A small guide to Ethiopia and IFP
Disclaimer: These are based on the 2015 IFP-Ethiopia group’s personal experiences and probably some participants would even disagree or have had completely different experiences in the same city over the past two months.
- Travel! I know it can be expensive but fly in or out on Ethiopian Air and take advantage of that discount you get on domestic flights (I believe you can only book one ticket but you can book five flights, weeks apart on “one ticket.” It just takes some advanced planning but you get 60% off!!!!) Addis is just the tiniest glimpse of this country. Head north to Lalibela and Axum to see old churches and remnants of an old empire. Fly East to Harar to see the old walled city and Muslim communities of the country. Drive south to Lake Zeway for wine tasting (M-F) and Hawassa for relaxation in a calm, planned city. I know you are busy and feel financially constrained but make travel happen. It will really enhance your experience times 10.
- Medicine and doctors. Bring medicine and bug spray! And sunscreen! Okay bring all your toiletries except perhaps shampoo and soap. Bring so much stomach medicine. Tums, Pepto, Imodium. You will most definitely use some of it. You can buy malaria meds very cheaply at the local pharmacies. The doctors have been great. Helena (aka Typhoid Mary) and Rachel will update you on the hospital situation.
- Power. Internet. Water. It goes in and out all the time, all over town. A $20 headlamp from REI was a fantastic investment and I have used it almost daily (at least to read in bed since you may have roommates.) The water is cold most of the time in the shower and the water goes in and out, usually when your head is covered in shampoo. Hotels have the best wifi and are fine with you working for hours if you buy an overpriced macchiato.
- You get out of IFP what you put in. Sounds cliché but to make the most out of IFP you have to be proactive or else you will be bored and frustrated. There are lots of opportunities but you need to find them. The organizations we have worked with have been so nice and helpful but not proactive at all. When we want information or a meeting we have to reach out to them. It was annoying at first but now I just understand that is how it works. But I was also able to find organizations to give me the experience I wanted and I do feel like my time here was well spent.
Pretty much agree with everything said above! Some additions:
Weather: Be prepared for the rainy season, and I mean RAINY season. When it rains it pours and there is no keeping dry. At least 2015 marks a year of major construction in Addis and pretty much every street is a construction site. When it rains this means water and mud literally everywhere. You may want to consider bringing rain boots. I wish I had. And the temperature varies. A lot. Bring t-shirts for sure, but also bring sweaters and fleeces, and socks and warm pants. I bought a small Uniqlo down jacket before I left and have been wearing it pretty much every day at some point (in Addis that is, other parts of the country are much warmer).
On doctors and medicine: Bring essentials (see Kathleen above). And get your shots. But also know that shots are no guarantee against for instance typhoid… The clinic I visited was nice and friendly, but I would rather have not visited it at all. It was very affordable though and the lab and meds were cheap compared to the US. If you travel to Lake Ziway or other lake areas, you may want to consider taking malarial medication during that time. Use your bugspray. Use it. Malaria is common in Ethiopia, although not in Addis at this time during the year.
And the open mind! Bring it.
-Foreigners are both powerful and powerless, depending on the situation. It’s kind of hard to explain. It relates your appearance and ability to speak the language.
LEARN TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE IF YOU CAN. Be open to new experiences and people, but don’t let people take advantage of you (for example, many private taxis will try charging you the “farenji price”)
-There is a lot of inequality here so it’s best not to flaunt or carry around too many valuables. There are a lot of beggars on the street, many of whom are very sick. Some are going to walk up to you and ask you for money so be prepared for this.
-Eat as much local food as you can. It takes some getting used to at first, but you won’t find authentic Ethiopian food anywhere else in the world (particularly the injera). So embrace it. Try to eat with a local family at least once – I feel that the quality of ingredients is better than in most restaurants. For those who don’t like too much spice, order the shiro. I eat it almost daily. But be cautious with the raw meat dishes. If you order any kind of “western food,” don’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as what you’d get in an average New York restaurant. Again, this is why you might as well just stick to Ethiopian food. 🙂
Learn conversational Amharic especially for ordering at restaurants and pricing for public and private taxis. Private taxis are relatively cheap compared to New York, but take public taxi as much as you can because the cost is no more than 25 cents. That being said, be prepared for a bumpy and sometimes squished ride. Your language skill will go a very long way, especially when you are gentle and courteous (except when crowding around a moving taxi to get the only available seat).
I don’t recommend eating salad unless in very small portions, even if you prepare it at home yourself. I also do recommend trying the raw beef dish – kitfo, even if you have been nearly vegetarian for 15 years…..
Be prepared for some inconveniences, like not having internet even when you are 100% sure you will have internet after you have spent $40USD on the rechargeable data cards.
