Urban Forum

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 267–293 | Cite as

History, Modernity, and the Making of an African Spatiality: Addis Ababa in Perspective

  • Alazar G. Ejigu


A body of scholarship in urban theory of global South over the last two decades has begun to present counterhegemonic notions of modernity and urbanism thereby charting new ways to conceptualize and study African cities. While the need for fuller, richer, and more textured accounts of ordinariness of African cities is often emphasized, the usefulness of differentiated accounts of cities to understanding their spatiality is also highlighted. This article attempts to supplement the ongoing discussion by exploring Addis Ababa as an African city with particular cultural and political historical contexts that gave it distinct experiences of modernity. Data is primarily drawn from historical study of modernizations of the city, supplemented with an ethnographic study that documents contemporary changes and lived experiences in the city and its emerging modern residential places. The study shows that the local experience of modernity is primarily situated in the isolated and noncolonial history of the nation, which on the one hand helps preserve indigenous qualities and on the other becomes a source of envy contributing to the consciousness of belatedness compared to other colonized and Western countries. This consciousness coordinates political intentions with people’s everyday practices in the co-making of a new, modern Addis Ababa and the reassertion of its unofficial identity as “the Diplomatic Capital of Africa.” Potentials and challenges of place-based conceptions of urbanism are implicated.


Modernity Identity Place History Urbanism Addis Ababa 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, 4–7 October 2012, Portland, OR, USA. I would like to thank the people who attended the session where the paper was presented. The thought-provoking discussions and constructive comments received at the event helped reframe the study question. I also thank Prof. Halina Dunin-Woyseth, Bosse Bergman, Prof. Inga Britt Werner, and Assoc. Prof. Tigran Haas for their comments on the work at different stages of its development. I would like to give a very special thank you to Assistant Prof. Shimelis Gulema, who, from his wide and deep knowledge of Ethiopian history and of urbanization, cultural production, and modernization in Africa, provided some of the most invaluable comments that not only helped to improve central arguments of the article, but also to maintain a level of clarity in the presentation. The work has also greatly benefited from two anonymous reviewers whose profound, and yet quite distinct, expertise can be seen from their comments that focused on different aspects of the paper. All errors of fact and interpretation are entirely my own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.KTH/Royal Institute of Technology Division of Urban and Regional StudiesSchool of Architecture and Built EnvironmentStockholmSweden

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