Letter from Ethiopia #10

By Dandew Serbello - November 23, 2001

Dear Readers,

In one of my previous letters I wrote at length about the procedures and the bureaucratic requirements for land acquisition be it in the form of lease or lots. I have done that assuming that most of you would like to have some information on the subject. I donít think I have to bore you with an anecdotal letter by recalling the monkey who gave priority to pick thorns from her bottom so that it can seat itself properly to be able to pick pricking thorns from the other parts of its body. Your coming home becomes incomplete if you have no house to live in. Needless to say, a house has to rest on a plot of land. Sometimes, the Addis Ababa City administration offers pocket plots it identifies to be available here and there on the basis of lots cast in the presence of applicants. The registration process is still in progress. I shall be writing when I know of any change and development. But now that we are at it, why not exchange some ideas about what kind of building design would be preferable should the plot of land be available by hook or by crook?

Let me take you back to history. We are aware of the ancient architectural relics of our forbear that goes with the other manifestations of old civilization that existed in this land. We are talking about our historical heritages in the field of architecture. What we are telling or showing the rest of the world could be the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela or the castles of Gondar or the steles of Axum. The refined architectural development seems to be confined within the orbit of the political or the religious leadership orbit. The mass lives under the thatched roofs which later were transformed into roofs covered with corrugated iron sheets which prevail to this day more or less.

Round about the reign of Menelik II, the design of buildings all of a sudden changed and the influence of foreign carpenters was vivid and telling. Buildings the likes of Ras Birru building, Taitu Hotel, Sheik Ojoleís residence, Dejazmatch Wube and many others.

Buildings are manifestations of the external influence at the time. These buildings have no significant attachments to the earlier architecture developed in the country. You cannot point out your fingers and say that this particular building is a continuation or a refinement of this or that architecture. There is no link in the development of architecture that can be traced and referred to specific period of time or any architecture that can be traced from the Ethiopian relics in architecture. This is sad.

Ethiopia is an ancient country. What does this mean? Of course all countries were created at the same time I presume. One country cannot be more ancient than any other country. What makes it ancient anyway is its old and better history when compared with the rest of the world. This posterity is manifested in many aspects of social and cultural development including agriculture and literature. That is not all. We preach that our country has never been colonized except for the five years of Italian occupation. So what? A lot of people ask what is the use of being free unless you can make any use of it. Anywhere we Ethiopians go we walk tall full of the feeling of self confidence. But when it comes to talks of comparative economic development or growth rate we are no where to be seen. We stoop down in a feeling of embarrassment and shame. It baffles me to understand why this should happen?

The so called modern buildings we see in Addis are simply copies of the western design that donít even have names of reference. They have no identification of a sort or titles. The thatched roofs of our forbear were simply changed by the iron sheets. Later on there was a development of new villas and big apartment buildings or multi-storey buildings designed by Ethiopian civil engineers and architects I am afraid, who must have done their dissertations on so called conventional designs. And when they come home simply opted for the same design without having any historical attachments to the home set up. There is a big difference. The Woretta/Woldia road built by the Chinese architects has its bridges and culverts traces of Chinese culture and architecture. Of course at this very moment we may be concerned with food and shelter after three thousand years of independence. Independence from what? I donít know. But I donít care for this kind of independence that has no use, not even free to develop its own historic architecture? So ladies and gentlemen, if you intend to build a house in your home land, think of the design. Try to make it functional as well as link it with the history of your country.


Thank you.

Dandew Serbello

Copyright @2001-2004

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