By Tia Goldenberg
Addis Ababa - Walking into the Boston Day Spa is walking into serenity: mosaics adorn walls, sinks and tables around the establishment, women with glowing faces and painted nails strut around in bathrobes sipping lemonade and elegant chandeliers hang from the high ceilings.
To walk out of the Boston Day Spa is to walk into the run-down capital city of a country that faced one of the worst famines in living history that killed nearly one million people and shocked the world.
The spa is in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and it's part of a peculiar increase in massage parlours and day spas in the city that professionals say has people calling it "the spa capital of Africa".
Industry workers say they want to rebrand Ethiopia, a country known best for the famine in 1984, through the rise of spas.
Tadiwos Belete, who opened Boston after spending 26 years in the city that bears the same name, said he created the spa to serve Addis Ababa's large diplomatic and expatriate community as well as an upper class that had no access to such luxurious pampering in the country.
But in the process, he said, he is changing the face of Ethiopia.
"As an Ethiopian, I have a responsibility to change the image of my country. We are known for starving people, but it is capable of really changing," he said, strolling through the dimly lit halls of the spa, as women wait for nails to dry.
Tadiwos' spa was one of the first to open, which he said spurred others to create their own.
Terry Kidan has owned a salon since 2001, but added spa and massage options last year, seeing the growing demand.
Moreover, she said the competition is so stiff, she had to begin offering a unique type of massage, a Moroccan bath similar to a Turkish one, to gain a competitive edge.
"It's the new thing for Addis Ababa," she said, fitting acrylic, French tips on a client's nails.
Her salon-cum-spa in a large mall offers facials, massages, manicures and pedicures.
Ethiopia is largely known by television images of bloated-belly children with sunken eyes, infested by flies and belting heart-wrenching cries -an indelible image branded on the world's conscience from the famine.
And while a rough estimate shows there are some 20 spas in Addis Ababa, more than half of all Ethiopians make less than one dollar a day and certainly cannot afford the lavish treatments.
But as Tadiwos said, he tapped into a market that could afford the prices, which are significantly lower than what spas in Europe or North America charge.
At Boston, a one-hour massage costs around 15 dollars, while a manicure and pedicure are about 12. Terry Style charges 15 dollars for a manicure, 10 dollars for a massage and 25 dollars for the special Moroccan bath -cheaper than the more upscale Sheraton and Hilton Hotel spas.
"We don't have time to do it in America and it's too expensive there, so I decided to come for a treat," said Sara Woldetsadik, an American-based Ethiopian who works at a gas station in Atlanta, Georgia, and was getting her nails done by Kidan.
There are several aesthetic schools in Addis Ababa, which are also new, but Tadiwos said he trained his 89 staff by himself.
And beyond the Boston Day Spa, Tadiwos opened a luxury resort-spa on a lake outside the capital, where 200 dollars a night gets guests complimentary massages and other spa treatments.
He is set to open another similar hotel on Lake Tana, in his ploy to change Ethiopia's image and make it a worthwhile destination for tourists looking to relax, as well as take in the country's ancient historical sites.
"It seemed unbelievable to me that there could be so many spas in Ethiopia, a country that is so undeveloped," said Helene Caumel, from France, visiting family in Addis Ababa.
"My friends say to me 'you are going to a country where people die of hunger,' when I'm usually here getting my nails done," she said, adding that she has visited several spas in her many trips to the Horn of Africa country.
But despite the image the rise of spas creates abroad, Ethiopians who can afford the luxury are happy they have a growing choice.
"When I go to America or to Dubai I always get these types of treatment," said Kidan, crouched down on a stool, attending to a client.
"Why not here?" - Sapa-DPA