Explore Ethiopia as much as possible,the country is vast and extremely diverse. So make certain weekends available, or weekdays if you have the time, early on. The time goes by very quickly, and it may feel difficult to leave, especially after developing a likeness or love for the country.
This is my first time in Africa, and I absolutely loved it! I agree with also everything already said, but here are some extra thoughts to make your experience the best:
- I encourage you to take advantage of those language classes before your arrival to Addis. Yes, many people from younger generations speak English, but if locals notice your even slight interest in Amharic, they will highly appreciate it. Also, the chances you get inflated prices are less when locals at least think you speak the language.
- If you are picky with your toiletries, as I am, bring everything you need. Yes, Ethiopia has a few supermarkets with basic items, but not much variety. I was happy I brought the shampoo, soap, make-up, and others, I regularly use. Also, ladies, tampons are not common here, bring your own, and keep in mind that you will be in Ethiopia for at least two months, so bring enough.
- It is also highly important for you to learn how to use public transportation, with time you will learn how to use the mini buses to get around, which are the ones I recommend the most. But it can also be of great use to have a private taxi’s phone number, someone you can call in a late night when you should not be walking outside, specially as a women.
- If you like dancing, like me, you are going to love the nightlife in Addis. Ethiopians love dancing, and there are many place with nice and safe environments around Bole (you will know this area once you get there). Do not be afraid to explore, but always be cautious.
- Finally, pack your rain boots, and do not bring any shoe to plan to bring back home, they will definitely get destroyed. Oh! And if you have a sweet tooth, bring your favorite sweets, Ethiopia does not know what dessert is.
Come with an open mind, Ethiopia is a fantastic experience!
- Get to know the city. Yes, traffic and smog in Addis are terrible and pedestrians are practically always forced to walk on the street between cars rushing by on the one side and heavy construction happening on the other side. However, walking is not absolutely terrible and in my opinion still the best way to get to know a city – especially since something like an official map does not exist. I also urge you to figure out the system of blue and white mini vans as soon as possible instead of relying on taxis. Taxi drivers are often as helpless as you are, meaning they do not know the directions, they will try to overcharge you and are intoxicated in the worst case. Also, do not get into a cab by yourself if you see another guy sitting in the passenger seat, really don’t! The system of mini buses might seem very confusing and inefficient at the beginning, but you can handle it! The bus boys are usually yelling the destination and in case you do get lost, stay on until you get to the final stop. There are usually other vans waiting, just get onto one with a destination that you are familiar with and take it from there.
- Routine. Whenever I move somewhere new, I try to adapt bits and pieces of my usual daily routine to the new surroundings. Little things, such as starting the day with my usual breakfast, going to the gym after work or watching series before going to bed, have an immensely comforting effect on me. If you get restless without a regular workout, join a gym. If Yoga helps you relax, find a Yoga studio. While Addis may feel overwhelming and maybe even a bit depressing in the beginning, you will soon find out that it offers many of the amenities that you will find in any bigger city (although you might have to cut back on the quality a little). Also – splurge! Addis is comparatively cheap, so I would say that even a weekly dinner at a fancy restaurant, brunch at a cozy bakery (i.e. Munch in Bole) or a hotel, and massages or beauty treatments are within a student’s budget.
- Electronic detox. While probably everyone of us agrees that the constant lack of WiFi was the main hindrance to getting work done, I decided to see it as a chance to delink from my social media obligations for a while. While I was fighting my addiction hard for the first couple days weeks, I eventually got used to not being able to check my social media apps every minute. And after my iPhone got stolen, which happened about a month into the program, I finally learned it the hard way (meaning, I learned to enjoy excursions and trips without constantly staring at the lens of my camera). I recommend you bring a lot of books or your Kindle!
- Attitude. Yes, constant power outages and water shortages are annoying, So is the insane amount of street harassment and the inability to express yourself in Amharic. However, constant complaining sucks you into a downward spiral of feelings, it makes you miss out on a lot of good moments and eventually brings down everyone around you. Do not take yourself too seriously in every situation, keep the mood light and your spirits up. Remember that you have chosen Ethiopia for a very specific reason, namely to live and work in a developing country. Play “thorns and roses” with your housemates in the evening to talk about the joys and hassles of the day, allow yourself to rant a little and then have a glass of wine and let it be.
- Make friends. Obviously, socializing with locals will enrich your IFP experience tremendously. But I am particularly talking about your fellow IFP students. Spending two very intense months abroad as a group, living together with probably very little personal space, accommodating to each other’s needs and habits, touring the country and sharing exciting, adventurous and emotional moments together will definitely bring you closer. As much as I value the IFP for the professional experience, I probably value it even more for the bonding with my housemates and travel buddies. I am sure that the connections I made over the last two months are the GPIA friendships that will last the longest.
