Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/22/16

Personal Experiences from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 08/22/16


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, we've lived in numerous posts from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to South America.

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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?

US. Depends from where in the US, but anywhere from 18 - 30 hours. Significantly longer returning to US, since altitude at post precludes "direct" flights.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

House. Large house, but dysfunctional. Poor quality electrical system, plumbing, sewer. Constant problems, constant repairs. Very little yard.

We are located in Gerji (near the airport). Embassy calls it Bole, but locals correct this. Lots of Embassy housing here. It's basically a village that's been annexed by AA. Unpaved roads (swamps) goats and cows cause traffic jams. Nothing within reasonable walking distance, and unsafe to walk in any case as there are no sidewalks. The shortest commute time from here would be 30 minutes at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. Week-day commutes are more like 45 minutes with normal (non-rush hour) traffic flow. Can be 90 minutes on return to home.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Meat is impossible here - unsanitary and unhealthy. Only reasonable meat is imported - from Kenya or South Africa. VERY expensive and always frozen. Often exhibiting signs of frozen/partially thawed/refrozen. For this reason, we rarely eat meat here. Because of poor transportation/shipping infrastructure in country, vegetables are highly seasonal and often of quite poor quality. Anything else is imported and VERY expensive.
NO prepared or convenience food available at any price. Household supplies are of poor quality and often very expensive.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

If there was a way to do it - almost everything - meat, dairy, good veggies. We use Amazon quite a bit, but there are limits. A consumables post, but living out of cans is an unpleasant prospect. Hard to know what to bring until you are actually here, and it depends on how you live. We spend most of a day every week preparing food for the week. Shopping (usually 3-5 different stores and markets) to find necessities is very time consuming. We bake bread here (available bread is not good and rarely fresh), we make yogurt and process our own dairy (from UHT), etc. Cleaning veggies is a necessity with water/sanitation issues and epidemic disease fairly common, if unacknowledged by GOE (cholera, typhoid, etc.). Good place to lose weight; interest in food disappears after a few weeks of this routine.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is an online service called Deliver Addis, but it's not reliable. Plus it requires internet, which only works intermittently. No street addresses in Addis, so they often get lost and by the time you receive food it is cold and inedible. There are some "average" restaurants, but no real fast food. Even the most expensive restaurants (Sheraton or some of the Italian places) are only "great" in context - compared to the dearth of quality/selection. I've never been anywhere like this - where there is really no "cheap but amazing" street food or local fare. Love Ethiopian fare in the US and abroad, however the poor quality of ingredients here detracts greatly. Restaurants, regardless their mediocre quality, can be quite pricey.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We regularly have issues with infestations in the house. Spiders...ugh. Ants, moths, you name it. Not tropical, but the houses are so poorly built they are basically high-level camping, so easy for pests to enter.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We have pouch service. We were told prior to arrival that DPO was in process. A year later, the answer is the same. Don't hold your breath. It may never actually happen.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Household help is relatively inexpensive, but you get what you pay for. Housekeepers and nannies command a premium for any amount of English, no matter how slim. We hear constant stories of problems with help. Unless you will be home to supervise, work ethic/standards are unenforceable and pretty much zero here. Our first housekeeper stole from us and skipped out on work regularly. Our current helper is acceptable, but slow and prone to laziness.

Despite the fact that this is not a danger pay post, we are forced to accommodate "night guards" provided/paid by the Embassy, a roving patrol that accesses your compound with no notice throughout the day, and it is strongly suggested that we pay for day guards. This amounts to 24 hours a day of security presence - no privacy, and yet no danger pay.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There is a gym of sorts at the Embassy, through the Commissary. Relatively expensive for what it is. Pool and tennis courts as well. Small considering the size of community and lack of other options. We understand there are gyms in the nicer parts of town (Old Airport), but haven't really seen much that you'd use in Bole/Gerji.

There are "national clubs" like Juventus that offer classes in the evening. Not inexpensive and requires a car.

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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?

None of our credit cards work here (neither chip nor otherwise), except at the major American hotels (Sheraton, Marriott, Radisson). There is one ATM at the Embassy for use. Also daily, limited-hour, cashier services to cash checks. Basically it's a cash economy.

