10 Headscratching Ethiopian Habits

I’ve lived in Ethiopia for over a year now and it has been quite the cultural adventure. About 75% of the time I don’t have a clue what is going on. But the 25% of the time I do know what’s up I got the culture down! Every now and then I’ll do something and my sitemate will tell me I am “sooo Ethiopian”. And it’s true, I’ve picked up a few Ethiopian habits that aren’t quite the norm for Americans. But there countless Ethiopian habits that would make Americans scratch their heads. Some I’ve adopted, some I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But either way I’d like to introduce you to the top 10 I find most common:

I present to you 10 Ethiopian habits that would make Americans scratch their heads:

  1. Bargaining: Price tags are a foreign concept here. No items have them. And because no items have them the seller can set whatever price he wants. It’s expected whatever price you’re given you will always counter it with a lower price. And if you’re a foreigner it’s a known fact that price will already be doubled for you. This is how it works. An Ethiopian wants to buy a pair of shoes. The store owner tells them 400 birr. They spend 5 minutes bargaining the price down to 250 and walk away with said shoes. Now, a foreigner wants the shoes. The store owner tells them 800 birr. The foreigner spends 20 minutes bargaining the price down to 600 birr and walks away with no shoes. Lesson learned: Always bring an Ethiopian when shopping.
  1. Not standing in line: LINES DO NOT EXIST IN ETHIOPIA. Whether you’re buying food, getting your mail, entering a bus… lines just don’t happen here. My first encounter with this was my first time at the bank when I had put my book at the window and next thing I knew 10 other people were putting theirs on top of mine and pushing me to the back. I was so appalled! But I quickly learned that this is just how things are in Ethiopia. If you want something, especially a seat on the bus, you push your way to the front no matter who is in your way. It shames me to say I have adopted this practice but if you don’t you literally won’t get anywhere.

  1. Throwing insults: No Ethiopian will be afraid to tell you you’re fat, ask you what’s wrong with your face, or critique your behavior. To them it’s just stating a fact or observation but for American it’s incredibly insulting. I’ve always been taught not to draw attention to someone’s flaws (I don’t think flaws is the right word but you get the point). My mom told me if I don’t have anything nice to say then I better keep my mouth shut. But in Ethiopia you can say whatever you want! I think this is one of the Ethiopian habits I hate the most.

8. When someone points out your flaws because it's culturally okay to do so.

  1. Wearing mumus: Or as they’re called in my area, “shitties”. Shitties are large pieces of fabric cut into loose dresses that reach to the ground (or if you’re short like me, an extra foot past your own feet). To adjust the length you roll the sides into your underwear! Ethiopian women wear these in their homes, in the streets, wherever they please. And I love it! I probably buy AT LEAST one a month. I like to call them my, “no fucks are given” outfit.
  1. Coffee breaks: Ethiopians like to say they take shay-bunna (tea-coffee) breaks twice a day. But this is a lie! On an average day at work I can be invited to coffee anywhere between 2 to 5 times a day. If the power goes out you go to coffee. If you’re bored you go to coffee. If someone enters the office that you haven’t seen all day you go to coffee. Then you go home and have evening coffee. It’s a lot of coffee but I’m going to be honest with you, this is my single most favorite part of Ethiopia!

  1. Being late for everything: Okay, this isn’t a habit I’ve picked up at all but it’s worth mentioning. Ethiopians are perpetually late for everything. If you have a meeting Tuesday at 1:00 PM they will probably show up at 1:45 PM, or 3:00 PM, or Wednesday at 9:00 AM, or next week. OR not show up at all and ask you why YOU didn’t show up. Due to this it’s basically pointless to schedule any form of meeting.

  1. Staying inside when it rains: I come from what seems like the rain capital of America so I am slightly ashamed to admit this one. When it rains Ethiopians just don’t go outside. If it rains in the morning you wait until it has 100% stopped to go to work. If you have to go to school you just don’t go. If you’re walking and it starts to rain you step aside ad stand with all the other Ethiopians under the tiny porch of a random store and wait for it to stop. At first I thought this was crazy since every Ethiopian woman carries an umbrella. But after experiencing rainy season in a town with absolutely no paved roads I completely support this idea.

  1. Inhaling for confirmation: It’s a cross between an inhale and a gasp. But don’t do it too loud, otherwise everyone freaks out that something is wrong! During conversation you inhale at random points to let them know you’re following along or agree with what they say. It’s like saying, “ya, I get you bro”. This is something I never noticed I picked up but apparently do all the time, as my friends like to point out.
  1. Shoulder bumps, and kisses, and handshakes, OH MY! I think it’s a national law that you have to greet every person you pass on the street. That or everyone just knows everyone. But when Ethiopians greet each other there’s a number of ways it can go. You can shake hands and continuously ask, “Are you fine? I am fine. You are fine? You have Peace? I am fine.” Or you can shake hands and bump shoulders… which makes me feel soooo gangster. Or you can give cheek kisses. Normaly it’s two or three kisses but I like to think the more kisses you get the more you’re their favorite person. Most people give me four… no big deal.
  1. Gorshas: A gorsha is when another person uses their hand to put food in your mouth. I imagine my American readers are probably cringing at this thought for two reasons – 1. We don’t normally use our hands to eat and 2. We usually leave feeding other people for love-sick couples. No fear, I can assure you that in Ethiopia feeding someone with your hand is one of the grandest gestures you can give. Volunteers have either come to love it or hate it. It can be extremely awkward or… well, it’s normally just awkward but you smile and go with it because everyone does it. Grandma does it, children do it, strangers do it. Basically, if you don’t do it you’re not in the cool crowd.
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3 thoughts on “10 Headscratching Ethiopian Habits

  1. Diversity is the art of thinking independently together. Please Respect diversity! Talk about the city and people that you met but not for the 83 different cultures of Ethiopians.

  2. it is really interesting article about Ethiopia. I live with the ‘good’ thing and ‘bad’ thing you mentioned.mostly we use gursha for some one we really care or love most. i really admire your observation great article sis.

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