A STILL from the documentary Anbessa made in Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s main languages.
A STILL from the documentary Anbessa made in Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s main languages.

LONDON: Living in a tool shed on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, 10-year-old Asalif Tewold straddles a unique space between modernity and tradition. In his short life, he has lived on a rural farm and in the shadows of a towering condominium complex — learning how to dodge dangerous hyenas and land developers — as he and his dispossessed family try to find a place to call home. The young boy and his mother are the subject of the film Anbessa, meaning “lion” in Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s main languages, that tracks their displacement off farmland to make way for a block of flats on the fringes of Addis Ababa.

The playful protagonist, Asalif, takes centre stage in the documentary by US film-maker Mo Scarpelli as he lives and plays in the looming shadow of the buildings. “Asalif is the perfect person ... he lives literally on the rift of old and new,” Scarpelli said. Anbessa follows Asalif over two years as he seeks to ward off roaming hyenas both literally in the forest and in the form of lurking land developers. As he carves out a space to call home, he and millions of others globally are learning that “progress” is not for them, said Scarpelli, as the film analyses universal themes of gentrification and urbanisation.

Ethiopia, a nation of 105 million and an economic power in East Africa, is grappling with a housing crisis and new developments are leaving millions like Asalif out of the picture, Scarpelli said. About 40 per cent of Africa’s one billion people live in towns and cities and the urban population is expected to double over the next 25 years, the World Bank predicts. “I do feel like there’s this kind of sweeping narrative about the future and about a better way of life that for sure has been exported from Europe and North America to the rest of the world,” said Scarpelli. “That this is the way we should live — bigger is better.” But the film is concerned with what gets lost along the way, from storytelling to family structures, steam-rolled by modernity, she said.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2019