely in dusty, dirty rags except from their eyes, shuffling down the road.
Along from the skips is a school, that doesn't resemble anything that I'd think of as a school – it looks more like an apartment block from a housing estate. A thin, long building with 5 floors. I only know it's a school because of the stream of uniformed children rushing in. I'm a little late today, and two young teachers are standing at the gate, wearing lab coats and wielding sticks – they look like they should be at school themselves and I shudder for the late comers.
Another group of listros – this lot are older, and hang out with the taxi drivers, in some sort of symbiotic relationship, like cleaner fish to sharks. I greet them and politely decline their invitations to polish my shoes.

A modern commercial building with an ice-cream parlour and a pizza joint marks the start of a long chain of dingy units, shuttered up at this time of day, but transformed into noisy, lively bars and the workplace for the prostitutes. This is the heart of Chechenya. If I leave early enough in the morning, I will often still see and hear the remnants from the night before – boozed up men, lying in the gutters, music still pumping from the odd venue. They are almost all sponsored by St George's, one of the oldest local beers here – their signs are uniformly bright yellow with red Amharic script. One thing that always strikes me is the pavement of St George's bottle tops crushed into the dry earth, peppering the dusty grey-brown sidewalk with flecks of yellow – remnants of hedonism. It's the sort of thing that I imagine will deeply puzzle archeologists of future civilisations. "Who was this St George and why was he so important to these people?".

I usually have to walk with bit more purpose along here as young women try to attract my attention – they're usually in loose fitting clothing, as close to pajamas as you get here, and makeup-free. I'm polite and they are friendly, but I try not to think about their lives. A few red-eyed, dishevelled men are usually slumped in the corners watching me walk by. Very occasionally, one will start to hassle me, and if I'm not successful in fending him off, a taxi driver will come to my rescue. I find this reassuring, that somehow I'm a part of the neighbourhood and the community will look out for me. However, I'm not keen to test this beyond the odd vagrant!

From here I start to reach home turf – the area around my office, where I am a lot more familiar with the various characters. Another taxi stand, in the evening, there are often women with boiling pots of sweetcorn on offer, but at this time of day, it's just more young men, looking for business. I greet those that I know and ask about their families. As I get closer to the office, a final set of listros greet me – there's one boy, a little older than the rest, maybe 12 or 13, he is always polite and incredibly hard working. I see him scurrying around doing errands for the local businesses in-between shining shoes. He's my favourite and as I'm close to the office, I agree for him to clean my shoes. He magics up a stool, wipes it down with a cloth and I sit. He's immediately a frenzy of activity: the wooden box goes down and my foot is firmly placed on it, he whips out a cloth, dips it in the yellow plastic container and swiftly wipes my shoes. In the rainy season, he uses a small wooden scraper to carefully remove mud from the stitching of my shoes. Next up is a healthy dose of polish on an old horsehair brush, his movements are precise, swift and efficient, a well-practiced trade. Dipping the brush into the water, he brings my shoe to a dull shine before buffing hard with another clean brush – which for some reason has a rattle and sounds like a can of spray paint as he industriously polishes my shoe to a mirror finish. A sharp tap of the brush indicates that I should swap feet and he starts again. I marvel at his handiwork, hand over 10 birr and wander on my way.

At Yeha restaurant, where I sometime go for shekla tibs (fried pieces of beef, served in a clay burner with a few hot pieces of coal) and beers after work, I greet the staff, punters and taxi drivers that are sheltering from the already hot sun. There's a sega bet (butcher) attached to it, where you can choose your beef before it's cooked. Sometimes I buy beef here on the way home to make stew or curry – around 80 birr for a half kilo.

One final taxi stand, these are the guys I use quite often, so I spend a while greeting them and asking about their families. It's a enjoyable ritual in Ethiopian culture – you can have a 10 minute conversation consisting solely of greetings – how are you? How's your wife? And your kids? Work going ok? How was your night? Everything ok? At first, I found it awkward and frustrating, but I have come to relish and cherish the human interaction – it's no less ritualised than the western "how are you?" but lasts longer and somehow feels more genuine. It serves as a daily reinforcing of social bonds and is usually started and ended with a firm handshake and shoulder bump – the "fighters' salute" a remnant of the Derg era, when anti-Derg fighters would do greet each other this way. For women, it's three kisses – something that took me a while to get used to – I'd stop at two.

After the taxi stand, I enter a construction site, where teams of Ethiopian labourers and Israeli foreman are building a concrete flyover which will carry the road over the new light rail system that is being installed. For months, this area has been a mess, but it is rapidly taking shape. In less than a year, the road has been transformed into the bare bones of a modern transport exchange. It's been a fascinating process to watch and a privilege to witness.
I pass one final character, a young boy with weighing scales and an inexplicable musical device that plays an annoying tune over and over. These boys are everywhere too, and they all have the same tune, I often wonder who decided that this strange electronic melody would be the soundtrack to getting weighed. I have never seen anyone actually use these scales.

I turn left into the Ministry grounds, greeting the guards and stepping carefully down the muddy path into the main car park. I always feel a great sense of privilege as I step into the shadow of the brutal communist building – its dull, imposing exterior unrelenting to design. Privilege at being in Ethiopia at such an exciting time in its history; at being welcomed into the Ministry; at having an office here and feeling a part of the civil service. It's incredibly frustrating and alienating a lot of the time, but stepping back and seeing the whole makes me really value it.

The walk to my office from the front gate takes me 10-15 minutes – it's only short, but I stop and greet the people I see along the way – mostly the cleaners, runners and secretaries but a few civil servants and directors. Eventually, I climb the staircase, say hi to the coffee lady, unlock my door and set up for the day.