Ethiopia is a beautiful and diverse country with so much to explore. I first came to Ethiopia for a weeklong work trip, where I didn’t see much other than the hotel and the office. I then returned for another work trip, this time for a month, where I was able to get out and explore, and I started to fall in love with the country. After that, I was fortunate enough to move out here as part of my job and I’ve never looked back.
I have been living in Addis Ababa, the capital, for a year now. Having previously lived for short periods in France and Vietnam, I do have experience living abroad and being away from the comforts of home, but I would say that Ethiopia (and African countries in general) is a very different experience that can take some getting used to.
Travel safe, travel happy!
I know some people find the prospect of visiting an African country like Ethiopia daunting and can be put off by potential security concerns, but if you take certain precautions and are aware of some things before you arrive, then there is no reason why you can’t have an amazing and safe time here!
Although I have personally never had anything ‘scary’ or ‘bad’ happen to me in Ethiopia, I will admit that the first time I travelled to Ethiopia alone I was wary of venturing out by myself and spent the first three nights eating at the hotel restaurant. This was primarily because I didn’t know the place, it was unfamiliar and I wasn’t aware of which areas were safer for foreigners and which areas should be avoided.
However, that first week I asked around, did some research and made a plan for exploring at the weekend, with the promise to myself that if I didn’t like it, I would just come back to the hotel and have a swim – win win! So my first advice would be that, if this is your first time in a country like Ethiopia, then give yourself time to adjust and don’t pressure yourself to explore straight away.
Here are some tips for things that I do to stay safe:
- Don’t be put off by shouts of ‘faranj’ or ‘China’ which will follow you wherever you go. There is a large Chinese population in Ethiopia and, regardless of your race, if you look like a foreigner, Ethiopian youth on the streets will likely call out ‘China China’ as you pass – even if you’re blonde haired and blue eyed! This can be unsettling for some people who don’t like this attention, but just keep walking. I have never felt intimidated by this, just sometimes a little frustrated.
- Be aware of your surroundings and people around you. Although, like I’ve said, nothing bad has ever happened to me, I have noticed that I have a much more heightened sense of awareness now – and still felt this even when I was back in the UK at Christmas. But that’s no bad thing. It’s really simple, costs nothing, and is effective at making sure you don’t get complacent and open yourself up as an easy target for anything. Whenever I walk anywhere, I am conscious of who is in front and behind me and, if I feel uncomfortable with any of them, I either speed up or slow down my walking which puts distance between us and will also tell you whether or not they have even noticed you, and it just makes it that one step harder for someone to try anything.
- You should also be prepared to be continually approached by beggars, usually small children or older women with infants. You can keep some local coins in an accessible pocket if you wish to give, or you can politely nod and move on. They can sometimes be persistent but, other than making you feel incredibly sad, they have never been remotely dangerous.
- Get a local SIM. They are really cheap and £5 of credit will last at least a month. You can buy a top up card from pretty much any stall, including shoe cleaners on the street. If you bring an old phone, then put the SIM in that so a) you won’t be using a flashy phone in public and tempting thieves, and b) you can download the app RIDE, the Ethiopian equivalent of UBER, and is cheaper and safer than normal taxis, and you can get picked up from anywhere.
- In Ethiopia, the main thing to be conscious of safety wise is petty theft, opportunistic snatches of phones, jewellery, money. As long as you take sensible precautions, there are not really many other threats to foreigners. Therefore, my simple advice is to not wear expensive jewellery (or even jewellery that looks expensive) – I tuck my necklace into my top when I’m walking to/from work. Keep your phone out of sight. Put money in zipped or tight pockets. Be conscious of the clothes that you wear.
- You will stand out in Ethiopia as a foreigner. No question about it, that’s just a fact. No matter how wealthy you may or may not be, whether you’ve been in Ethiopia for a day or a year, you are automatically going to attract attention.
Experiencing life in another country
Despite all of these cautions around safety, if you take simple measures then you free yourself up to explore all of the amazing things about Ethiopia and travelling in a different country. Here are five reasons to come and experience Ethiopia:
- Culture: Every country has its own unique set of traditions, style of clothing, music, dances, food. And for me, that is one of Ethiopia’s biggest appeals. Within Addis and throughout the regions of the country, there is so much variety of culture to absorb. Eat injera. Dance eskista. Experience a coffee ceremony.
