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Twenty-four Hours in Addis Ababa

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- I have been in Ethiopia for less than 24 hours and have had my first experience with armed robbery.

I was walking around an open-air market -- in broad daylight -- in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, with a friend who has lived here for over a year. The Merkato is considered the biggest open-air market in Africa. With the exception of an Ethiopian contemporary art gallery, it was the one thing in Addis I really wanted to see -- mostly for the photo opportunities.

My friend and I, the only two white people there, spent the afternoon strolling through the market. She chatted with the men and young children calling after us. I took photos: men sitting on the street selling everything from sneakers to power cords to videogame controllers; Muslims lined up on their knees for the afternoon prayer; stalls selling bushels of leaves called chat that men chew as a stimulant; women in a variety of dress -- some Ethiopian Orthodox Christians wearing white veils for church, Muslims in headscarves and some, presumably Somalis, in gowns that fully covered their bodies with only slits for their eyes. One wore a long black gown, fully covered, and as she walked, pretty silver high heels peaked out.

As we were on our way out of the market, two young guys ran up from behind us. One grabbed the digital camera out of my hand. The cord was wrapped around my wrist, so he had to tug. As I soon as I realized what was happening, I let go easily. Just in case.

Then I saw the other young man struggling with my friend for her clutch purse. She put up a decent fight, even running after him a little. Damn it, I thought as I watched my guy take off through the stalls, I should have put up a fight.

But the second guy pulled a knife out on my friend. As soon as she saw the knife, she dropped the purse and fell backwards on the ground. He ran off.

People gathered around, watching. No one ran after the guys or even asked if we were OK.

We quickly found a taxi and jetted away.

I have told a few Ethiopians about the incident, and the reaction has been the same: the Merkato is known for theft, but armed robbery? That is very rare here, they say. A fellow writer told me that armed robbery is almost unheard of in Ethiopia, and that the crime rate here for serious crimes is very low compared to other African countries. He also said that had we gone to the police (which we didn't -- how could they find these guys in a huge market?) -- and they had arrested the men, the men would have gotten 10 years in prison.

I am in Ethiopia with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which will be taking me around the country to visit their maternal health sites. Today we will visit teenage girls who have fled their homes in rural villages due to child marriage and have resettled in the capital. Many now work under harsh conditions as maids for very low-income Ethiopian families. UNFPA helps educate the children and give them life skills.

People in Addis have been friendly; many men and children see a white woman and eagerly begin practicing their English. "You! You!" "Hello." Or they shout out the Amharic words for "Foreigner!" and "White Face!"

The city is not exactly "attractive." Tiny shops line the streets selling beer or snacks. And then out of nowhere, these huge, incredibly gaudy modern hotels pop up. Shack -- shack -- shack -- huge gaudy hotel -- shack -- shack -- shack. To be fair, I have only been here for 24 hours. Maybe the beautiful parts of the city are hiding.

Luckily, though, the modern hotel where I am staying has Internet access in my room, a big TV and a clean, comfortable bed. I will spend much of the week outside Addis, where I hear bedbugs prevail. I will get my rest in Addis, while I can.

Despite the fleas, the rest of the country should be very beautiful -- thank goodness I brought a second camera.