Ethiopia Culture Shock

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Step Up Dive In

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
The traffic looks fine from here

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!

The Capacity

Ethiopia Culture Shock
We Canadians just need our space

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.

The People

Ethiopia Culture Shock
First monthly meeting… My open notebook consists of words I don’t know… which is basically every single Amharic word.

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.

Up for some more reading? Check out either my arrival in Ethiopia, or stop by at my other site, Step Up… Dive In, I’d love to see you there.

Arriving in Ethiopia

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Volunteering in Ethiopia

So, off to a new volunteer project, this one with the wonderful Vulnerable Children Society, focused on the health and betterment of at-risk children in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Arriving in Africa

I have been dreaming of going to Africa ever since I was a kid. Other opportunities always popped up so I headed to Europe for a couple of months, then Europe again to live in Germany, then Thailand to live there, then Indonesia and area to travel, then South America for a year and a half, then India/Nepal for 9 months.. Combine that with a few stopovers in France ranging from 1 – 3 months and you get a total of about 4 years (48 months) spent abroad… and a grand total of…. wait for it… 3 or 4 days I spent in Africa.

Arriving in Ethiopia
Africa is that way?? Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?!

After spending a good chunk of time away from Canada, and many a year in both third-world and non-english speaking countries, I never know just how much, if any, culture shock I will experience upon landing in a new country.I have, however, always held Africa in a different light. I had been there only once on a quick trip down from Spain with my sister and mother when I was but a new traveler; the type with a Canadian flag, brand name clothes, cash dispersed in four different pockets, and fear of anyone who attempted to talk to me.

Oh, and it was Morocco, to say that Ethiopia would be different, and basically brand new would be the greatest of understatements. So, after a quick stopover in France, and some planning with Arnica and the rest at Vulnerable Children Society, I landed in Addis.

For the first time in my life, I had a driver waiting to pick me up… unfortunately, I clearly had no idea what that meant. Here I was expecting to find my name held up high in the sky on a big whiteboard for everyone to see, as if I was essentially royalty… That, believe it or not, is not how it turned out.

I landed at the beautiful hour of 1:10am and didn’t want to go outside directly, it’s Africa after all. Isn’t this the place that those commercials have been insistently convincing me my whole life that starvation, kidnapping and theft are the norm?! Go outside in the middle of the night, without my driver? Never!

I also, however, didn’t have a phone and couldn’t find an internet connection…

Arriving in Ethiopia
Africa’s gotta be out there somewhere…

Unbeknownst to me, my driver was not allowed to come inside, which meant that I was sleeping in yet another uncomfortable (and slightly chilly) airport, waiting for someone to arrive who was, at the same time, waiting in a much more uncomfortable (and chillier) van, waiting for the ridiculous Farenji to step outside.

Oh, but don’t worry, this didn’t last. A mere 4 hours later, I finally found an internet connection and contacted some people back in Canada who promptly informed me of my ridiculousness (though they were kind enough to not word it that way). Unfortunately, the driver had gone home (can you blame him?!)

He agreed to come back in an hour or so. Thus, I sat around watching a documentary on Ethiopia and finally went out to meet him around 6am. The street was incredibly comfortable, not at all foreboding, and in no way dangerous… Of course I never once thought about how unbelievably irrational I had been waiting in a chilly airport, frightened by my own shadow and the notion of dangerous Africa.

Incredibly, Ketema (the driver) showed up with a jacket that read Canada, a hood from a different jacket and a smile on his face. Any lingering doubts or fears that I had vanished the moment that this poor soul, who I had left to suffer in the shockingly chilly night opened the door without a hint of resentment, and even apologized profusely… as if the whole thing was not only my horrible misunderstanding, but rather somehow, the blame fell squarely on his shoulders.

From that moment forward I knew that volunteering and living in Ethiopia would be easier and a lot more pleasant than I expected.

If you’re curious about who I am, or just have some time to kill, then feel free to drop by at my other site, (where this post was originally published). I’d love to see you at Step Up… Dive In

Girls rock! Celebrate the International Day of the Girl!

Today at Vulnerable Children Society, let’s celebrate girls! Today is the very first International Day of the Girl!

“To help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

Girls are the future and the backbone of Canada, Ethiopia, and all corners of the world. They are often the most vulnerable to discrimination and have the least access to opportunities; yet, girls have the potential to shape their communities, start enterprises, uphold families and inspire their own children. (Download a toolkit to read more about girls’ issues.)

On a personal note, I’d like to share a story from Canadian Thanksgiving this past weekend that speaks to girls rights around the world.

We were sharing around the table about what we were thankful for, and my daughters shared that they were thankful for their families, the food they had to eat, the farmers and gardeners that grew the food, that kids in Ethiopia were going to school (through Vulnerable Children) and that they were able to help build a library for those kids.

As a mom, I was pleased by their personal and social reflections and gratitude. Afterwards, we talked about how not all girls in all countries were as lucky as my Canadian girls are. We talked about how in Ethiopia the policy is equality for girls, but often girls are not given the same access to education or food when times are tough. Grandpa, who impressed upon the girls that they can do anything they want to, also shared that there are countries in the world where girls are routinely discriminated against and are not supported to equal opportunity.  this was a shock to my Canadian 6 years olds, and one of my daughters said the idea of discrimination made her “feel small, even in Canada.”

