Is It Safe to Volunteer in Ethiopia?

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After 13 months of volunteering in rural Ethiopia, the sporadic “Do you feel safe?” emails from home are beginning to take me off guard. At this point, I know most of the people in my town by name, and most of the people in my town know every little thing about me. I have Ethiopian friends and Ethiopian family. I have been here for birthdays and holidays and weddings. I have a routine. I am used to the seasons.

After 13 months, of course I feel safe here. Why would I stay if I felt unsafe? There are times when I feel annoyed, homesick, lonely, frustrated… but never unsafe.

It is strange and a little disconcerting to remind myself that traveling to Africa, to my new home, is still taboo for many Americans—especially for American women. For many Americans, Africa is merely Save the Children PSAs with emaciated fly-covered children; it is stories abound with AIDS and rape and heartless crimes; it is thoughts of the poorest populations waiting to rob from Western visitors.

Here is the truth: Ethiopia (as I can not speak for all of Africa) is home to some of the kindest, most generous people I have ever met, but it also home to some of the rudest, most inconsiderate people that I will hopefully ever meet. And while I never feel unsafe, the periodic harassment I receive as a white woman does, at times, make me feel unwelcome.

While walking down the street in a nearby city a couple months ago, for example, I was spit in the face by an anonymous passerby. I’ve been grabbed and I’ve been hit by complete strangers. I’ve had rocks, stones and pebbles thrown at my back. I’ve been yelled at by a crazy man. Just yesterday, I had to change seats during a bus ride because a man sitting near me would not stop taunting me, poking me, petting my hair and taking pictures of me with his cell phone camera.

There are days when I think, “If I walk by one more person who yells, ‘You! You! You! You want boyfriend??? Foreigner! Money, money, money! Give me money!!!’ I’m really going to SNAP.”

On these days, I let it get to me. I radiate anger and negative energy, and I go everywhere with a scowl on my face. I convince myself that all Ethiopians are awful and all Americans are wonderful, and with each passing second, my outrage snowballs. I’ll contemplate going home and haughtily rationalize, “These people don’t want me here, and they’re certainly not worth my help.” I’ll lock myself in my house and think about all the bad “out there.”

When I finally go outside and walk down the street, I’ll tunnel vision and ignore all the smiling, welcoming faces I pass. As I hear children’s footsteps pattering along the dirt road to catch up with me, I’ll quicken my own steps, as well.

And just as I turn around to yell, “No, I don’t have money; no, I don’t have pens; and no, my name is not “foreigner!” one of the little girls will kiss my hand and tell me that I’m beautiful, instead.

Later that day, I’ll have a moment with a student so heartwarming that it completely revolutionizes everything I ever thought about the world or my place in it. I’ll spend hours that evening with my host mother, host brother and neighbors, and I’ll forget all about my former feelings of frustration. And in moments like these, I can’t believe I ever thought about going home; I can’t believe I would ever think that all Ethiopians are awful.

The unfortunate truth is, a foreign woman will receive a lot of unwanted attention in Ethiopia, but she will also find endless strangers willing to stand by her side.

When my camera was stolen in a nearby city called Bahir Dar, at least 30 or 40 people from my town called the Bahir Dar police on my behalf. When I was verbally attacked by a crazy man on a bus yesterday, everyone sitting around my yelled at him to back down. If a salesperson tries to give me the unfair “foreigner’s price” at a store, a fellow customer will undoubtedly petition on my behalf.

But when push comes to shove, every traveler has a different definition of safety, and every woman will have a different tolerance for harassment. If you’re feeling nervous or intimidated about visiting Ethiopia, make sure to follow some safety tips.

Safety tips:

  • Be culturally sensitive when choosing your wardrobe: In Ethiopia, it is inappropriate for women to show their knees or shoulders. Appropriate clothing includes maxi dresses and skirts, pants or capri pants, scarves, t-shirts and blouses.
  • Carry a purse that zips and make sure it stays zipped: While I’ve only heard of one instance of armed robbery since being here, pick pocketing is common in some areas. So don’t carry anything in your pockets. Pay attention to your purse, especially on crowded streets, in busses or public taxis, in markets and in bus stations.
  • Learn some Amharic phrases to ward off unwanted male attention: “Zorbel” and “Hid” (for male, or “Hidu” for plural) means “Go Away!” “Baal allen” means “I have a husband.” “Bal-ah-gay” means “You’re being rude.” “Bah-kah” means “Enough.”
  • Be careful when walking around at night: I avoid walking around at night (after 8 pm) by myself, but if you choose to leave your house or hotel at night, stay on well-lit streets and make sure you’re well aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t travel by bus at night: If you need to travel between cities by bus, make sure your travel times are during the day.

Stay safe, but don’t let worry or stress ruin your experience!

Have you ever been to Ethiopia?

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About Author

Erin graduated from American University in 2011 with a degree in Public Relations and Spanish Language, and she is currently serving as an Education Peace Corps Volunteer in Adet, Ethiopia until August 2014. You can find her personal Peace Corps blog at eesullie.wordpress.com.

1 Comment

  1. I’m sure it must be incredibly difficult to balance the feelings you presented here, but you did a great job showing that while volunteering in Ethiopia is extremely rewarding, it’s not all easy. Too many travelers paint countries as either absolutely wonderful or completely unsafe–I know I am guilty of brushing off all the bad stuff in e-mails to make it appear as though I’m living the dream! Great tips, I’m definitely intrigued to visit Ethiopia now 🙂

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