- Language: There are over 80 languages in Ethiopia, but the official language that is most widely spoken is Amharic, an ancient language with its own script that is still in use today. If you’re staying longer, sign up for a class (it’s a great way to meet people) or just learn the basic greetings – it will endear you to the locals and you’d be surprised how far a simple ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ will take you!
- People: Ethiopians have a strong set of values, embedded in their belief around community and family. Take time to get to know your Ethiopian colleagues, or make new friends, or just chat to people that you meet. I have no doubt they will be extremely welcoming and offer an insight into the country that you can’t get from any guidebook.
- Places to visit: Ethiopia has no shortage of man-made and natural wonders. From the rock-built churches in the North, to the Danakil Depression (a desert of lava) in the Afar region, to the Bale Mountains National Park. I’ve travelled quite a bit around Ethiopia and yet my bucket list of places to see doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller!
The weather. If you’re coming from a climate like the UK and, if you’re a bit Goldilocks like me and prefer things not too hot, not too cold, then Ethiopia is perfect. Outside of rainy season, the temperature in Addis is normally sitting around in the nice and happy mid 20°C range, with blue skies and sunshine! All that vitamin D is good for the soul! I also love that the mornings and evenings are much cooler which is great for morning runs and sleeping without needing a fan or air conditioning.
With the lovely sunshine and being immersed in a completely different culture and country, I feel like I’m living on a permanent holiday, and that’s exciting! But, of course, the one thing about a holiday is that it’s away from home, and that’s not always easy. So, here are three things to watch out for that may sometimes make life in a different country that little bit harder.
1. Culture shock
I didn’t really understand culture shock until I experienced it for the first time and I now actually suffer more from reverse culture shock (as in difficulty adjusting to the UK after I’ve spent long periods abroad). Culture shock can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time, regardless of how experienced you are as a traveller. It is essentially feeling disorientated or uncomfortable when experiencing a culture that is completely foreign to what we are used to. Sub-Saharan African countries, like Ethiopia, are extremely different to Western countries, and so you should expect a level of culture shock when travelling abroad. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it – pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is one of the best ways to experience life!
2. The way things work
When you’re in a foreign country, don’t expect things to work in the same way as they do back home, and this is particularly true for Ethiopia. There are so many things that I love about the country, but I have had to adopt the mantra ‘Don’t ask why’ to stop me from getting frustrated in various situations. The way you shop for food; the way you search for flats to rent; the way you travel; the list goes on and on. Everything is very different, and often less efficient which can make you lose patience. But I’m learning to accept things for how they are and not try to compare with the UK. I now no longer bat an eyelid when the power goes out and will happily cook my dinner by the light of my headtorch!
3. Staying in touch
Thankfully, friends and family are only ever a Skype call away and – if your internet is particularly good – you can video call people to really keep in touch and stay close. However, missing people is completely natural and there will be times, especially when you miss out on special occasions, that it can get you down. Making new friends where you are can really help combat homesickness and is a great way to explore the country and culture. If it’s possible, get some friends and family from back home to schedule their next holiday to your new country – having people come and visit you can also show you just how familiar and comfortable you’ve become in your new home as you show them around, just like a local!
Making the most of your time abroad
In my opinion, the best way to experience a country is through working there, and I have been fortunate enough to have a job that I love here in Ethiopia. Through my work, I’ve been able to develop a deeper understanding of the way that social, political, health systems work in Ethiopia, as well as the working culture and getting much more involved in activities, not to mention learning so much from my colleagues who have always been more than happy to explain things to me – whether it’s teaching me Amharic, or explaining why there’s always a goat at the office holiday celebrations! Ethiopia is a country where so much communication and information is reliant on word of mouth and so if you want to enter the world of Ethiopia, nothing can substitute first-hand experiences, and the workplace is a great starting point!
So, should you live abroad?
If you ask me, my answer will always be a resounding YES! Move abroad, travel, experience things! If you give it a chance and after a while you still don’t like it, then you can always move back or on to another place.
If you’re interested in travelling to Ethiopia, or just want to learn more about the country, then check out my blog about all things Ethiopia, including travel tips, culture, and food: www.ethiopianessence.com
For now, Addis is my home but I am definitely open to living in, and experiencing, other places in the future – and if you have the opportunity, I would really encourage you to seize it!
Written by Sophia