Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonised and maintains its own distinct culture. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of Ethiopia. These travel hacks will help you navigate Ethiopia like a local.
Why you are China
Despite my blonde hair and blue eyes, the people of Ethiopia regularly pointed at me and shouted «CHINA!». It isn’t that Ethiopians can’t tell the difference between Europeans and Asians rather that most of the foreigners that Ethiopians typically see are Chinese construction workers doing road work. Sometimes, you will also be called ‘ferenji’ which comes from the word ‘french.’ This is because the French were the first Europeans to drive in Ethiopia.
Travel hack: If someone calls you Ferenji or China, point at them too and say «Habesha!», which means Ethiopians. Laughter and surprised faces are guaranteed.
Hidden juice bars
One of the most amazing things about Ethiopia are the juice bars. At most of the fruits stands, you will find an entrance to a back room. There, you can order fresh salads with avocado and bananas, or get freshly pressed juice.
Depending on the size of the fruit stand, you can get orange, mango, banana, guava, papaya, strawberry, or, my favourite, avocado juice. It is served with a spoon next to it because it is more of a thick smoothie than a liquid juice. Because of the thick texture and the fresh fruits and vegetables used the juices tasted amazing. The juices are often served with syrup as a sweetener and a lime on the side which is dripped into the juice.
Travel hack: If you can’t decide which juice to take, then order a «spris». It means «mix» and is not simply a multifruit juice but is presented in nice layers for each fruit.
Eating with the right hand
I could probably write a book about the gastronomic culture of this country, but let’s just get the basics. Ethiopians eat with their hand, therefore before you start eating you must go to the «hand wash», an outside sink where you can clean your paws with some soap. In fancy restaurants, they will bring you the water and a small bowl to wash your hands.
During the meal, you will only use the right hand. This is accomplished by taking some injera, or flatbread, and wrapping it around some of the toppings which include fish, meat, lentils, vegetables and salad. If you’re a pro, you can manage to make something that looks like a little package even though I’m still far from this.
Travel hack: Licking the fingers is not well seen during the whole meal since it’s not very hygienic when you stick your licked fingers back in the common plate. Makes sense, right?
Travel hack II: It can happen that someone at the table wants to put a handful of the food directly in your mouth. This feeding is called «gursha» and is a sign of hospitality and respect. Usually, a gursha is always given three times during a meal. You can also give a gursha back to your host, but you don’t have to.
Intimate bus rides
There is a surprisingly big amount of people that fit into an Ethiopian bus. In the city of Addis, you will often find mini-busses. Designed for 12 people, they can easily fit twice as many passengers in there. If you need a comfortable seat and privacy, then just don’t take the bus at all. It is absolutely normal to squeeze three people into two seats or let them sit on boxes on the floor.
You pay the (very small) price directly in the bus, a guy called assistant collects the money from all the passengers and shouts the direction or final destination of the bus when there is a stop. There are no bus stations indicated, so you just tell the assistant where you want to get off.
Travel hack: Try to get one of the two front seats next to the driver, they are way more comfortable and less bumpy.
How to greet
In Ethiopia, you shake hands to greet each other, often followed by a short touching of the shoulders, as you would bump into each other. This is followed by a series of questions about how the person is doing, how the family is doing, how work is doing etc. By the way, not to look into the other’s eyes can be a sign of respect, contrary to what we are used to.
Travel hack: Support your right forearm with your left hand while shaking someone’s hand, it strengthens the gesture.
If you travel by bus, you might think the clock is wrong, showing a completely different hour than it actually is. But even though it’s true that Ethiopians don’t take being on time very strictly, the clock in the bus is correct – Ethiopia just uses a different system to count the hours than the rest of the world. The day starts with the sunrise, so when it’s six o’clock for us, for them it’s 0 o’clock. Ten o’clock in the morning would, therefore, be four o’clock for Ethiopians.
Travel hack: If you fix an appointment with an Ethiopian friend, don’t forget to ask whether the indicated time refers to the Ethiopian time system or the western one.
Move your body
In Ethiopia, everybody can dance. Women, men, babies and grannies. And they do it all the time. If you are in Ethiopia, sooner or later someone will teach you how to dance. This doesn’t need to be in a club or in a bar – sometimes when there is nice music in a restaurant, people would spontaneously stand up and start dancing, so don’t be surprised.
Travel hack: Don’t be shy and try to dance as well as possible – it will make the Ethiopians happy.
Example of some random dancing in a restaurant, performed by a cute little boy
Get coffee addicted
Ethiopia is the origin of the green gold. So it is no surprise that in Ethiopia, people don’t just drink coffee – they have a traditional coffee ceremony which is an integral part of the daily life (check my blog post about how to perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony).
The coffee is served in small cups, but since it is a stronger coffee than the one we are used to in Europe, it’s perfectly fine. And traditionally, you get three «rounds» of coffee; the first one being the strongest coffee, the last the least strong one.
Travel hack: Tell them in the beginning that you don’t want any sugar in your coffee, since Ethiopians put the sugar directly into the cups before pouring the coffee.
Even though I never tried it, «chat» (khat) is very important to some Ethiopians, so I am briefly going to explain why you might often see chewing Ethiopians. It’s not chewing gums they have in their mouth, but a plant called «chat» which grows in the South. It has a mildly stimulating effect and is totally legal.
Some Ethiopians swear that it increases concentration, so it happens that students eventually chew this plant while studying. The leaves taste bitter so often the Ethiopians take sweet soft drinks and small snacks with them to get a better taste.
Travel hack: You can find «chat» all over the country, but make sure an Ethiopian friend helps you with finding some good one. Prices do reflect quality, and the youngest leaves are supposed to be the best.