Sunday, 13 July 2014

5 things I didn’t know about Ethiopia

I have never been the most organized person. But moving abroad for 6 months is a big deal so I decided to get serious and write out a list of “must do” tasks before I left. Alongside buying currency and a first aid kit, one of the other things that didn’t get ticked off the list was researching Ethiopia.

Here are 5 things I didn’t know before I came to Ethiopia (but wish I had)

1. You have to give or take 6 hours

I knew in general Africans take a slightly more relaxed view of time than we do in the West. No bad thing. However after several very confusing conversations I learnt that Ethiopia has a different method of timekeeping altogether. Their clocks start at sunrise, which is around 6am. So when someone asks you to meet them at 4am to discuss a project update, they actually mean 10am – a much more sociable hour to hold a meeting. Ethiopia also has 13 months in a year; 12 months of 30 days and an extra month which mops up the remaining 5 or 6 days. That is why people here proudly point out that Ethiopia has 13 months of sunshine. A travel agents dream.

2. Cash is king

What I learnt at business school I witnessed first-hand in Awassa. Our evenings were characterised by trying to hold briefing meetings in the hotel in the pitch black, as the lights would go off every 5-6 minutes. I’m told power cuts are common*. This wasn’t ideal but we could live with it. Not so easy was when we tried to check out of our hotel to find they didn’t accept credit cards, only cash. Unfortunately the power cuts had also knocked out all of the ATMs in the city. Driving around at 6am looking for working ATMs isn’t the best start to the day. In the end we left without paying and one of the local World Vision Managers had to come and pay our bill the following day.

3. American is more widely spoken than English

There are several languages spoken in Ethiopia, Amharic being the official language. So translators are highly valued. There have been a number of occasions whilst out in the field when I’ve asked a question only for it to get translated from English to American, then American to Amharic and finally from Amharic into the local dialect. So asking a farmer how many children he has can take a few minutes, and end up with a Yes or No answer. I admit this says more about my lack of proper pronunciation than the general populous, but I write as I see. Thanks to Itzbeth, my VisionFund colleague, travel companion and English-American translator I got through the first week.

4. Ethiopians love coffee and REALLY love sugar

I knew Ethiopians were big coffee drinkers. Legend has it coffee was first discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia. So it was no great surprise to find people drink a lot of coffee here. In fact having launched a coffee business, aroamaah!, last year this was an ideal place for some “market research”! What surprised me was the amount of sugar Ethiopians consume with their coffee. Typically coffee is served in very small cups. Imagine buying a large Starbucks latte and dividing it between 8 friends – that’s about the size of a regular coffee here. Then imagine adding 5 or 6 large spoonfuls of sugar and you’ve got yourself a standard Ethiopian coffee. Any dentists looking to set out on their own, this is the place to be.

5. All taxi drivers support Arsenal FC

I get a lot of taxis in Addis. The roads here make driving in London look pedestrian. So I meet a lot of taxi drivers and I am yet to meet one who isn’t an Arsenal fan. Some of the drivers have very little English but can name the Arsenal starting XI from the last time they won the league. Which says a lot for their memory as well as loyal following! Now when I get a taxi I drop the names of a few famous Arsenal players into the conversation and find I can save 20-30 birr off the fare. Thank you Thierry Henry.

* I tried to post this blog yesterday but I couldn’t. Apparently there had been a power cut.


  1. Didn't realise they had 13 months - interesting. Great blog Ben. Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Thanks Nina. If I had known before that Ethiopia had 13 months of sunshine I would have visited the country a long time ago!

  2. Impressive. I spent a lot of 1992 to 1999 around Africa - visiting lots of different countries (all for work, never leisure). I must say - "it's different" and it does definitely get under your skin. I would really recommend thinking about how you can see even more of "The Dark Continent". You'll see the (subtle, and the not-so-subtle) differences from one place to another. I've visited Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Cape Verde, Morocco and Tunisia (the last three were actually leisure). Of all of the countries where I've gone on business Botswana was the best (and Nigeria the worst - but I was in Lagos after all). In all cases (including Nigeria) the people were (almost without exception) fantastic. African people are amazing and brilliant. If you get a chance, Botswana is the most "clued-up" African country that I've been to - you should visit. If you like nature, the Okavango delta is the place to go. The only caveat that I should add is - my visits were (mostly) in the 90s, things could have changed since then (Zimbabwe springs to mind). By the way - Kathy is going to Zambia next month (for business), so should be able to give an update.