Letter from Ethiopia: back and forth

Busy Market Ethiopia
A busy market contains all the sights, sounds and smells of Addis Ababa. Photograph: Robert Harding World Imagery/Alamy

I am not sure why I like Ethiopia so much. In part, I think it is the sights, sounds and smells that are so evocative. Watching a blood-red sun beginning to set through the haze that hovers over Addis Ababa, watching the black kites swoop between the buildings, listening to the sounds of traffic, Ethiopian pop music and the odd chicken or two, plus the smells of wood smoke, roasting coffee, cheap diesel and something else, indescribable, but essentially African, I remember why I like this country so much.

I am also attracted by the people, however annoying and inefficient they can be. The women are certainly beautiful but in most Ethiopians there is also a joy and optimism that despite their poverty, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe that they are on the cusp of great things: becoming a middle-income country, surfing the “knowledge superhighway”. Every state company and organisation now has a vision and mission that they publicise. I noticed that at Mekelle airport their vision was to become “the best airport in Africa”; several Ethiopian universities share the vision to become “the best university in Africa”. There is no sense of irony or scepticism: this is what they want to do and they will try their best to achieve it – anything is possible, “God willing”.

I am returning after an absence of several years and catching up with old friends like Solomon, who works in a private university. In many ways it all seems very familiar: the same donkeys and goats roaming the streets, the shoeshine boys, the men pissing beside the road, the man who came up to me and said “Remember me? I am from your hotel” and people as friendly and chatty as ever.

However, the area of Addis where I am staying has changed a lot. There is a two-track railway being built down the middle of the main road; the central reservation that used to divide the two lanes of traffic that had some trees, some shrubs and a few men sleeping is gone. Many of the small family businesses, shops and restaurants have either been knocked down or closed down due to lack of business. All along the main road enormous buildings are being constructed and Solomon tells me that he is worried about the infrastructure needed to support them. Whether they become offices, colleges, hospital or shopping malls they will need additional electricity, internet connectivity, water supply and sewage but there is no evidence that these already overstreched services are going to be upgraded.

Meskel Square in the centre of Addis seems to have lost a lot of its glamour (if that’s the right word); the railway carves through the air, at eye-level with the stand where the leaders of the Derg used to stand to watch their military displays. The artificial palm trees with the flashing lights and the giant TV screen have gone. Now it seems to be a giant coach park.

I am off for a stroll through the evening warmth, the dust and the rubble. I will probably stop for a drink. A fresh squeezed mango juice? A freshly brewed macchiato? Can’t decide!

Guardian Weekly regularly publishes a Letter from one of its readers from around the world. We welcome submissions – they should focus on giving a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to weekly.letters@theguardian.com