The Good the Bad the Ugly: Dealing with close-minded people

Warning! The next white person (Non-American white people included) that tells me “You speak English too well to be Ethiopian (African) might get bitch-slapped some stern words from me”.

Solo traveling is undoubtedly exciting and at times slow but when you’re not eagerly looking for doing touristy things, it can be extremely lonely. While I make use of most of my time getting deeper into my project and exploring places not often covered in guidebooks, it is often great to take short breaks to visit “must see” places to re-situate myself. Visiting “must see” places alone kinda sucks so it’s often great to meet and join up with other travelers even if it’s for a short period of traveling together.

In Ethiopia so far, I’ve met many travelers who were really awesome and spending time together has been so great that it makes my solo return to traveling a bit depressing. But there are those people that you meet that make you wish that the earth would open up and swallow them whole because they just suck. Seriously, I tend to avoid tourists because I just don’t like to deal with the ignorance that some might pack alongside their hiking backpacks. I’m honestly starting to believe that there are some people who should be banned from traveling because of their impatience, close-mindedness, obnoxiousness and stupidity.

Fact! I am not separating myself from tourists just because I am traveling with a purpose and a project but I’ll let you know that I do make sure my brains and sense of cultural relativism/understanding are intact every time I travel.

I don’t want to single out a particular group of people from any country so I’ll just speak wholly about my experiences. Whether you like it or not, we are representative of our countries, and our behavior can reflect on our nations as a whole. That’s why even though you might miss the comfort of your own home or country, it is better to use the “spirit” of travel immersion as a form of self-guidance before screaming at the waitress for not getting your order right or the hotel manager for not speaking “good English”- WTF is good English anyway?. I am 100% sure that I am not the only traveler who has noticed that traveler or those groups of tourists that always to do their best to always stick out like sore thumbs. Anyway, here is a breakdown of three of the most annoying things I’ve experienced among other tourists doing in Ethiopia.

Ordering Food: I seriously lost count of the amount of times I’ve sat watching in disbelief as people make ridiculous alterations to “traditional foods” while making orders at restaurants. “Like I want so and so food but hold the pepper, onions, spices – anything that makes the food uniquely Ethiopian or traditional”… Yes! You’ll miss out on a lot if you ignore the local food in favor of what’s familiar to you: always seeking out the burgers, pizza and Caesar salads on a menu. However in trying local food, it is pivotal to keep an open mind and don’t be a nuisance. I’ve seen people send back their orders simply because it didn’t look like what they expected it to be- sheeesh!! Ethiopia isn’t NYC, London or Tel Aviv. Okay! I know people have dietary issues and what-not but there’s a fine line between politely asking for something and screaming at the poor waiter/ress for including something that’s in the recipe. Also just because you’ve accidentally had food poisoning in another African country doesn’t equate the whole continent being bad for dining- if I had a nickel every time I heard a sentence like “I’m skeptical of African dishes…blah blah”… I’d have enough to pay the court fees for slapping someone (I’m actually not a violent person).

Fact! Blending in and conformity are the best forms of flattery when in a new country. No one expects you to be an expert on their culture, but they will appreciate your show of interest in trying to assimilate yourself.

Dumb Generalizations: It’s 2016 and sadly people still think Africa is a country. I recently had to resist the urge to utilize my backhand when a middle-aged white woman said “No I can’t eat that because of the Ebola”. What made it worse is that when I corrected her, she had the nerve to say “oh sorry! You know what I mean”- ummm no I don’t dummy. It literally hurts my soul when I meet people who seem cool at first but miraculously turn into morons when the conversation moves past the “where are you from phase”. While in Addis, I saw a woman struggling to find direction – judging by their north face jackets, running shoes and leggings, I figured she was American- I wasn’t wrong. Being a good-Samaritan, I asked where she were going and helped her out, she proceeded to thank me by saying “Thank you, people here just can’t speak good English or give good directions”- insert the face you make when you’re tired of someone’s stupidity but you don’t want to be bothered.

Aanndd on a personal note, there’s been numerous times that I’ve been approached by tourists because of my Michigan hat, who upon finding out that I’m American jokingly say “AHHH I knew your English was too good for you to be Ethiopian”. I’ve counted 4 instances so far, I don’t know if I’ll have any more self-control left by the fifth instance. Seriously it’s ridiculous, there are some tourists who believe that if they encounter an Ethiopian who speaks fluent English, it means he or she is most likely a crook- I kid you not there are several tourists traveling in Ethiopia right now who believe this absurdity. In the calmest voice I could muster, I often make analogies to show these people how stupid they sound when they make such generalizations. There are those who get and apologize but most of the time, people just pull on their hoodies of white privilege and change the topic.

