Today in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features an excerpt from Anna Moschovakis’s “A is for Addis / This Makes Me Think,” an unruly essay-poem about mobility. The portion excerpted here takes the form of an abecedaire.  

from A is for Addis


When I tell people about my impending trip, I try to avoid the word “Africa,” though I can’t explain why. I am struck by the timidity, the lack of specificity of the euphemism I adopt: “I got a grant to spend a month in Ethiopia,” I say. “Have you ever been to that part of the world?”

“Unprepossessing from a distance, up close it was dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals, every wall reeking with urine, every alley blocked with garbage. Loud music, car horns, diesel fumes, and pestering urchins with hard-luck tales and insinuating fingers and dire warnings, such as ‘There are bad people here.’”

This is the only mention of Addis Ababa in Paul Theroux’s 2003 New York Times Bestseller, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. I had thought it might make good plane reading.

Paul Theroux is the internationally acclaimed author of such travel books as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Sunrise with SeaMonsters, and The Kingdom by the Sea. His many novels include Hotel Honolulu and The Mosquito Coast. Theroux lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.

According to The Boston Herald, “The next best thing to going to Africa is to read (compulsively) this account.” 

No, I’ve never been to that part of the world.



Somebody says don’t use public restrooms. Somebody says don’t get your face wet when showering. Somebody says don’t open your mouth too wide when speaking; a mosquito might fly in and infect you.

A month before my departure date, I start looking into vaccination recommendations. The CDC website recommends Typhoid, Yellow Fever, and Meningitis and verifying the status of Hep A and B, MMR, DPT. Relieved to learn there is no malaria in Addis because of its altitude, I make an appointment to get the necessary shots and, to my surprise, am seen by an infectious disease specialist, a slim woman with a Russian accent and fishnet stockings beneath her lab coat. She confirms my short list of shots and, after her nurse administers them to me, returns with an inch-thick packet on the health hazards of travel to Ethiopia. She tells me to memorize the section on eating and drinking, which suggests, among other things, bringing disinfectant wipes for the rims of glasses, and never accepting a bottle of anything that wasn’t opened in front of you. She points a red-tipped nail to the Food Safety chapter and recites a rule of thumb: The worst thing you can eat is a salad, the best is a banana. She says, if it were me, I’d stick to beer and wine. As I’m leaving, I ask her if she gets to do a lot of travel in her capacity as an infectious disease specialist. She smiles: Oh, no, I never travel, I like my creature comforts.



A round-trip flight between New York City and Addis Ababa is 13,910 miles and produces 5,875 lbs of carbon, which is 13% of the total carbon output of the average North American and 24 times that of the average Ethiopian. To offset it by planting trees in Kenya would cost $43.76, less than an hour’s wage for the average New Yorker and one-and-a-half times the average monthly income in Ethiopia. The morning of my departure I go shoe-shopping. My boots are worn through, and I’m worried they won’t last the trip. The salesman, who tells me he is from Israel, says You’re going to a very poor county, you know. My sister went to South Africa once. She was on safari, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Me, I spent three years in India. The children they keep coming at you, you want to give them everything you have. I buy a pair of $110 boots that seem versatile and comfortable and wear them out of the store, leaving my old ones behind.



After a week in the city, I become curious about the countryside. I meet an artist, Dawit, who is returning to live in the southern region of Gambella, where he was raised, to take possession of a large farm, which the government has sold him for very little as part of a complex and controversial land redistribution program whereby farmland that was nationalized in the 1974 coup is now used as a lure to attract members of the Ethiopian diaspora back home. Dawit has been away for 20 years: Vancouver, New York, Santa Cruz. He worked as an events planner for the International Olympic committee. He knows less about farming than I do. But he is determined to collaborate with the local population to establish, eventually, an eco lodge as well as an artist’s residency on the farm. I tell him about the emergence of farmer-artist alliances in different regions of the U.S. We promise to stay in touch.



The language of advertisements for Western products all over the country. The language the kids use to ask for money: Money. You give me money. Money money, or Many many. And the language of my fellow pedestrians who say “Hi” and “Are you okay” and “Are you fine?” during my endless walks through the city and the language of the man who asks me if I am married, and when I say “yes,” asks, “and is your husband in Addis,” and when I say “no,” says “OK! I’ll be your husband here” and the language of the young guy who comes up close, asking “Where are you from, where’s your country?” before timidly grabbing the straps of my bag and the language I use to say “no” before he gingerly lets go. Unable to learn more than a few words of Amharic—ishi, buna, amaseganalo—and none at all of the eighty other languages used in Ethiopia, I speak English to almost everyone.