Side note - I laughed at the comments of others when I arrived about their issues with the local money. After year, I am a convert. The local money is the Birr (ETB). The paper money is old in most cases and disgustingly filthy. It smells foul. Most keep the bills in a baggy or something sealable. The conversion rate is currently 22 to the dollar, so writing a check for $500 results in wads of cash. Having to pay a bill, travel agent or some such, results in transporting a vast bulk of bills. Even eating out, in a nicer restaurant, requires an enormous amount of bills.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Catholic definitely. Don't know of others.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Purportedly you can get along in English here. English is legally the language of schooling from high school through university. But it's a measure of how low the general educational level is that English is not really common. Many speak a few words, but rarely do you find someone who really can communicate. From household help to restaurants and grocery stores, it's difficult. Amharic is not easy to learn, with its own alphabet and an unusual grammar. There is a post language program, but not consistently. I see signs for local classes, but unsure of quality.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

YES. Nothing, including the mission itself, is really accessible.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

No. Not safe, not affordable. We aren't allowed to use what passes for public transport here (minibuses and a limited stop metro), for safety reasons. Cabs, even private car services, are broken down economy cars, rattle-traps, with no safety features, and barely functional. Of course, even for this poor quality and unsafe service we pay the premium (foreigner) rates. A typical trip from home to Embassy is $10 or more each way. As everything is negotiable, that is the base price. A weekend trip around town can be significantly more expensive.

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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 crossover, mini-SUV would be recommended. There are plenty who get by with sedans, but the quality of the streets, even in-town, is quite poor. Many residential streets are unpaved and become swamps in rainy season. Even the best commuter arteries are littered with enormous potholes and erratically placed and unmarked speed bumps. Definitely would not recommend a sports car here. Standard parts seem available (oil/oil filters), others (tires, air filters, car parts) not so much. All VERY expensive.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

The availability of communications (internet, mobile, phone, data) is laughable. Mission refuses to clarify the reality of the communications situation here, for fear that no one will bid. They'd rather deal with the horror and complaints from new arrivals.

Ethio Telecom (ETC) is a government monopoly, with GOE following the lead of China. China provides much of the expertise (construction and design) here, and it shows. Poor quality, poor planning, lots of government control of access. While you can buy home packages for US$100-150 a month, we were advised and can confirm that unless you purchase the more expensive packages, ETC will provide only intermittent service. We pay $300 a month for internet and often go for weeks at a time with no service. This is the cost for 4 mbps service (we measure regularly and rarely reach anywhere near that). To compare, we pay $125 a month for a cable/internet package in the US that provides is up to 150 mbps service. If you or your family members will need internet access for educational or work purposes, this is not the post for you. If you need consistency of communications for interface with extended family or children in the US, this is not the post for you.

In addition, same levels of access are not available in all housing areas. Bole/Gerji has particularly poor infrastructure. The best quality infrastructure is available in the much nicer Old Airport residential area. (See update below).

If you are assigned housing new to pool, you will have to pay to have cable/internet run to the house.

Mission promotes mobile hot spot service (4g purportedly) as a reasonable alternative. It rarely reaches the level of 4g service and is prohibitively expensive - much more than the $300 a month we pay for spotty wifi.

You should bring your own routers and cables. Be ready to start haranguing post for installation on the day of arrival. Even with immediate request and daily reminders it takes 3-6 months (up to never in some sad cases) to get installation at home. All our interaction with ETC is through the Embassy, a necessity because of language and inattention, but one the Embassy doesn't take much responsibility for. In sum, a very poor communication context.

UPDATE APRIL 2014: It's hard to say this politely. Effective immediately, a good percentage of US Embassy housing is now situated in a neighborhood that has NO (and will have NO) access to internet. None. MGMT and housing board are apparently NOT communicating this truthfully to bidders.

If you are considering Addis and have any interest in any level of internet access, make sure your housing survey specifies that you will NOT accept housing in Bole Homes. Understand that attempts to correct this upon arrival will not be successful. There are a host of other problems in this neighborhood as well. Remember, many would say they wouldn't survive here without access to Amazon Prime or other mail order options. Not possible without internet.

Additionally, make sure that you have at least one, better two, functional VPN's available on all your digital tools (laptops, tablets, phones). The government is constantly blocking websites, various VPN's, and definitely social media. Most of us switch from VPN to VPN, picking different connection points every time we access.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

ETC, again, is a government monopoly. No outside providers function here. Roaming is incredibly expensive.
Local service is very spotty. No difference in quality between 2G, 3G and 4G. You get what you get.

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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?

I understand vet services are quite limited. There is one that is frequented by the expat community. I understand services are expensive, with a lot unavailable here. As for the rest - Lots of street dogs, spottily cared for by day guards it appears. There is a tendency for locals to use poisons to keep away rodents, etc. We've heard several stories of poisons being inadvertently broadcast by birds, etc., resulting in inadvertent pet deaths even within home compound.

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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?

If you're in development, there could be work on the economy. Enormous development sector here. If at the Embassy, typical EFM jobs - low pay and lower levels of respect or job quality. Telecommuting is impossible due to lack of communication infrastructure.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Lots of volunteer opportunities. Poverty is rampant, and development represents a good portion of the economy and money flows here.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

On rare occasions, formal dress (Marine Ball? Burn's Night?). Standard office attire. Casual Fridays.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Yes, there are. Standard big city concerns. So much poverty means constant harassment by beggars. Petty street crime is common. Current political unrest, while only recently acknowledged by DoS, has been standard since our arrival, almost a year ago.