Over the top Photography: I recently decided to travel to Lalibela to celebrate Gena (Ethiopian Christmas) – Gena is one of the most important celebrations for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. Every year devoted Christians from all over make a 14-day pilgrimage by foot to get to Lalibela for the celebrations-its honestly beautiful and touching see how devoted the people are to their traditions. Anyway, knowing that things are pricier during the 3 days of the Gena celebration, I arrived in the town a week early to secure accommodation at the regular price- smart travel 101. The local acquaintances I made told me about the high influx of tourists (faranjis) during Gena but I was honestly blown away about how many people showed up to experience the celebrations. During Gena, is normal to see many pilgrims sleeping around the rock-hewn churches or in groups praying continuously. It is normal to want to capture these moments but of course there are those people who just take it too far.

Fact! Locals and local lives in different cultures are not episodes of a national geographic show. So please ask before you invade someone’s personal space for the good shot.

Now, I’d admit, I love photography and I love getting the perfect shot as much as anyone else would but there are moments when people need to realize that they’re just being rude. I witnessed so many people literally shove their cameras in the faces of priests and pilgrims as if they were creatures in a safari. Most of the priests and pilgrims would be deep in prayers only to have disturbed by the loud talking and camera flashes/shutters of these tourists. I haven’t been to Italy to observe mass with the pope but I can bet that people aren’t as rude and inconsiderate to the worshipers. It gets worse, during a morning mass at the St. George Church, I saw a tourist get mad at a priest for refusing to pose in a photo for him – like seriously??!. I can go on and on but seriously I just wish more people who want to travel to African countries- see what I did there?- would invest an equal amount of time in educating themselves/being open-minded as much as they do in buying guidebooks and fanny packs.

Blackness is Diamond: Understanding Ethiopia the Habesha Way

The title of this post is derived from a conversation I had with an old man in Lalibela. As with many other Ethiopians I’ve met, he thought I could speak Amharic but when I told him “no I don’t speak Amharic but I’m from Ghana”, his response was “oh Ghana? Accra! Black stars! Remember you habesha because you’re black and black is like diamond”. That short interaction was another unique chapter in my effort to fully understand why Ethiopians are so proud of their blackness. Coming from America where ones blackness or skin color is often used as a tool for marginalization, I must say it’s been great living and exploring a country where blackness is held at such a high esteem. As usual, I’ve added some photos because we all know photos on a travel blog is the equivalent of free pizza at a college campus event.

As many foreigners experience when they first arrived in Ethiopia, locals often approach you wanting to know where you’re from in efforts to offer their help. Often times there those cases where the particular individual might just want to make a few bucks off of you instead of actually helping. I’ve had several interesting interactions, both good/bad with such locals who are mainly young men in their 20s and 30s. What stuck out to me the most is the way they approach people depending on whether the person is a “faranji” or “habesha”. Faranji is what locals mainly call Caucasians while habesha is reserved for Africans or people with darker skins. I wouldn’t say there is a sense of discrimination but being that Ethiopians are very proud of their blackness, a habesha is bound to easily assimilate into the society faster.

Anyway, in the first couple of weeks, I would often have people come up to me speaking Amharic or frankly stare at me in confusion when I couldn’t answer their questions in Amharic. In the little English that some could muster up, I’d often hear “you habesha but you not speak Amharic”. Confused, I sort to make it an additional project to find out what this word habesha really meant and what it meant to be one. Since I wanted to get my Watson project started early before the tourist season began, I went east to Dire Dawa and Harar where I spent two weeks doing my project and exploring. Dire Dawa is the second most populous city in Ethiopia but honestly the most peaceful and relaxing of all the places I’ve visited in Ethiopia so far. As it was in Addis, people thought I was Ethiopian, well specifically from the southern part where the people have a wider nose and a darker complexion like I do. Becoming acquainted with the locals over chai (shai) or coffee (bunna) and pizza, I slowly started to learn what habesha means and why many Ethiopians love to refer to each other/fellow Africans as such.

