|Shoulders and posteriors in action|
An increasingly comfortable urban middle class is learning to enjoy itselfTHE brightly lit bars lining alleys off Bole Road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, come to life around midnight. Folk melodies mix with electronic beats. Customers wiggle posteriors and rotate shoulders in fast dance-bursts derived from traditional music. Some disappear with hand-holding waitresses through a narrow door to a “kissing room”, only to return a quarter of an hour later more exuberant than ever. And it’s only Monday.
Illicit joys are proliferating in Ethiopia, even if its prim statist government sees pleasure as an enemy of development. Nightclubs are hazy with marijuana smoke. Qat, the leaf of a mildly narcotic plant, is ubiquitous; drivers talk of “taking a short qat” when stopping their cars to stock up. Two years ago non-medical massage parlours were confined to hotels frequented by foreign businessmen. Now Addis may have about 200 such establishments. Gratification costs the equivalent of three packs of Western-brand cigarettes.
At the same time, school truancy is rising despite official efforts to boost education. Many schools in the capital lock their gates at 8.30 in the morning, shortly after lessons begin, in the hope of preventing pupils from leaving before classes are over. Instead they guarantee that latecomers spend the whole day indulging their youthful desires. And in an effort to enforce discipline, posher schools have banned pupils from carrying money. Yet teachers frequently catch them with 1,000 birr ($54)—more than the average monthly salary—given to them by their parents as pocket money.
The government, which acquired a reputation for austerity during a long civil war in the remote countryside, is not entirely joyless. It has privatised two big breweries, Dashen and St George, turning them into potent purveyors of good times. It has also sanctioned a building boom, including the erection of the Edna Mall, a glass-walled bazaar of consumer goods. Yet it is unclear whether official tolerance for pleasures ancient and modern signals a move towards liberalisation; or whether spliffs and massages are meant merely to dull demands for popular participation in government.