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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 not really available, nor is what is available of reasonable quality here. Everything requires evac - dental procedures, maternity, just about everything.

Med unit often treats with antibiotics without testing, because testing for even common things is not available here. GOE very sensitive about optics, so even epidemics remain largely unreported. Currently there is an outbreak of cholera in Addis, but only recently has the mission issued directives or given the community notice.

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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?

Poor. Addis is at altitude, and pollution and air quality is poor. During the rainy season, everyone seems to have constant respiratory infections, exacerbated by air quality. Post has recently started testing and advertising air quality.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Not the place for you.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Rainy season here is the worst I've ever seen. Much prefer actual winter over this. Often dark and dreary for weeks at a time. Impossible to get out, with poor quality of roads and little opportunity for exercise. We understand a lot of mission personnel are on antidepressants.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Good temperature. Cool to moderate, year round. Very cold at night during the rainy season. Not snow, but gets into the 40's at night. No heat or AC in housing. Extremely wet for 4-6 months a year. Sunny, but not hot the rest.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are a number of international schools here. Most go to ISC and appear to like it.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Don't have kids in school at this post, although I cannot imagine there is a lot of special-needs services here, considering the low level of services overall, particularly med/health awareness and services.

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3. 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?

Again, no personal experience.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Again, no personal experience.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Expat community is fairly large here, probably due to the fact that this is a country/economy completely dependent on international development assistance. I would say the morale is generally quite poor.

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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?

At home. Some restaurants, but expensive, difficult to access and not of great quality.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I suppose this is a better post for families than singles and couples. There is a sparse cultural scene here. Jazz, if you know where to look and traditional dance/music the same. Theater is non existent. Film, similar. Art, there is some, but geared to tourists. Reading materials in Amharic largely.

I guess this is the place to note that AFN is widely used here, a measure of how poor communications are and how sparse the recreational offerings. There is cable out of South Africa, for $100+ a month.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

NOT. No recognition of this here. Very religious and conservative society (orthodox christian and muslim) and you regularly hear seemingly enlightened people talk about "sins against god." Being "different" is not only NOT valued here, it's downright dangerous.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Very conservatively religious here.
Gender equality doesn't exist here. We live in the 19th century (or earlier).

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Meeting some of the few cultural figures here - musicians and dancers. The good feeling you get from helping others is readily available here - so many to help. We've tried to travel, although it's really quite expensive for what you get, accommodations are often of mediocre/poor quality and tourist infrastructure non existent. We loved some of the hiking opportunities we've found. Standard tourism - churches at Lalibela, etc.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

We are "get out and explore" types and that's hard to do here. Between security restrictions, lack of language, poor infrastructure, and a generally very closed society, it's difficult. Can be extremely expensive to travel both in and out of the country.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

No, not a shopping post. Once you're acclimated you will start to notice weaving culture, etc. Generally of poor quality. If good quality, extremely expensive.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Don't really have an answer for this.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

That communications are so poor as to be nonexistent.

That the mission is unmotivated to document post issues resulting in no appropriate compensation/allowances - COLA, danger pay, or R&R travel. It is generally recommended that we "get out of town" every 3-4 months to relieve the stress of living here, but allowances/pay does not reflect this. In fact, many go to Nairobi for a break. This is laughable considering that Nairobi, with a much more "first world" feel for much the same cost as living here, has significantly higher allowances and is given double the R&R's of Addis. Inconceivable.

That the basics are difficult here. Housing, transport, even food.

This is a high stress posting, with few if any opportunities for relief in country.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Most would not be this honest, but probably not. That sounds like a "diva" response, and indeed the old AF hands are quite critical of this kind of honest response. Dealing with the Ethiopian context is one thing. Dealing with it, with no acknowledgement or appropriate support from the mission is another.

Living with hardships is a part of the Foreign Service. But there are mechanisms to compensate for this for a reason. It does not reflect well on this mission that those mechanisms are not in pace at this post. We've heard from a number of people that a posting to Kabul or Baghdad is easier.

We came, hoping to really explore the unique culture. That's difficult to do, with no/limited language, security restrictions and no real tourist infrastructure.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Telecommuting job or plans for distance education.

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4. But don't forget your:

Galoshes, rain jacket and umbrella (rainy season is endless here).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Cutting for Stone (Verghese) - fiction, set in Addis for much of the book.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

There used to be a question about "savings." It's important to note that this could be a post to save if you are willing to eat the same, basic food daily and if you are willing to forego travel or access to the limited and expensive communication infrastructure. Most do not live this ascetically. It can be a very expensive place to live.

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