Bear in mind that there’s much more historical meanings associated with the word habesha but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on its social and practical meaning. In short and by definition, habesha means black. In practice, Ethiopians use habesha to denote a sense of common unity- community- with each other based on the fact that they’re all the same by blood and color regardless of ethnicity (Amhar, Afar, Tigray, Oromya, Somali, Gambela, etc.). In my experience as a Ghanaian, they refer to me as habesha because of my skin color and my blood from my African roots. I found this realization very fascinating because in Ghana and other African countries I’ve visited, I’ve never felt or experienced the sense of pride locals have in the fact that they are black and African- It’s honestly quite beautiful. As I travelled further, this realization has made my experience in Ethiopia quite enjoyable. When I tell people I’m from Ghana, they prefer to call me “brother” and some even like to invite me to have traditional coffee or chew Khat with them- I can’t say no to coffee but I prefer to chew raw sugar cane when offered khat.

Understanding what it means to be habesha and experiencing Ethiopia the habesha way has also come with several perks as well. For instance, being a habesha means you have to or you will eventually be taught how to perform the Ethiopian traditional dance which wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’ll be. In the northern part, the traditional dance involves the use of the upper body and shoulders while the southern part utilizes the lower body. Learning the dance was quite easy for me because my friends know I’m always that guy who prefers to stand in the corner and move his shoulders instead of actually dancing. Well the traditional dance is more intricate than that but I must say on the several occasions when I was invited to dance, I killed it!


Another local perk of understanding and adopting this habesha identity was that I often got the “habesha price” or local price when shopping or taking the bajaj which is quite awesome- sorry faranji’s haha! But more importantly I valued the intangible perks of this identify much more because I’ve been able to understand the importance of “blackness” and its centrality to Ethiopian culture and myself as well. Furthermore, I love the fact that Ethiopians take pride in their blackness unlike some African countries- Ghana included – where the psychological effects of colonialism has caused some locals to shun their blackness both mentally and phenotypically. I could go on and on but in short, I am quite impressed because one of the main reason I chose this country was because it is many ways the de facto capital of this beautiful continent.

Addis Ababa (Ethiopia So Far)

Climbing this wall is what it feels like trying to find reliable internet in Ethiopia

Finding good internet is pretty tough but I plan on uploading a more in depth post very soon. Until then, just know Ethiopia is great and I’m having a more unstructured time traveling around. I am currently in Lalibela celebrating Ethiopian Christmas. To whet your apetites for more in depth posts, here are 15 things I enjoyed about staying in Addis Ababa for a week. 

  1. Coffee! Bunna! Coffee!… Oh man, it’s so good and strong that I get my caffeine fix with one tiny cup. I’ve even started remembering some assignments I never turned in at Wheaton. 
  2. Kaldi’s Coffee is like the Ethiopian Starbucks but cheaper and better… Actually the best coffee in town is at Tomoca (Kaffa Coffee House). Also you can find coffee anywhere for cheap.
  3. Everyone knows you’re not from here. They can spot you from a mile away so trying to be incognito doesn’t work. (I usually tell hecklers I’m studying Aviation at Addis Ababa University)
  4. Having clean shoes/sneakers seems like a must. Tons of people are always getting their shoes polished/ “dry cleaned” all around.
  5. It’s great to see a culture so proud of their blackness and African identity. 
  6. Teff bread is hands down the best bread I’ve ever had. It’s so good that it makes baguettes taste like a questionable churro on an NYC subway platform.
  7. Vegetarian/ Fasting food here is actually full of flavor and very tasty. Taitu Hotel has an amazing vegetarian lunch buffet.
  8. Food in general is always amazing. While you’re enjoying it, remember you can buy a 40 cents (8birr) meal ticket to help others. 
  9. It is normal for people to start a conversation outta nowhere which is kinda cool but be careful of “that guy” who claims to be a tour guide/real estate broker/ or anything that sounds sketchy. 
  10. Being your own tour guide is pretty easy and saves you some Birr. 
  11. Amharic is a beautiful language and might not be as tough as it looks… Well not yet.
  12. Bargaining is actually fun but you must make sure you both agree on the price.
  13. Fashion boutiques are everywhere where!! Italian styles are the most popular.
  14. Taking the bus at dawn? You’re bound to meet the two ladies that sell the best mint chai tea in town. If you’re not ready for a sugar rush, you might wanna skip the sugar all together.
  15. Adding to the list of meanings for my name, “Nana” in Amharaic, means “mint” or “come in” (an invitation)