Addis has daily blackouts usually rotating by neighborhood every other day but it’s unpredictable. Everyone is affected  — offices, shops, restaurants, homes — costing the economy a lot. Addis now has some light industry — shoes, clothing, leather jackets, small things made of plastic and metal — that often has to close several days a week. Outages used to be announced beforehand. Now they are more unpredictable but a little less frequent. It’s just something more to work around, says my host. She’s happy in Addis, loves her work, has found a companion and treats Addis frustrations like weather — you can’t change it. About the blackouts she says, “Just remember to charge your cell phone whenever you can.”

Life without a cell phone — or mobiles, as they are called (pronounced “mo-buy-l”) — is impossible in Addis these days. Traffic makes going places harder, so you have to tell people how late you will be. The middle and working classes — who can afford mobiles  — are large enough to swamp the capacity of the system during the peak hours that coincide with peak traffic hours, so getting through by phone can take repeated dialing. Still, the system works well in some ways. You buy minutes via a card from a street vendor, 50 birr (about $4), scratch off a patch and call in the number revealed. The system recognizes the mobile from which the call was made, credits it with the money and tells you your balance. Local calls are just under one birr (around 8 cents) for 3 minutes. It’s startling to me that you can dial someone in Jimma or Gondar on your own mobile from the US. And the person you call doesn’t pay anything. The US is the only place I know of where the massive rip-off of charging both ends of a conversation happens. Why do we stand for it?

But a lot of calls lead to messages that state that the mobile you called is out of the service area — even if you know the person is in a café down the street. Or you are told that the line is busy or the phone is switched off, which may or may not be the case. These messages are delivered in Amharic and then British English by the same female voice that makes you feel that she would be as indifferent if you were face to face.

Addis calls itself the capital of Africa because so many international organizations are based here — the African Union, Economic Commission for Africa and a lot of others. Almost everyone has an embassy here (there’s even a sign on Bole Road for an Embassy of Palestine with an arrow pointing down a narrow lane that I haven’t yet explored), and some 250 NGOs are said to be here. Add in the tourists, consultants, businessmen, etc., and the number of people who don’t speak Amharic is large. English is the common language. There’s even an all-English FM station now, just launched, with minimal programming so far except pop music and some news.