They say first impressions are lasting impressions, and while that’s a cliché, strong first impressions of a country can tell you a lot.
I’ve been in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for four days now. My wife has just joined me and I’m treating her to a two-week road trip around the historic northern part of the country to celebrate our tenth anniversary. Memories make the best presents, after all.
This is our first time in sub-Saharan Africa and we’ve both been taken by surprise, summed up by my wife’s assessment of the Ethiopians: “They’re like us.”
(She’s Spanish, so when she says “us” she means Mediterranean people.)
To a great extent they are–in attitudes, priorities, even many mannerisms. With 1500 years of Christianity and an even longer period of nationhood, along with several centuries of Islamic learning and contact with the Mediterranean, Middle East, and South Asia, they’ve developed a culture similar enough to Southern Europe to be recognizable while different enough to be intriguing.
Take social life, for instance. Ethiopians have a great cafe culture and love to while away the hours sipping coffee, chatting with friends, and reading the paper at their favorite cafe. Addis Ababa has a wealth of cafes, both traditional and modern, to suit every mood. The Ethiopians discovered coffee, and it’s equally excellent everywhere, so you pick your place by location and decor.
Their attitude to education is similar to ours too. Private schools abound, the capital has plenty of good bookshops, and every city of any size has at least one university. I’ll be taking a closer look at the schools in a later post in the series.
There’s a relaxed relationship between the sexes here that’s much like our own. While many people frown on premarital sex, that doesn’t stop them from having dating. This has a beneficial effect for female Western travelers in that they won’t be constantly harassed by chronically lonely men like often happens in northern India and parts of the Middle East. Both male and female travelers will receive a fair amount of innocent flirting, though. Considering how good looking the Ethiopians are, this isn’t a bad thing.
%Gallery-85449%I’m ashamed to admit that I thought Addis Ababa was going to be dirty. While it’s a poor city, a small army of street sweepers keeps it pretty tidy. They can’t stop the dust that blows everywhere, though, and the pollution is as bad as a Western city during rush hour. One stark difference is the poverty. There are countless beggars. Many of them are farmers whose crops have failed and they’ve been forced to come to the city to find food. Others are handicapped or have suffered injuries that keep them from working. More prosperous Ethiopians readily give to beggars and don’t judge them simply because they’re poor. This is a pleasant difference from our own culture.
So in the first four days we haven’t had any real culture shock. Expats living in Addis Ababa say it’s easy to slip into daily life here. The Ethiopians we know in Madrid say the same thing about Spain!
Of course we’ve only seen the capital city so far and talked to members of only three of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, so as we travel around Ethiopia for the next two months I suspect we’ll discover many differences.
But I bet we’ll find some more similarities too.