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Daily Life in Ethiopia

I get asked all the time, “What’s it like over there?” It’s hard to explain what it’s like to live here. It started with being dropped in rural Ethiopia with 50 other fresh PCVs, only to be moved ten weeks later to a town even farther away with only one other person.

Maybe these small bits of daily life will help paint a picture of what it’s like living in a community in one of the poorest and underdeveloped nations in the world.

Eating
  • Most days my diet consists of tomatoes, onions, potatoes, hot peppers (and it’s always a surprise whether it will come out like a jalepeno or a habenero).. and if I’m lucky extra tough corn/maize, carrots and cabbage. Fruits include bananas and lemony-limes, or in better seasons papaya, guava, mango, pineapple, peaches and oranges. I often combine these with pasta, white bread rolls or rice.
  • All year on Wednesdays and Fridays I cannot eat animal products in public (eggs, butter, milk and meat). My town is 98% Orthodox and the rules are very strict—people in areas that are less dominated by Orthodox rules don’t necessarily have this issue.
  • Typically I buy food one of three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday) and only in the morning when the market is thriving.
  • I don’t use a refrigerator or microwave. If I have leftovers, they go in a container on my counter to be eaten the next meal. Also, “refrigerate after opening” is really just a guideline.
  • If I decide to go to a restaurant, I get to eat whatever happens to be cooked that day regardless of what the menu says… usually some combo of chickpea powder and/or hot pepper powder, onions, (sometimes) meat and oil.
  • Unless I’m at home with my filter, I don’t drink tap water… only soda, bottled water or tea/coffee that’s been boiled. Alcoholic options aside from beer and (really crappy) wine include fermented honey water, slightly fermented barley or teff water and straight up moonshine. There’s debate as to whether the moonshine can actually blind you.

Hygiene & Household

  • Shower? I wish. I bucket bathe once a week usually (sit/squat in a large bucket, pour water over yourself. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.), and if it’s a week I’m going into Bahir Dar then I might get a shower at the Peace Corps regional office.
  • My bathroom is a latrine in the back corner of my compoud… this involves walking outside for a bit, which when it’s raining is a real pain. There is no toilet, just a hole in the ground.
  • Water comes out of a tap in my compound. As of writing, the water “hasn’t come” for two days. I fill up a 35-litre pail whenever there is water, and that’s what I use for ALL household duties including bathing, dishwashing and drinking (after it goes through my water filter, obviously).
  • I cycle through maybe 1-3 outfits a week, depending on how dirty they get.
  • Many nights the power goes out and I have to get by on fresh food/vegetables (my current stove is electric) and with candles, lanterns or my headlamp.
  • All my laundry is washed by hand, in a bucket and hung on a line to dry. If there’s water that day, that is.
  • Mice have found their way into my house before, but I stopped that. Now they are just running around in my ceiling munching on something (wood?).
  • Every night when I get home I have to wash my feet and legs because they are covered in so much dirt and grime.
  • Trash is either burned or dumped somewhere outside the compound. Dirty the earth, dirty the air… it’s all the same here. Trash collection is non-existent.
  • My house is the biggest in the compound, however it is only two rooms (a 4x4m and a 3x4m) made of cinderblock with concrete floors. There is no heating or air conditioning and only two electrical outlets. The ceiling is made of fabric.

Transport

  • As PCVs, we are not allowed to drive vehicles. This means if I want to go somewhere, I usually walk. If it’s far away, I catch a minibus, squeeze in with way too many people and for an extended amount of time (and absurd amount of stops) sit in a stuffy vehicle where anyone refuses to open the windows for fear of catching TB (tuberculosis).
  • If not walking or in a vehicle, I’m allowed to ride a bicycle, horse, donkey or gari (horse/donkey-drawn cart). No motorcycles or hitched rides.
  • Everywhere I walk, people are constantly staring. People will stop walking to stare. They will trip because they’re staring. No matter what I’m doing, someone is always watching.
  • While on a bus, people often want talk to you, whether to practice their English or just talk, even if you have in headphones they will tap you on the shoulder and start talking. I think I’ve got the “don’t talk to me” vibe down though, because this rarely happens to me.

Social

  • I don’t watch TV. Ever. Unless it happens to be on in a neighbors house or at your local bar/restaurant/café. It’s usually in Amharic or Arabic anyway.
  • All entertainment comes from my laptop or other gadgets/books brought from America. Most of the time, pasttimes here in Ethiopia are literally used to pass the time, so it involves a lot of shay-buna breaks (coffee), a lot of sitting around with neighbors and wandering around town. Men play pool and fooseball at local game houses or go out with friends for dinner and beer, but for most women, the entire day is spent within the confines of the compound.
  • I don’t leave my compound after dusk, unless accompanied by a man.
  • And speaking of men, I typically cannot hang out for an extended period of time and often with Ethiopian men by myself. Not necessarily for safety, but to avoid rumors.
  • When I want to talk to or a text a friend, I cross my fingers that the cell network is working. Some days it’s fine, others it might take four or five hours for a text to reach its intended recipient, other times it’s just “network yelem.” A full network outage for an extended amount of time has only happened to me two or three times, but for other volunteers is a huge issue.
  • And internet? Only on my air card or in Bahir Dar. My town has no internet café. It costs me about 35 centime a minute (after 9pm) and averages 20 kbps. For comparison, dial-up runs at about 56.6 kbps.
  • Children often follow me around, yell things like “CHINA!” or “FARENG!” to get my attention. Often times they just want to say hi. Sometimes when children feel like I haven’t paid enough attention, they’ll throw a rock at me. A lot of kids ask for money and food.
  • Teenage and young men will yell things like the children, often times much more rude though. Things like “nech” (white), lewd or vulgar comments that I won’t repeat here. However, most like to avoid conflict and will back off if you walk right up to them and say, “Tell me again.” In Amharic of course.
  • Teenage girls will just follow me around, giggling and whispering behind me.
  • Since I am white, people assume that I am rolling in money. Children ask for things. Adults ask for things. It gets worse if there is another white person around. A lot of people in my town have figured out that I’m not made of gold, but many still have yet to learn that, and as such, I am seen as a cash source. Best phrase for this? “Bank aydalahoom” (I am not a bank).
  • Most shops in my town will give me a good price, but when I travel I usually get “farengi waga”-ed (foreigner priced). One time a man told me a bamboo shelf (that I literally paid 75 birr for the previous week) was 350 birr. I laughed in his face, told him in Amharic that in Injibara it was only 75, and walked away before he could respond. If someone tried to tack on a few extra birr, fine, but almost 5 times the real price? Please.

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