Medicine: I spent way too much money on malaria pills in the states because I wasn’t sure I would be able to get them in Ethiopia. Well you can. Although the kind I was prescribed in the states (Malorone) isn’t available there. Another kind is. So when I ran out before I was finished with my cycle, they couldn’t help me but if I had gotten the pills here I could have just bought that kind here and saved money. And while there might not be malaria in Addis there is in other parts and if you travel (and you should!) it’s better to be safe than sorry!!
Media: let’s be real you won’t be out every night at the clubs and most likely you won’t have a TV that works or internet that lets you stream. I brought my hard drive full of movies and it came in very handy on those nights in. Books and magazines (on a kindle for space saving!) also were great to have.
Travel: Pro tip! If you fly in or out on Ethiopian Air you will get more than a 50% discount on in country travel! I bought my outgoing flight on Ethiopian Air and when a group of us went to fly to Lalibela (do it!) my flight was less than half that of what people who didn’t have EA tickets. Of course, check to make sure this is still possible, but if you can, do it. Travel in Ethiopia is totally worth it. The country is super diverse and beautiful. However, driving to certain parts can take days and there are airports everywhere you would probably want to go!
When it comes to getting around the city, it’s been mentioned, but cab drivers will do everything they can to charge you a completely unreasonable fair. Don’t tolerate it. When you bargain, the only way to arrive at a decent fair is to start low and try to get a sense from the locals how much certain routes should cost. When the driver refuses to budge, walk away. He may call you back. Especially if you’re alone, and especially at night, don’t get into a cab with two men. That’s not a paranoid precautionary measure. The best way to get around is the mini buses or van cabs/whatever you want to call them. A short distance should cost around 1.50 birr, adding one birr per extension. I’ve never paid less than 1.50 birr to get anywhere in a van cab, or more than 4.50. Most of the time it’s 2.50.
When leaving the house, no matter what, bring an umbrella. Don’t expect to see sidewalks about half the time, especially outside of the more developed commercial centers. You should be impressed with the sheer volume of mud that you may encounter on a daily basis, so bring shoes that can handle it. Also, bring clothes that can handle it, and remember your clothes will be hand scrubbed in a basin and may not hold up as well as they would in your high efficiency washer back home. The society here is somewhat conservative — this seems to be less of an issue in the city. It is rare to see women in shorts, but you won’t want to wear them anyway. Expect variable temperatures throughout the day. It can be quite warm in the morning and cool at night.
Keep hand sanitizer and especially toilet paper on your person at all times. Be ready for the day when you would rate a dimly lit stall that doesn’t lock and is missing soap and a toilet seat a “pretty nice bathroom”. That is not hyperbole — that day is coming.
Finally, you want to come here, and you should come here. As in all things, if your expectations wind up being totally different than what you get, it’s up to you to reflect on why that is. Things happen a little differently here. You’ll hear variations on the same local music playing in clubs and in churches. Much of the city is tucked behind gates and wired fences. With just a little acceptance, everything that seems weird and informal will become routine before you know it.
If living in New York City hasn’t already thickened your shell, nine weeks in Addis will. It may take some time to adjust to the heaping piles of hand-mixed cement blocking your daily commute, or the clouds of black soot billowing out of bumper-to-bumper tailpipes into your lungs, or the leering eyes following your every step. Learn to brush off the sense of alienation when strangers shout at you “firenje” (foreigner) or “anchy” (you), and keep your composure when you feel someone’s hand wrap around your forearm as you maneuver through a crowded sidewalk. Firmly pull your arm inward, releasing their grip, and keep moving forward.
Don’t chalk it all up to “This is Africa.” After all, this is Ethiopia – one of only two African countries to have never been colonized. Ask yourself, “What does Ethiopia have to show for it?” and investigate with locals, as diplomatically and unbiasedly as possible, how their nation’s character has been untouched by Western usurpers. Of course, be selective in your audience and wording. Use emotional intelligence when questioning Ethiopians on their perspectives.
Allow your curiosity to unravel. Explore Addis on foot, by public minivans, and if you have the daredevilry, by bicycle. Stop inside a small buna shop where footstools serve as chairs, sip chai with the microenterprise owner, and tear injera off of a fellow diner’s plate. You are bound to endure stomach troubles at some point during your stay, so why not share a memorable meal on your way?
Leave your expectations at home, whatever they may be, and do your best to absorb all that Addis has to offer. Remain conscious of your whereabouts as you would anywhere else, but allow yourself to peer into hidden corners. Follow the advice of the preceding interns, and you will find moments of serenity amidst the chaos of a city under rapid development.