While the big wall map of Ethiopia in my room shows my town Abi Adi, it doesn’t show the road leading to Abi Adi. That’s because this small dirt road doesn’t really go anywhere important, except Abi Adi. There is already a main North-South paved road in this part of the country and Abi Adi is not on it. But things are changing. About a year ago work began on a massive paving project to put down asphalt on the 190 kilometers of road to and from Abi Adi. The road starts in Mekele, the regional capital city, passes through Abi Adi and finally ends in Adwa, a sizable town north of here. Currently it takes about 4 hours to travel the bumpy and dusty dirt road from Mekele to Abi Adi. This section is only 90 kilometers, so that works out to be about 22 kilometers per hour. Or 14 miles per hour. However, that may be a good thing when you see how the minibus drivers negotiate paved mountain roads with a suicidal speeds. Regardless, the asphalt is coming.
When I arrived in Abi Adi in December, construction crews were beginning to work on the section of road that passes through town. They started pulling out trees, demolishing buildings in the right of way, and surveying the route. The owners of the buildings that were built legally in the right of way were offered sizable compensation as the government exercised eminent domain. The businesses were given a deadline to have things torn down. A few days before this deadline you could see armies of dudes with sledge hammers breaking apart perfectly good structures. I only saw one or two jack hammers. There were lots and lots of regular hammers though. The guys were after the rebar buried in the cement structures. This steel is too valuable to scrap, so buildings are carefully deconstructed, one blow at a time, until the rebar is loose. Apparently it’s better to employee an army of hammerers for a few days rather than buy new rebar. If you don’t finish, then the bull dozer will render anything in its path unusable. If you built something illegally in the right of way, you got no compensation. I heard a story of a farmer who built his house too close to the road. Crews demolished his home and then demanded money for their “services.” Well that’s the story anyway.
Now that the buildings and trees were out of the way, the next step was to remove the top meter or so of original road surface. This was done by digging the claw on the back of a huge D8 Caterpillar into the road bed and then pushing the soil up into huge piles. These piles sat around in the main road, obstructing absolutely everything, for a week or two before front end loaders and an endless supply of dump trucks moved the soil elsewhere. Hundreds of loads made it up to the new school where the fill dirt literally leveled the playing fields. Hundreds more made it into the river where it will cause all sorts of environmental disasters come the next rainy season. The catch basin covers, erosion control fences, tarps, and other measures mandated by the Department of Ecology in the States are completely absent here. The amount of unstable soil that is currently exposed is pretty ridiculous. Waiting for the rain. Hopefully things can finish before the big rains come in 3 months. But that’s probably a long shot.
Next, a clay like soil is brought in from somewhere and poured onto the road bed. This new soil is spread and graded level, then compacted, then graded, then compacted, etc. That’s the current state of things. Now we are just waiting for enough crushed rock to be created before they can lay down the final layers of asphalt.
The guys building this road are from various regions of Ethiopia. The skilled labor (equipment operators, technicians, supervisors, and surveyors) are brought in from other regions. The unskilled daily laborers are from the local area. They all live in a big construction camp just outside of town. I’ve ran out to the camp in the morning to check things out a few times. It’s like a different world out there. The rock crushing equipment runs around the clock making crushed rock gravel for the road. Dust from this operation, along with truck traffic, covers everything. It looks like a volcanic explosion or a nuclear holocaust. The camp has a few distinct areas: a garage for equipment maintenance, a concrete pre-casting site to make pipes and blocks, housing dormitories, and what looks like a POW camp’s dining hall built out of sheet metal. The guys are cheerful and nice to me whenever I walk through camp, but it’s not a very pleasant place. It reminds me of a mine or a scene from Fern Gully or Avatar when you see how bad humanity can rape the earth. There are at least 3 of these camps along the 190 kilometer road project.
Now if this massive project wasn’t enough, 2 months ago bulldozers began scratching up the surface streets in town to make way for cobble stoning projects. Cobblestones streets are very common in Ethiopia. I’m not really sure why, if its aesthetics or economics. It’s been interesting to see how this process works. The government of Ethiopia has decided to employee educated youth who can’t find jobs in the private sector. Ethiopia has a pretty big network of technical and vocational schools. If you attend one of these schools and pass the final exams, the government will add you to an eligibility pool for work. Other college grads and I think secondary school graduates are also in the eligibility pool. Assuming you can’t find a job, which is pretty common, you can apply for a job laying cobblestones for the government. It’s like FDR’s New Deal public works projects. The idea is to pay a bunch of qualified young people to help improve the infrastructure of the country. Therefore you end up with a bunch of crews of youth laying cobblestones. These guys and girls form work crews and all dress in a common uniform. We’ve got the Ethiopian Soccer jersey team, the maroon overalls team, and the khaki team laying down blocks day after day. It’s reminiscent of a chain gang, since each cobble stone is shaped with a hammer, except that the workers enjoy their job and the descent paycheck that accompanies it. These crews work late into the night to finish before the rainy season comes.
So this is what one face of development looks like. These projects are funded by the Ethiopian government and/or loans from major agencies like the International Development Association of the World Bank and the African Development Bank. These banks are providing loans for billions of dollars for infrastructure development. To supplement the homegrown talent, Ethiopia hires firms from all over the world to help complete these projects. In fact Chinese construction works are so common in parts of the country (or were) that it’s now a common practice to refer to anyone of lighter skin color as “china” including me.
I can’t wait for things to be finished. I’m excited to see the finished cobble stone streets of Abi Adi to replace the dusty and rocky dirt paths we had before. I’m excited for the ride the Mekele to not take 4 hours and require washing the dust out of your hair upon arrival. It’s crazy how construction happens here! You can see from the photos how disruptive it is. However, projects of this size would probably be even more disruptive in the states; businesses would be forced to temporarily close, fences and awkward reroutes would be everywhere, flaggers would be on the watch for the next lawsuit, police would be writing tickets, and neighborhood NIMBY (not in my back yard) associations would put up enough red tape and legal challenges to delay anything from happening. Here you can literally run up and touch a moving excavator if you are so daring. I’ve stood in the middle of the construction site watching the machines move earth, like I’m 6 years old again, and no one told me to get out of the way for my own safety. Guys of all ages sit and watch the machines work throughout the day. I guess earth moving equipment is a pretty fascinating thing to watch. It brings out the 6 year old in all of us. Now who wants to play with Tonka trucks in the sandbox?