From 1941 to 1943 Italian troops occupied, but did not conquer, Ethiopia, home of the coffee bean. People I meet pride themselves on never having been colonized and refer to this period almost as a joke. In contrast to the situation in many of its neighboring countries, literary life in Ethiopia happens overwhelmingly in Amharic, the centuries-old official language, and not in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese… certainly not in Italian.

In Addis, the world’s best macchiatos can be had for between 20 cents and four dollars, depending on the neighborhood and venue. Ellie tells me in an email that the word “macchiato” comes from the Italian word for “stain;” the coffee is stained with a drop of milk.


Growing up in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, New York Marathon winner Gebre Gebremariam studied fellow Ethiopian marathon record-holder Haile Gebrselassie in school, memorizing his medals and records, learning what it took to be a legend. This according to the New York Times, November 2010.

A joke: God made man out of clay. The first loaf he burned, so he gave it to West Africa. The second loaf he pulled out too soon, so he gave it to Europe. The third loaf was just right—a warm, honey brown. He put that one down in Ethiopia.

According to my lunch companion, a professor and purveyor of this joke, Ethiopians have never considered themselves black. When they land in America and are faced with checkboxes on forms, he says they often choose “Other.” The name “Aethiop-I-a” occurs in both the Illiad and the Odyssey, as well as in the writings of Herodotus. It derives from the Greek for “burned in the face.” My companion, whose mother is from India, grew up in a color-blind society, he tells me, but under the current administration Ethiopians have to declare their tribe (always determined, in a country of intermarriage, by the tribe of the father) on their ID cards. Protests of this practice have been futile, and those unhappy with the current regime—some say that replacements were made until 90% of the military’s generals are from a single tribe—suspect it of laying the groundwork for an explosion of resentment and fear between the three major groups: the Tigray (the fairest, who claim persecution by the Derg); the Amahar, of which my informant is one, and which he presents as relatively neutral; and the darker skinned Oromo, “warriors”  from the south. He says the Chinese have been hired to censor the Internet to keep out sites and reports and opinions from the diaspora—and nothing, including the university, is working the way it should.


Once upon a time, there was a clever monkey called Toteet. She used to spend her days swinging from tree to tree. As she spent her days in the forest, she became friends with a lion. The lion’s name was Brute. Whenever Brute went hunting, Toteet would go with him. Toteet would call out from the high trees. She would tell Brute where his prey were hiding. One day Brute asked Toteet to marry him. Toteet was very angry. She knew that Brute had two wives. She did not want to be his third wife. But she promised to think it over.

            — Tales of Toteet by Ethiopian children’s book author, Michael Daniel Ambatchew


Haille Sellaisie’s “lion cages,” in the center of town near the university, make for the saddest zoo I’ve seen. Lions prowl alone in bare concrete cages, smaller than my apartment. It costs 10 birr extra to take pictures. I have no desire to take pictures.

Somebody said that the way a society treats its animals reflects how it treats its people. My favorite place in Addis is the Zoological Natural History Museum, where everything is stuffed, pinned, jarred, labeled. Housed in what looks like a former elementary or high school, now the faculty of the University’s Botany department, it is just around the corner from my apartment and I visit it often. The director is always there, wearing a white lab coat, ready to answer my questions about the hundreds of species of birds he has painstakingly displayed in dioramas. His goal, toward which he is progressing mightily, is to gather every species of animal in Ethiopia under one roof. He is getting close to representing the 800-plus birds, whose names and characteristics he can rattle off at will. I start to recognize some of the species from my balcony after his teachings.

The museum is trying to raise funds for a new building: 2 million birr, less than $200,000, will buy the director the palace of his dreams. On the wall as you enter, a hand-painted sign explains the need for a bigger and better Natural History Museum. The sign is in English and lists the reasons in a series of categories:

A Modern Natural History Museum should be an enjoyable recreation spot

A Modern Natural History Museum should have modern displays, workshops, lectures, filmshows, areas for children and scientific facilities

A Modern Museum asks you to take part in various activities

A Modern Museum teaches you to have respect for living things

These are in the category ABSTRACT REASONS, which is preceded by a headnote:

Abstract Reasons: Wild animal life is so important to some people that a world without wildlife is to them a world not fit to live in.

At the exit to the museum, there is a full length mirror with a message printed on it: THIS ANIMAL IS WILDLIFE’S GREATEST THREAT. I point at myself and shoot. It’s the last picture I’ll take in Addis.


Excerpts from “A is for Addis” were previously published on the apexart blog.


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