The walk from our apartment to the entrance of Zoma is a short one through the back streets of Mekanesia, a suburb of Addis Ababa in the south west of Ethiopia’s capital city. Too short a trip for my cynical mind – surely we’re in the wrong place, we must have taken a wrong turn at the main road, how in the world could a bespoke terraced and gardened cultural art museum be all the way out here, on the outskirts of a city choking on a disarray of village life and concrete.
Yet here we are, walking in the beating sun and looking for a fabled oasis. Much to my amazement, we soon pass a young man holding a sign proclaiming “Zoma opening – this way”. He smiles a wide sure grin and points us down a dramatic incline, the bottom of the hill way out of site. The slope dives down for at least a kilometre, now a home to stray dogs and cats, children in gutters and men and women going about their daily toil. Reaching the foot of the hill we finally arrive at the entrance to Zoma, Ethiopia’s first ‘environmentally conscious art institution’.
Green terraces stretch from the wide entrance down a few hundred meters towards what looks like a bowling lawn, preened garden steppe bordered and criss-crossed by cobble-stoned pathways leading would-be explorers through the myriad of exotic vegetation and trees. To the left of the entrance sits a cluster of small buildings only accessible via a narrow pathway and over a small rickety bridge. I give the bridge six months.
The building exteriors are individually covered in unique façades of mesmerising patterns befitting the museum’s cultural title. Zoma prides itself as having been designed and built using “ancient yet thriving construction techniques”, in a bid to “bridge the gap between art and architecture”. I can’t help but agree.
Inside we find a multitude of Ethiopian modern art installations, a minimalist travel / art / cultural reference library and a small museum shop selling rather attractive notebooks. The prices aren’t bad, either. We wander slowly through the art installations, passing walls covered in yellowing computer keyboard keys, gallery-style projections streaming moving image in dim light on to white-washed walls, people buzzing about as local artists discuss their works and interpretations with avid onlookers. It’s here I get a real sense of Zoma’s potential, observing Ethiopian art and architecture come together to create a platform for democratic expression and discussion.
After a brief food stop of bread and humus at the soon-to-be open café, we meander through the leafy palms and vegetable patches down towards the central focus of the lower terraces – a green lawn of quality to challenge even the most preened bowling greens of the south coast of England. The grass is a little spongy, but our feet enjoy the tingling sensation we’ve long since forgotten on these shores. The abundance of kids love it, too, as they cartwheel their way around this unique oasis, smiles and laughter in plentiful supply.
Surrounding the lawn on all four sides are either shaded seating areas or more plantations of sorts, mostly palms dotted with exotic flowers and plants. It’s hard to believe we’re in Addis. I’ve not seen anything else like it here, except perhaps the gardens of the Sheraton.
Exploring the oasis further we find fruit and vegetable gardens complete with volunteer gardeners and an abundance of quality edible produce, large and clean coups for livestock and chickens, a cattle outhouse deigned from the ground up to recycle waste to provide energy for the museum kitchens, colourful class rooms for the inevitable school trip visits and even a first aid room and office area. It really is a marvel to behold, this oasis in an otherwise dusty, arid city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Addis, I just didn’t except This. Here. Now.