Ethiopia: Inclusive Naming of 'Sefer'


In his essay Modernity and Change in Addis Ababa, architect and historian Fasil Ghiorgis describes early city structure as a multi-centered semi-rural settlement arranged according to sefer. "The earlier settlements were based on existing feudal and military style type camps, where the dignitary of a region settled on top of a hill and administered his sefer. A sefer is an area similar to a military settlement or camp, with a buffer zone in between." The city eventually evolved into the political and commercial center of the nation, altering the natural terrain of the area as more people flocked to Addis Ababa.

Names like Filwiha and Entoto were given following the establishment of Addis as the nation's capital during the reign of Menelik II and others that developed in subsequent administrations such as Doro Maneqia, Iri-Bekentu, Kera, and the like.

The Italian occupation of the 1930s dramatically changed the face of the city and the names of significant areas such as Piazza, Mercato, and Kazanchis. Architects, historians, cultural commentators have been advocating for the preservation of historic sites around the city but their pleas often fall on deaf ears. Progress's dull march sounds as the city trudges on with little regard for the past, only leaving names behind as evidence of what used to be.

Street or landmarks were named to commemorate events and celebrate Ethiopian patriots during the Italian invasion such as Menelik II road, Yekatit 12, Independence square, Haile Selassie I Avenue, or highlight Ethiopia's diplomatic nature such as Churchill road, Cunningham Street, Queen Elizabeth Street.

Addis Ababa has built a reputation of being the diplomatic center of Africa since the establishment of the Organization of the African Union in 1963. The city is home to the African Union headquarters and various organizations of the AU and UN.

The city administration and the federal government have been attempting to live up to the expectations these responsibilities put on the city. Beautification projects, rebuilding roads, the light rail system, cleaning of rivers has been integral to improving the city, often without sufficient regard to how residents are affected by the changes.

Although major roads had been renamed after African countries over a decade ago to signify how the city is also the capital of Africa, the names have not been adopted by city residents.

Navigating Addis requires special skills, if one is not native to the city. Google maps or other location services follow the official names but street signs are hard to find on the actual road. The quick-changing nature of the city as roads are rebuilt and entire neighborhoods demolished makes Addis a difficult city to navigate. Even taxi hailing service drivers don't know the city well enough to navigate major areas and reading maps is unfortunately not in their repertoire.

The recent sister city agreement between Addis and DC was commemorated with the naming of a square and the erection of an awkward mini-Washington monument.

Thousands move to Addis and start new lives but, a lot of the changes, for the most part, have been to the detriment of residents that have their rents exorbitantly raised, pushed further from the city center or become homeless.

These attempts are commendable but neglect to account for aesthetics and more importantly, deny residents of ownership of their city. Inclusive public discourse on how we name our streets, build roads and public centers like parks is imperative, if we're to make Addis Ababa a livable city for everyone.

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