Ethiopia Culture Shock

Culture Shock - Ethiopia

Ethiopia Culture Shock

As a traveler, landing in different countries always presents the likelihood of some sort of culture shock. So what are the most shocking things for a Canadian arriving to volunteer in Ethiopia?

A Disclaimer

First of it must be said that I’m not really one to suffer from much culture shock. I always expect culture shock to be a lot worse than it really is. In all honesty, I always end up being a little disappointed that I can merge into a new culture almost seamlessly.

As mentioned in my arrival in Ethiopia, I certainly had overestimated the culture shock that Ethiopia would represent. But, getting to work here provides a whole different opportunity… one to be shocked in a whole different way.


The transportation in Addis Ababa has been described to me as ‘not enough’ … Honestly, that description is ‘not enough’. From where I live to the center should be about an hour commute, in four different minibuses.

The Route

Ethiopia Culture Shock

From here the traffic doesn’t look that bad!

Conveniently, there’s a bus stop right near where I live. Perhaps I should clarify, there’s a bunch of people that stand on the side of the road, hoping for the minibuses to stop, and then run as quickly as possible, shoulders in, elbows up to win the coveted spot that might be available. I learned quickly that this bus stop was not for me… instead it’s a 20 minute walk to where the buses start.

This minibus, then takes me to the starting of a second minibus, which takes me to a line for the third (I’ve waited up to an hour there) which finally drops me at the side of the road where I can find the fourth. The fourth as actually presented the most problems as I need to find one that goes to ‘Akaki 08’ and most of them go to ‘Akaki 09’… You would think it’s a quick lesson on numbers, right??? Wrong! For the life of me I can’t pronounce the number 8, which sounds something like the word ‘cement’ and thus I am consistently holding up my fingers, and piling into minibuses just to pile off once people actually count the amount of fingers I’ve held up… Awesome!

Ethiopia Culture Shock

Sometimes you just need to find a little space

The Capacity

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe this to Canadians. You see, undoubtedly Canadians have an issue with space… we have too much. That may not seem like much of an issue when you’re in Canada, but when you venture outside, oh boy can it be interesting. The other day, as 20 people packed into the second bus (which had 10 seats) I was jostled into a tight fitting spot, sitting backwards facing a kind, smiling, Ethiopian man. The only way for us to fit in was apparently in the jigsaw-like manner that saw his right leg ending up between my legs and my right leg between his legs… As the bus jumped and jiggled it’s way along the twenty minute ride, it made me realize that it is, indeed, quite possible to accidentally grind a total stranger. It made me question all those times in High School when I thought a girl had purposely put her hand on my leg, and made me wonder if this was at all awkward for my Ethiopian grinding partner… His smile gave away little; really awkward or innocently normal I may never know.

The Power Outages

Okay, I may be a little accustomed to power outages, especially after Nepal where the power seems to be off 10 hours a day. The difference in Ethiopia is that it is totally unplanned, unannounced and can go on for days. My second day in Addis Ababa, a city of many million (estimates range from 3 million to 8 million) the power went out and stayed out for 30 hours. I tell ya, stumbling around my new living quarters made it real obvious that I need to be just a little more perceptive, and really take in my surroundings when I first arrive.

Ethiopia Culture Shock

My first monthly meeting with Canadian Humanitarian… Great peeps

The People

This is one that will get you everywhere you go. No matter what people tell you, you’ll never be prepared for the difference in the people that you meet in a new country… The people are, after all, the greatest reason to travel. The people in Ethiopia are a huge shock for me. They are a far cry from the crippling images we’ve seen on our Canadian televisions since the 1984 famine. They are beautiful, smiling and kind and very intelligent. You get attention for being white, but you never feel in danger. There may be a little pushing for a minibus here or there, but there’s always someone looking out to make sure you, the Farenji, are okay.

There’s one final culture shock that I experienced in my first week in Ethiopia, and that’s the kids. But, they are easily worth an entire post themselves.

12 thoughts on “Ethiopia Culture Shock

  1. Amalay

    Thank you for sharing that. I am a young Ethiopian girl who grew up in Ethiopia and moved to USA. I live is California. Tho I must say I met a lot of people who are so kind and intellectual here , I am also exposed to the ignorant once. I m being discriminated at my work just because I look and behave differently. ๐Ÿ™ I am a soft spoken, late to anger and donโ€™t take things personal type of a girl. Still Iโ€™m being singled out at my work ;( in my country we love guest and they are always welcome:) we love โ€˜โ€™ferenjiโ€™ we love Asians we think they are polite, we love African Americans they are our heroes!! We love India, itโ€™s a simbole of beauty.. but today I came across your blog because I was sad for being discriminated at my work.
    At least you wrote what you have seen in my country and I want to thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ there is hope

    Missing Mama Ethiopian and beautiful Ethiopians ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Thank you for the wonderful insight. Sorry to hear about the discrimination that you are experiencing. It is so sad how the gentile among us can be so easily pushed around within this framework of unfettered capitalism and materialism. I hope that things have been look up and that you are seeing a positive change.

      All the best, I love your mama Ethiopia and its people, what a beautiful and rich culture.

  2. Pingback: Ethiopian Group Birthday Party | Vulnerable Children Society

  3. Michael Huxley

    I don’t think culture shock is ever something that you will ever become totally immune to, no matter how experienced or well travelled you are, it’s just something you get a little more comfortable with. But I think – as you say – it is one of the joys of travel too. It’s all about perception. The space – or lack of it – thing is one that always gets me too, being 6″2 and not exactly slender! Although I have to admit I seem to manage it better on the road than I would do at home!

    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      I totally agree Mike. I don’t know if the term culture shock is really that fitting. I mean, I rarely feel like I’m ever in a state of shock, but certainly new customs in a country take a bit of getting used to… how could they not?!
      I gotta say, I feel huge when I travel, and I’m certainly not, so good on you getting that bigger frame into all these smaller dimensions that we run into.

  4. Megsy

    ahh we have become well accustomed to the tetris style travel of many countries – but it’s still always a bit strange. Never been to Ethiopia though, it looks like a facinating place. Looking forward to reading more of your posts

    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Oh tetris… how such a simple game has changed the very way that our generation tries to fit things together… The minibuses in Ethiopia are particularly more crowded than those in other countries, it’s really just the major lack of them in Addis Ababa that is currently the problem. There’s a huge issue with transportation here as they are putting in the rail and detours are a joke. I highly suggest Ethiopia though… very, very highly

  5. Laura

    I remember meeting an Ethiopian man who’d come to live in England. He found work with my dad. His first comment was: “why does the sun in England not work? It’s sunny, why is it cold?!”

    Your post just reminded me! Hope you enjoy your trip, and I’m just about to read the next!

    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Hahahaha, fair enough. The tagline here is ’13 months of sunshine’ due to a 5-day month that they throw in there. So far, I’ve been here for a month, and haven’t seen anything but sun… Beautiful weather. Thanks for stopping by ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Pingback: Meeting the Kids | Vulnerable Children Society

  7. Pingback: Meeting the Kids

  8. Pingback: Arriving in Ethiopia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *