Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/07/14
Personal Experiences from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I have served at posts in Europe, West Africa, and Asia.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
D.C. There is a direct flight (Ethiopian Air). If traveling on orders, you may be forced to use a more expensive and less convenient carrier transiting through Frankfurt.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Generally, there are two types of housing. Older ranch-style homes with a bit of a yard, and goofy palace-like places with little to no yard and barely any on-compound or street parking. Most homes will have some sort of electrical issue, so be patient and bring lots of candles and several quality flashlights (even if you have a generator). Traffic is becoming gnarly with newly installed traffic lights all over town and the random, massive-scale, road construction all over the place, pushing commute times up towards 60 minutes and longer at times. Driving is a huge test of nerves and patience. Leave your road-rage at home and keep you head on a swivel.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you divest yourself of expectations of having large U.S. style grocery stores, you'll really like the availability of seasonal produce. You have to shop around to find a store or fruit stand to meet your needs, but it's totally doable. Food is cheap, unless you go after processed foods. You have to clean your veggies and fruit. Instead of using bleach (yuck) we use a cap of food-grade hydrogen peroxide and a drop of grapefruit seed extract. No carcinogens and we have not been sick once during our year and a half here.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Lots of coconut oil (so many uses). Nuts are expensive or unavailable, so ship a variety of nuts in bulk. Grapefruit seed extract, expensive but a gallon will last forever and you can clean your food and sanitize dishes with a drop or two. Food-grade hydrogen peroxide for cleaning veg and fruit. Fish oil (helps stave off sunburn and reduce use of sunscreen) - at altitude sunburns are easy to come by. Anything else you can't get via pouch or mail due to regs. Mosquito nets.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
If you die without McDonald's, living abroad is probably not for you. That said, if you need fast food for some reason, there are some local burger joints. There is one burger joint located in the Edna Mall area. The burgers are better than American fast food, and probably a million times healthier. Cost range at the many decent restaurants varies, but are a lot cheaper than in the United States. They tend to use unhealthy oil and MSG in a lot of stuff, so beware.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Black biting ants (a month or two) and mosquitoes. Our house is plagued with swarms of mosquitoes 10 months out of the year. No malaria issues in Addis Ababa, but we need mosquito nets around all of our beds to keep them from biting and buzzing in our ears. No issues during the day but they harass us relentlessly at night. Most houses do not have this issue - it's a roll of the dice.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the Embassy pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available and inexpensive. Most domestic staff members have not received raises in years, yet the cost of living has shot up, so please consider this when paying your staff. Our nanny works five days a week and we pay her 3,500 birr per month. We have two day guards/gardeners that alternate days Monday through Saturday (Sunday no coverage). We pay them 1800 birr each per month. You'll learn it's wise for a number of reasons to maintain coverage at your home during the day. We have a lady come to clean, do laundry, and iron one day a week for 800 birr per month. Some people hire drivers so they don't have to hassle, but I'm not sure how much they pay, probably around 2000 birr per month, but that's just a guess. Get references and take time to conduct proper interviews to get a good fit. People who are unhappy with their staff usually fumbled the interview process. Day guards usually come with the house you move into, so be prepared to continue on with what the previous occupant was paying + benefits (time off - usually holidays). Rarely do people move in and terminate the day guards/gardener that come with the house, which would be considered a heartless low-blow in the community.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Push-ups and sit ups are free at home. No idea on costs outside in the city. I'm guessing hotel gyms are a little expensive, but not prohibitively so.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
I've used the ATM at the Hilton a few times with no issues. We've also used our credit card an Bambis grocery with no issues. That said, it's probably better to rely on cash while you're here.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are several protestant English services in town. The International Evangelical Church (IEC) is probably the largest.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is fine. If you don't speak English, basic Amharic is necessary.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, nothing is set up for wheelchairs.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Blue mini-vans are off limits to American personnel due to crime on-board. Other taxis might not work very well and sometimes don't have seatbelts or steering wheels that are attached. They jack up the prices for foreigners, so that' a pain to negotiate every ride.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A vehicle with some clearance and height so you can see pedestrians and survive bus collisions is advisable. However, folks who just stay in town survive just fine with sedans. Roads to other cities are gradually becoming better, so in theory, if you do your research, you could drive a sedan to some locations.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, at US$96 a month. They are slowly rolling out broadband service to various neighborhoods. We got ours after being here for four months. Quality depends on luck and the neighborhood. We go a random day or week here and there where it has gone out, but when it's working we can Skype and stream Netflix (VPN service required for Netflix). Others with broadband complain they can barely check email. It's hit or miss. EVDO can be used for small stuff like email, but it's a pain. If internet and landline phone service is important to you, please make sure you move into a house where there is service. There are some homes (maybe 20 percent) that can't get internet, there is no landline phone, and cell coverage is spotty at best.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Beware, cell coverage is sporadic and coverage does not extend to all houses. Texting often works better than voice calls, so a phone with good texting ability is a plus.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No quarantine. There are at least two fairly decent vets in town that can do basic care. Lots of people adopt street dogs, and they can vaccinate for rabies, and treat for flees and ticks. The vets can spay and neuter. One vet will come to your house and do it on the table (weird). The other vet does a better job with pain meds for these procedures and also does it in his office and can keep the animal for the day. The street dogs here are awesome compared to what you might find elsewhere in the world (night and day between Turkey's homeless dogs and those of Ethiopia). The dog we found in a ditch here has turned out to be the best dog I've ever had. Instead of hassling with trying to order and stock dry food (unhealthy anyway), we crock-pot meat and appropriate veggie scraps, plus some oats (google proper recipes). This is much healthier and a lot cheaper than dry processed dog food, plus you'll never run out. We send our day guard out to buy meet once a week and cook it over night. I'm often tempted to eat it myself and the dogs love it and it makes the vet happy.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
No, maybe some opportunities at day cares.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many opportunities with NGOs.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Pants in public (you'll get weird looks in shorts). Wearing your sweatsuit or pajamas out in public is discouraged as it is anywhere outside of the U.S. Button down shirt at work or a suit if that's the culture of your office. The locals dress very nice and always look sharp, either in suits or traditional wear.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pick-pocketing occurs with frequency while walking in most public areas in Addis Ababa. Most petty crime can be avoided if you focus on good security practices. Residential break-ins are extremely rare and there is no such thing as carjackings here (yet). There was a spike of violent muggings during the dark hours last year, but this trend seems to have abated with law enforcement efforts.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is a bit spooky here. Have a robust first aid kit and knowledge of how to use it. Also, it is essential to have a solid understand of medevac procedures and emergency numbers. Europe or U.S. for serious stuff, Nairobi or Pretoria for not so serious issues. Dental care is cheap and excellent in Pretoria, so if your crown is going to break, plan on that happening here and go to Pretoria - it's a fraction of the cost of dental work in the U.S. I got a cleaning, a replacement crown digitally photographed/porcelain, one filling, and a mouth guard made in ONE visit in ONE day at a great dentist in Pretoria. Cost was about 800 bucks (not including airfare/hotel). You can replace fillings safely in Addis Ababa for cheap, but some are too nervous to do so, perhaps with good reason, so do your research. I'm always worried about our kids getting hurt here. I am not comfortable with anything other than stabilizing at the local hospitals. The health unit at the Embassy is great.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is awful on the streets due to vehicle emissions. Once or twice a year the city allows everyone to burn rubbish; when that happens, it's like an apocalyptic war zone and it's best to stay inside. Some people suffer from issues with the air but our family has had no issues. At work and at home the air usually seems crisp and clean.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
One long rainy season, one short rainy season. The dry season is dream-like. You'll never sweat in Addis Ababa.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
ICS is great. There is a faith-based school (Bingham Academy), but getting there is a bit of a pain. You have to balance housing location with personal needs - try and live closer to work, or school, or split the difference. Put some thought into housing location if you value your time and sanity.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
No personal experience (we use an in-house nanny/tutor for our tots and play dates). There are quite a few preschools in town, but I have no personal experience with them so ask around, some are better than others.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium size expat community. Plenty of NGOs, foreign missions, and faith based organizations. Morale is probably average to high for those who understood what they were bidding on. Morale is low at work (but that fluctuates with difficult and challenging personnel) and will probably get better this summer. Morale is low for folks who somehow expected they were coming to the African version of Manhattan (you'd be surprised at what people complain about).
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Happy hours at work (finally starting to take off). Meeting up at hotels for entertainment/restaurants, but mostly entertaining at home.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's an average city. Unless you are creative and have a hobby, you can get very bored here. Families, couples, and singles tend to entertain at home or go to restaurants. Some folks brave the night clubs, which are said to be not bad, but are prone to shenanigans and fights (usually because the expat is acting absurd). Don't come here if you expect it to be like your favorite city back home. Folks who are flexible, understanding, patient, and creative have a wonderful time. Rigid types suffer.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Under the surface and in some regions. Generally not an issue for expats. Women sometimes get harassed by local men. Every once in a while someone will approach your car and do something lewd or inappropriate.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There are some beautiful sights if you get out of the city. Our family loves the inexpensive produce and Ethiopian cuisine. You can eat very healthy here. The coffee is wonderful (especially the export grade stuff sold at the commissary). There are great restaurants if you get out and find them (do not rely solely on lists provided by Embassies or NGOs, which are sorely dated). Social events at home tend to be the primary entertainment in town, unless you like the club scene. If you run on the streets, you will likely be met with cheering crowds. Bring your mountain bike for rides in the Entoto mountains, which are just up the hill from the U.S. Embassy. Hiking the mountain is wonderful, save for the kids who pester you at the top for money to watch your car.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Exploring the Entoto mountains. Trying new restaurants (expats tend to focus on only a fraction of those available). Weekend trips to resorts/sights. I'm unable to divulge hidden gems or they won't be hidden any longer!
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Coffee (need to shop around for taste/preference). Local pottery. Carved items. Scarves. Orthodox crosses are popular.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You can save quite a bit of money if you're frugal. Domestic help is readily available and our family has had outstanding experience (cook, nanny, cleaning person, day guard). Our nanny and day guards seem like part of the family. There is a lot of history (Queen of Sheba) in Ethiopia, but you have to travel outside of Addis Ababa to enjoy. The temperature during the day, year round, is perfect. Although the rainy season can become taxing after a month or two, the temperature is still wonderful. It gets VERY chilly at night, so it's great to have a fire pit on the porch or to take advantage of your fireplace to help heat your sitting area.
9. Can you save money?
Yes, without a doubt, especially if you don't thrive off of processed and imported foods.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It's hard to travel out of the city with young kids (driving is exhausting on these roads with toddlers and airporting around is difficult). That said, some tougher families do this magically with no problems. It's super chilly at night, year round, and homes do not have heating and cooling, and do not retain heat from the day. An electric blanket and cozy clothing is advisable.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, but you have to maintain a good attitude with driving. My patience started to wane after about a year with the increase in traffic, so I have to really try to keep calm on the road.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Road rage, shorts (unless you want to swim at a hotel or resort), unrealistic expectations.
4. But don't forget your:
Good attitude, manners, and patience. A quality first aid kit and emergency supplies is a must (visit ready.gov for handy lists). Matches, bring good quality matches. The local matches do not stay lit. Starting a fire at altitude is a science and often topic of conversation with lots of misadventure. Good tip: use ripped up cardboard as a starter, so save your packing materials! Consider bringing light bulbs, local stock often burn out quickly with the poor electric supply
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Do you have any other comments?
A great place to spend quality time with your family and learn to cook great food!!!