Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/05/17
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?
No. I've lived in Western Europe, and also West Africa.
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?
Houston. The trip is usually 30 hours or so, with a layover in Frankfurt. If you're based in DC you can now fly direct, though on the ADD-IAD leg this requires a fuel-up stop in Dublin. 17 hours is a VERY long time to be on a plane.
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?
I live in a retro '60s "villa," basically a small bungalow with a huge yard. This is not representative. Most housing at post is small houses with no yard in Bole, or huge rambling manses with no yard in Old Airport. I make repair and maintenance requests often, but have not had serious problems with my house. There is a generator and I use it frequently, as city power is unreliable.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The embassy commissary has a good selection of U.S. groceries, though at a significant markup. On the local market meat quality is very poor and vegetables often leave something to be desired, though the fruit is wonderful. You can even get locally-grown strawberries and raspberries here, very rare for the tropics. Cheese is not a big part of the local diet and is sometimes flown in frozen, which messes with the texture. People often bring back meat and cheeses in their suitcases from Nairobi or other international destinations.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Bring your favorite brands of soaps and detergents, since you can't send those through the pouch. Any particular beers or wines you like. Pet food and cat litter are not really available outside the commissary and there you have only one choice, so put Fido's favorite kibble in your consumables shipment.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a lot of good restaurants to choose from, though they can be hard to find the first time. I was amazed by the quality of the Italian food, complete with handmade fresh pastas. Other options include French, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Yemeni, burgers, brunch, pizza, and Ethiopian, of course. If you are vegan you will love this country; due to the huge number of animal-product-free "fasting" days in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar, every single restaurant has at least one vegan option at all times. Costs are probably on par with what you'd pay in DC, so eating out is not cheap. There is one delivery service I know of - Deliver Addis - and it works quite well if you're very careful about where you put your house marker when you sign up. Don't expect your food in under an hour though.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I had ants for a while until we sprayed, but nothing out of the ordinary.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. DPO is still "coming soon," but don't hold your breath. Plan for about two weeks from order to arrival, though sometimes you can get stuff in a week if you're lucky.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Most people seem to have a day guard and a housekeeper, either full- or part-time. Drivers, cooks, and nannies are also available for those who want them. Quality seems to vary greatly, particularly English ability. So cheap though! My (minimal) staff costs less than $300 a month, total.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The U.S. embassy has a small gym and a swimming pool long enough for laps, which is nice in the dry season. Bole has several gyms, often in hotels, including personal trainer services. No idea on price. Addis is home to Africa's oldest Hash House Harriers club, which includes both running and walking trails. Yoga and Pilates classes are available inside and outside the embassy.
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?
Major hotels and some tour companies will take credit cards, but it's basically a cash economy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are at least Catholic and Protestant services available.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I speak no Amharic beyond pleasantries and rarely have a problem making myself understood, though taxi drivers may need some supplemental hand gestures. My housekeeper runs a lot of my errands for me, which helps a lot. Classes are available at similar rates to the U.S.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Sidewalks are limited and often cracked and broken, doorways are narrow, and even single-story houses often have a few stairs.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We're only allowed to take taxis, and these are very hit or miss. Many of the little blue Lada taxis do not have seatbelts or working headlights and/or windshield wipers. There are some taxi companies whose vehicles seem to be in better condition. Most taxis are not metered and those that are don't want to use them - you're unlikely to be able to bargain any trip down to less than $10. Build a relationship with a taxi driver so he knows how to find your house, since addresses don't really exist here.
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?
Bring something with a high clearance for the potholes and rainy-season floods. Something you won't worry about getting banged up a bit - the driving here is INSANE and everyone ends up with scratches and dents or worse. There is a Toyota dealership in town that can source parts and fix you up if needed. With other makes you basically have to mail-order parts and hope the embassy motor pool or a general mechanic can do the job. My car has 4-wheel drive; I rarely use it, but a couple of times I've been glad to have it. On the bright side, due to Ethiopia's unique vehicle import tax regime, depreciation basically doesn't exist and you'll be able to sell your car at the end of the tour without losing a penny.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Ha. Ethiopia has the world's most expensive internet, and it is highly unreliable. For my $150/month I can sometimes stream low-res with a little buffer time, and other times have absolutely nothing. Bring books and DVDs.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
EthioTelecom is your one and only choice. The 3G service is quite good, when the government hasn't shut it down, but again, data is expensive. Sometimes you have to dial a few times before the call actually goes through, but it usually works fine. Roaming is available in a surprising number of countries, but don't even think about trying roaming data unless you have a whole bunch of money you don't know how to spend.
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?
There are a few vets who can provide basic services, but only the basics.
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?
I don't think spouses can work on the economy, though there are a number of international organizations in town that offer some employment opportunities. There are some EFM jobs available at the embassy. Telecommuters would have a hard time here given the lousy internet situation.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business or business casual depending on your job and your boss. Casual Fridays. You can break out your tuxedo and ball gown for the Marine Ball and maybe one or two other events, but you're also fine in a suit or cocktail dress.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pickpockets are an issue when walking around, and have reportedly been getting more violent and aggressive. Otherwise Addis is a pretty safe city. Wear your seatbelt.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care here is not good, and folks are regularly medically evacuated for anything more than routine colds and GI issues. Between the rainy season and poor sanitation, you will get both of those often. On the bright side, Addis is too high up for malaria, so you will only need anti-malarials when traveling out of town.
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 not good, due mainly to unfiltered vehicle exhaust and some trash burning, though certainly not at Beijing levels. You can check out the EPA air quality monitor readings here: https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.global_summary#Ethiopia$Addis_Ababa_Central.
The altitude (7000-8000 ft, depending on what part of town) can compound breathing issues, though most people eventually adjust.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
This is not a good place for people with asthma or other breathing problems. I'd be wary about eating out if your food allergies are serious.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
People get stressed out, mainly from accumulated small stressors. There's also the chaotic driving, which has increased my swearing ten-fold.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Most of the year it's 75 degrees and sunny, all day, every day. The summer rainy season gets dreary and it rains very hard for an hour or two every day. It can get quite cold at night and houses have no insulation or heating, so bring some thick blankets.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
People seem to really like the international school, and a French school is also available.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
There are several options for pre-schools, though I don't have any experience with them
4. 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?
The expat community here is huge and varied. There are over 100 diplomatic missions in Addis, plus the United Nations and the African Union, and plenty of NGO workers and students and teachers and businesspeople and more. Addis is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of town, with very few people in the middle. Even people like myself who enjoy living here need a break now and then.
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?
Eating out, movies, dancing, live music, house parties. There are lots of festivals and bazaars in the dry season, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Internations is relatively active here, and the Hash is a good way to meet people.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Addis is a good city for anyone who's willing to make a bit of an effort to find a social circle and make their own fun. However, my colleagues with children have complained that there are few activities for kids outside of what is offered at school.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Ethiopians have a very strong taboo against homosexuality but are not confrontational. I know one gay man here with a partner; he tells people they're friends or roommates, and if locals have any doubts about that they do not bring it up.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are some tribal and religious prejudices in Ethiopia, though as a foreigner those attitudes generally do not apply to you. If you are Asian or Asian-looking you may be mistaken for Chinese, who are not always popular due to their complicated economic relationship with Africa. Ethiopian society is highly patriarchal and significant gender inequalities exist, but again, as a foreigner this does not apply to you. Catcalling on the street is no worse than in New York.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Ethiopia is a big and beautiful country, and I still haven't made it to all the places I want to go before I leave. For cultural experience you must visit the stone churches in Lalibela. The most amazing natural site I've been to was the Dallol hydrothermic pools in the Danakil Depression, though this trip is quite demanding and not for the faint of heart! The Simien and Bale Mountains are also breathtaking.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The annual Meskel celebration is a lot of fun, with bonfire block parties on every street. If you're into coffee some local coffee shops do tasting events.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Silver jewelry is nice and relatively inexpensive. Opals are also mined in Ethiopia, though not cheap. There are lots of scarves and other handwoven linens, and leather bags and accessories. There are many craft bazaars in the dry season, especially close to Christmas.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Addis has the best airline links in Africa, so it's easy to get to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere in Africa on vacation. Massages are very cheap, and the coffee is incredible.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
All the history! I highly recommend reading up on Ethiopia's fascinating history before you arrive; it really helps put things in context.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I like it here so much I extended.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Antimalarials, Netflix addiction.
4. But don't forget your:
Good humor, big umbrella.