When I was about eight years old my parents took my siblings and I to the countryside to see our grandparents. I remember being so excited since it was my first time going to see them where they live. And also because I’d get to play with countless dogs and the possibility of going horseback riding for the first time was a given.
After a shaky three hour ride and close to an hour walk from the main road in to the villages that loath the city life, we finally arrived. As we got to their village I saw my grandparents waiting for us outside their house and I started running their way to hug and greet them. But what was waiting for me was unexpected.
Perhaps I was hoping for too much – a hug and a kiss, maybe a little lift up and spin, but no! As soon as I got close, my grandmother started spitting on me, yes, spitting! It was not big balls of saliva but it was still relentless sprinkles directed at my face. With utter disgust I yelled out “why are you spitting at me?!” turned around quickly and started running back to my parents only to see my dad laughing at me so hard. Taking joy out of my misery, I thought.
That day I learned that in our old culture when an elderly does that to a kid it is actually a blessing and the kid should not shy away from it, and oh yeah, their blessings do come true. It has happened to me a few more times throughout the rest my childhood but I’ve always either avoided or dodged it.
May be I shouldn’t have. Who knows where those blessings could have gotten me by now.
But imagine had it happened to an unsuspecting grownup, on a first visit, it would have without a doubt been just too weird and awkward no?
Here are the few tips that might save you from those few weird and awkward moments that we have in store for you for your first visit to Ethiopia.
The line buses/minibuses in Addis are the most commonly used modes of transportation to get around the city. So let’s say just when you were trying to hop in one to go somewhere, you see a guy in front of you by the bus door staring at you and yelling out names of random areas to you. What do you do? Run as fast as you can in the other direction? No, don’t do that.
These guys are called Weyalas and they are not possessed and they don’t have mental problems. Their job is to help to the bus driver. What they do is yell out the areas that that specific bus passes through and its final destination to everyone passing by so that you’ll know which one to catch. And they also collect the fees from the passengers, tell the driver to pull over when someone wants to get off and also open and close the door for the passengers. So just don’t run away. It’s weird.
That awkward moment when eating Ethiopian food (mostly Injera) with an Ethiopian and he/she rolls a big one for you and stretch out the arms to put the food in your mouth.
It happens a lot and it is quite hard to avoid.
No, they do not think that you have not mastered the art of putting food in your mouth and no, they do not think you are in bad shape and you need to eat more. This selfless act is called ‘gursha’ and it is done for a simple purpose: to show affection. All Ethiopians have grown up with a lot of gurshas flying their way. And it is not so nice to say no once the arm has been stretched. There is even an episode of The Simpsons where they actually took joy out of gursha. So can you.
So when it happens to you, man up, open your mouth and take it like an Ethiopian.
The other thing you might notice about Ethiopians is that they will always invite you to join in on eating their food with them. They are just being polite and they just don’t want to eat alone if they are not alone. The word used to ask someone to join in on the feast is ‘enibla’ which means ‘let’s eat’.
This you can say no to without the person taking offense.
The Eyebrow Thing
Let’s say you were talking to an Ethiopian and the conversation reached the point where you had to ask him/her a yes or no question, and you did, but there was no reply so you ask again and still no reply. What do you do? Yell at that person? No! Just try to notice the eyebrow movement because a swift move of raising the eyebrow up then down means yes. It’s like nodding but only slicker.
To say no or disagree we shake our heads like everybody else. So no tricks there.
The Short, Quick Inhale
When speaking with an Ethiopian you might notice that they do the short quick inhale thing every now and then as they listen to you. It is like taking a fast short breath, a relaxed voluntary hiccup without the click, the equivalent of a nod or the “aha… aha” you do when you are listening to a person.
So don’t be mistaken, it is not because we are highlanders and there is a shortage of oxygen. It’s perfectly healthy and a sign that you are being listened to. So do not worry.
Ferenj, China, and African
It doesn’t matter which corner of the world you are from, for most Ethiopians, if you are white you are a Ferenj. It is said that a long time ago there were some French people here in Ethiopia and the Ethiopians pronounced it as ‘Ferenj’. And to this day the word that is used to refer to a Caucasian is Ferenj.
Most Ethiopians refer to the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and such, as ‘China’. I think there is no need to do research to find out why we do but I have a reason to believe that it is not out of ignorance. It’s just that thing we do.
You can point to people from different sub Saharan countries and ask an Ethiopian where they are from, the answer will be “He’s African”. Then ask the Ethiopian where he/she is from and the answer will be “I’m Habesha” (means Ethiopian). It is not because that person is facing an identity crisis, it is just the way they refer to themselves and the rest of Africa. It is quite common to hear Ethiopians refer to other Africans as if Africa is another continent. Is it a nationalist thing? A pride thing? I do not know but it is definitely a thing.
And in the words of the wise old man who used to live next-door to my parents “Do not ask questions you do not want to know the answers to.” Wait what?!