In Ethiopia, busted VW Beetles ‘pimped out’ for hip youth

Beetles became a common sight in Addis Ababa under former emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled for more than four decades. (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

In Ethiopia, busted VW Beetles ‘pimped out’ for hip youth

  • Love for the Beetle in Ethiopia goes back decades, and is rooted in both economics and nostalgia
  • Beetles became a common sight in Addis Ababa under former emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled for more than four decades

ADDIS ABABA: When Robel Wolde bought a beat-up 1967 Volkswagen Beetle from a friend for 50,000 Ethiopian birrs ($1,700), it marked the start of an extensive restoration he’d plotted for years.
The 25-year-old Ethiopian painter quickly went to work.
He installed new grey leather seats, applied black stripes and decals along the orange-and-blue exterior and hired a metalworker to fit oversized headlights to the front bumper.
Two months and an additional $1,000 later, Robel’s vision was complete.
And with that, he joined the growing number of young Ethiopian drivers giving the Beetle — which has long occupied a hallowed position in the nation’s car culture — a 21st-century upgrade.
Some of this restoration work is inspired by shows like the old MTV hit “Pimp My Ride” — “pimped out,” American slang for customized vehicles, has been adopted in Addis Ababa.
But love for the Beetle in Ethiopia goes back decades, and is rooted in both economics and nostalgia.
Volkswagen is hoping to capitalize on this goodwill. In January, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopian government to set up a domestic auto industry, including an assembly plant.
Regardless of what comes of this project, Robel says the Beetle’s popularity will endure.
“Most of the time, Beetles are driven by old people,” he said, leaning on the bonnet of his car near one of Addis’ busier roundabouts.
“But when they are custom and pimped like this, they are a fashion statement for young people.”
Initially developed in Nazi Germany as an instrument of propaganda, the origins of the Volkswagen Beetle “people’s car” date back to 1938.
Beetles became a common sight in Addis Ababa under former emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled for more than four decades beginning in 1930.
In 1974, when the communist Derg regime removed him from power, Haile Selassie was famously forced to duck into a Beetle before being escorted away from his palace.
Decades later, Beetles remain ubiquitous, in part because exorbitant taxes make buying new cars impossible for many.
Yet it’s clear that the cars also have sentimental value.

When the Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste sees one, she says she is reminded of the pale blue Beetle her grandfather drove — the same car that took her to the airport when she left the country as a young girl not long after the Derg came to power.
“I associate that car with Ethiopia, with growing up there and all the happy memories I have,” she said.
Last year, Mengiste started posting pictures of Beetles on Twitter, using the hashtag #BeetleEthiopia.
Ever since, Ethiopians from a range of backgrounds have been posting photos of their own, sometimes offering equally personal memories.
“There was something about a Volkswagen that cut through social lines,” Mengiste said.
“It was a car for everyone. You could be looking for some form of stability, and you would manage to buy a Volkswagen and that was your step into an upwardly mobile but not extravagant social class.”
Like Mengiste, Kaleb Teshome, a 29-year-old mechanic, has been riding in Beetles all his life.
For decades, his family has owned a garage that specializes in fixing up the cars.
Now Kaleb works alongside his father at the garage, where more than a dozen Beetles compete for space on a tiny dirt lot, with others lining the nearby road.
Many of the Beetles have been brought in for standard tune-ups.
But every few months, Kaleb is asked to do the kind of custom work worthy of “Pimp My Ride,” a show he still watches online even though it was canceled more than a decade ago.
“I’ve known the cars since my childhood. I know what they need,” he said.
“It could be paint work. It could be big tires. It could be a sound system. I pimp all of it.”
One recent morning, he showed AFP his own “pimped-out” Beetle, a shiny green-and-black 1972 model with massive tires that would look more at home on a truck.
“When I drive it on the street,” he said, “even people who drive luxurious cars say ‘Wow.’”
Whether “pimped-out” or not, the Beetles of Addis Ababa seem destined to become collectors’ items.
In July, Volkswagen marked the end of the Beetle’s around eight-decade run by launching a limited, 65-unit “Beetle Final Edition” at its factory in Puebla, Mexico.
For Robel, the painter, the news was further validation of the investment he’d made in his own car.
“If production of the Beetles has stopped, that means we have a treasure,” he said.
“They will become part of history. That is their fate, so I think I am lucky. Even if I get a really good offer, I don’t think I will sell.”


Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

This file photo taken on March 6, 2003 shows bulbs at the flower market in Amsterdam. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2019

Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

  • Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring

THE HAGUE: Tourists are being ripped off at Amsterdam’s famous flower market, with just one percent of all bulbs sold at the floating bazaar ever producing a blossom, investigators said Tuesday.
A probe commissioned by the Dutch capital’s municipality and tulip growers also found that often only one flower resembled the pictures on the packaging like color, and that there were fewer bulbs than advertised.
“The probe showed that there is chronic deception of consumers,” at the sale of tulip bulbs at the flower market, the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association (KAVB) said.
“Millions of tourists and day-trippers are being duped,” KAVB chairman Rene le Clercq said in a statement.
Amsterdam and the KAVB have now referred the matter to the Dutch consumer watchdog.
The Amsterdam flower market is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and dates from around 1862, when flower sellers sailed their barges up the Amstel River and moored them in the “Singel” to sell their goods.
Its fame inspired the popular song “Tulips from Amsterdam,” best known for a 1958 version by British entertainer Max Bygraves.
Today the market comprises of a number of fixed barges with little greenhouses on top. Vendors not only sell tulip bulbs but also narcissus, snowdrops, carnations, violets, peonies and orchids.
But of 1,363 bulbs bought from the Singel and then planted, just 14 actually bloomed, the investigation said.
Investigators found a similar problem along the so-called “flower bulb boulevard” in Lisse, a bulb-field town south of Amsterdam where the famous Keukenhof gardens are also situated.
Since first imported from the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago, tulips “have become our national symbol and the bulb industry a main player in the Dutch economy,” said Le Clercq.
But the “deception about the tulip bulbs is a problem that has been existing for the past 20 years,” he added.

The victims are often tourists, KAVB director Andre Hoogendijk said.
“A tourist who buys a bad bulb is not likely to come back,” he told Amsterdam’s local AT5 news channel.
Vendors at the market told AT5 that complaints were known.
“There are indeed stalls here that sell rubbish. That is to everyone’s disadvantage, because it portrays the whole flower market in a bad light,” one unidentified vendor said.
But a spokesperson for the City of Amsterdam said that all vendors were being investigated “and that the results are shocking.”
“So to say that it is only a few stalls is not true,” the spokesperson told AFP in an email.
The probe took place earlier in the year during springtime, the spokesperson said.
“The issue is that you shouldn’t even sell tulip bulbs during the spring. No decent florist shop in Holland does that.”
Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring.