Travel Read: Culture Smart! Ethiopia

I’m headed to Ethiopia soon and I’m busy reading everything I can get my hands on about the country. Thus I eagerly picked up a copy of Culture Smart! Ethiopia. The Culture Smart! series offers insights into the customs and cultures of dozens of different countries. As a first-timer to sub-Saharan Africa I hoped to get lots of insight into a very different world.

Sadly, I didn’t.

The book’s main problem is its brevity–168 small-format, illustrated pages. This means pretty much every section is superficial. For example, in the “Ethiopia’s Cultures” section, the Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, and Tigray, making up two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 79 million people, get one paragraph each. The rest of the country’s numerous and varied cultures are lumped into a single short paragraph. In these thumbnail sketches we’re treated to such statements as, “Gurage people are traders and know the value of money.” Perhaps this is true for a large number of individuals, but it’s simplistic to the point of stereotyping.

The space problem is made worse through frequent repetition and bland statements. In the two-page section on children we learn that parents want them to be educated and will send them to private school if they can afford it, hardly a startling revelation. What we don’t learn is how to interact with children. Do we shake their hand? Kiss them? Tousle their hair? All of these actions are acceptable in some cultures and considered odd or even insulting in others. Is it OK to play with them? Bring them gifts if their parents invite us to their homes? Are boys and girls treated differently? Behaving correctly with children is one of the best ways to do well in a foreign culture, and messing this up is one of the easiest ways to cause offense.

The book is made worse by occasional mistakes and typos. The Italians didn’t “misinterpret” the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, leading to the Battle of Adwa in 1896, they deliberately mistranslated it in an attempt to gain control over Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. And titling the section on Eritrea “A Thorn in Ethiopia’s Side” is unnecessarily provocative and ignores the numerous periods when the two regions have been united.

Other sections can be quite good despite the space constraints. The sections on driving and doing business in Ethiopia provide a useful primer. Also, there’s enough basic information in the book as a whole that someone who hasn’t done any other reading would find it of value. So if you’re only going to read one book besides your guidebook, you might want to give this a try. But if you’re serious about being “culture smart”, you’ll be reading a lot more than that.

Have you used a Culture Smart! guide? Tell us what you think of them in the comments section.