Let’s not pretend that there discrimination against girls does not still exist across the globe. It does. But when we empower our girls with information and tools to succeed and be leaders, we can fight together for future global equality. Girls and grandfathers, moms and dads, brothers and grandmothers… we all have a responsiblity and opportunity to unleash the power of girls!

To sponsor a girl to grow and go to school, please consider sponsoring a girl child through our House to House child sponsorship program!

  1. Click on the “donate now” button and set up a repeating donation for $35 a month. Choose the “House 2 House Community Sponsorship” as the fund.
  2. Send us an email at to indicate which child you would like to sponsor, if you have a preference. There is a photo list on the homepage. That’s it!

Note that as a sponsor, you are automatically a member of our society, and are invited to attend the Annual General Meeting online, which usually happens in December.

A photo tour of Adama / Nazret

Faya Orphanage gates and house.

Our partner organization, Faya Orphanage is located in Adama, Ethiopia. I thought I would blog today a little bit about the city and the surrounding countryside, so you can get a picture of what it is like. You can see more pictures of the actual orphanage here.

On the highway just north of Adama.

Adama is a couple hours south of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.  It’s a confusing place, mostly just because no one is sure what to call it.  As far as I can figure, Adama was the city’s original name in Oromo.  Haile Selassie renamed it Nazret, but in the last decade it was changed back to its original name.  Probably something to do with the cultural revolution (the relatively new autonomous education and political systems relating to tribal groups.)

The poverty is quite overwhelming in some Adama neighbourhoods.

As a side note, Vulnerable Children’s House 2 House program (administered by Faya Orphanage) also sponsors kids and families in Wonji and Ambo.)

Adama and Ambo - locations of our House 2 House program
On the main roads - transportation is pretty old school.

Anyway, whatever you call it, it’s a nice little city.  Don’t expect anything fancy! since it is nothing like the metropolis of Addis.  There are less physically challenged and painfully poor people on the streets compared to the capital, but overall it’s a step back in time.  the main industries are sustainence farming – and north of Adama is a new industry of flower greenhouses (which moved north after the troubles in Kenya.) Overall, it’s a poor place, but friendly and accessible.

A sponsor walking the streets and admiring the flowers.

Horse taxis are common, and donkeys – oh, donkeys! – are everywhere. There are a few nook and cranny shopping areas that reminded me a little more of the souks in Morocco.  The earth is red and dusty, but the tropical plants in many of the streets, especially in the newer parts of town, make it feel more alive.

Ah, the donkeys!
The local people are mainly Oromo – Adama was in past times the capital of Oromia. Some people are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian; other are Muslim (mainly in the countryside.) The children in our House 2 House program are both – we don’t discriminate and are happy to help children of any religion. In this part of the world, both religions live in peace and harmony.
A sustainence farmer in a Muslim area just outside of Adama.

If you are traveling to Ethiopia and would like to visit the orphanage in Adama (with donations in hand!) then please drop us an email and we will hook you up: info (at)

Another local neighbourhood in Adama.


It breaks your heart…

Over the past two months with Vulnerable Children Society, we’ve been really focused on building our sponsorship base, covering our monthly commitment with donations, reaching out to tell people what great work our partner Faya Orphanage does. Something happened today that reminded me WHY we do this though. WHY I stay up to 11pm+ most night and why I won’t rest until we have reached that 100% sustainable core funding goal.

The House 2 House community sponsorship program through Faya Orphanage supports children and families in the Adama community. There are 300+ kids and families waiting for sponsorship – the need is huge.

Today I got pictures from the Faya director of three families that I hadn’t seen before. Somehow knowing their names and the reason they are sponsored is not the same as seeing their faces. Pictures say so much more.

One family was happy – they have been sponsored for a while and trust that Faya Orphanage will help them get through. The little girl was bright and the mom was jubilant to be visiting. You can tell this sponsorship is making a big positive difference in their lives.

Another family is being sponsored for the first time. The two girls are unsure and afraid. Their parents have both passed and they live with their older sister. So much has changed and ransacked their lives; they seem uncertain as to trust the newfound source of support and income they will be getting through Faya and Vulnerable Children.

But it was the last family broke my heart. The two little girls are uncertain and wide-eyed; they don’t know why they are visiting the orphanage, and I guess, suspect the worst until proven otherwise. Their mother is frail, ill and wracked with tears. Her white shawl is yellowed and her eyes are streaked with red. I don’t know if she is crying because she is grateful for the sponsorship, ashamed of getting help, or worried for the future. I suspect it’s a lot of all of those emotions.

Thank you to all our sponsors. Your help brings hope and stability to lives torn apart. Never doubt that. I hope that if I write about the two new families in a few months, I will have a brighter story to tell. In the meanwhile, their hardship makes my late nights seem much less significant… and the cause that much more important.