Sunrise at Midnight, Why They Call Us China and other Anomolies of Ethiopia

“CHINA! CHINA!” the little boys yelled, waving to us from the gate of their family’s compound. A little while later as we sat looking out the window of a taxi stopped in traffic, a man on the street looked at us, nodded his head and gave us a warm grin while saying something in Amharic ending in the word ferenji – which translates to “foreigner.” This is our identity to strangers in Addis. While calling someone “foreigner” would be quite rude in the U.S., here it’s a common, benign word the ferenji even use to refer to themselves. For young children, “China” seems to be the term of choice for anyone with light skin, probably due to the large number of Chinese workers in Ethiopia commissioned on construction projects. I can understand the confusion. Our family has often been asked if we have Chinese ancestry. :-)
Ferenjis roaming the street

This experience of sticking out in the crowd has been interesting for us. Especially when the five of us are all out together, Brian and I notice a lot of people staring and pointing at our family. We’ve never felt threatened in any way. It’s more like being a curious circus sideshow act. Liv’s white blonde hair seems to be of particular interest to the locals. One day while walking behind the girls I watched two young boys dare each other to touch Liv’s hair, and when one finally did it they both ran off giggling. One rather irritating part of being a ferenji is the alternate price we often get for goods and services. If the cost isn’t clearly printed somewhere, you can be sure there will be a ferenji “tax” of as much as a couple hundred extra Birr added to it. Depending on the day, getting these curious looks and price hikes can be either an amusing cultural difference or an irritating nuisance.
Ethiopian Birr

Pickpocket Paranoia
Ferenji are definitely targets for pickpockets and scams, so we’ve learned to be on the defensive when the situation requires it. However, a number of times local Ethiopians will go out of their way to keep us from falling victim to theft. “Watch out for these guys,” one taxi driver said to us, leaning out his window and gesturing to a few teenagers walking behind us. Another time a young girl said to me, “Sister, be careful of your things. It’s open,” and she pointed to a small gap in my backpack zipper. While participating in the Great Ethiopian Run, an annual fundraiser drawing 30,000 participants, a man came up behind me and handed me my debit card. It had apparently fallen out of my money purse when I pulled out my phone to take a photo. While a few Ethiopians might be out to take advantage of us, our experience has been that the majority want to protect us and ensure we have a good experience in their country.

The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another interesting part of life in Ethiopia is the date and time. Here the sun rises at 12:00am and it’s the year 2007. Ethiopia didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the year seven years forward as a result of astronomical calculations taken in the Middle Ages. Therefore, on the Ethiopian New Year this coming September, the year will change to 2008. Another calendar difference is Ethiopia’s 13 months. They consistently put 30 days in each month and have one extra month only 5 days in length, or 6 days in a leap year. Ethiopians also align the start of a new day at 6:00am with the sunrise. As I write this it’s 8:45am western time, but only 2:45 Ethiopian time. Needless to say, you have to be careful when scheduling an appointment to be certain everyone is talking about the same date and time. Much to the girls’ dismay, these differences on Ethiopia’s clocks and calendar have made for some fantastic homeschooling math problems!

Point A to Point B
Transportation is always a bit of an adventure in Addis. The minibus system, also referred to as “blue donkeys,” provides a network of routes to get around the city. At various designated locations minibuses will gather at the curb, with one person driving and another leaning out the window calling out the destination. Shouts of “Bole Bole Bole!!” or “Gerji Gerji Gerji!!” ring through the crowded street where people push and shove in an effort to get through the van doors. Once inside you might be packed in with 17 or 18 other travelers in a vehicle built for 10. While not necessarily the most comfortable ride, these buses are extremely cheap. We can get our entire family across town for 35 Birr, the equivalent of about $1.50.

Blue donkey van
Blue donkey line

Donkeys and Horses and Goats, OH MY!
Animals are another big part of day-to-day life in Addis. We see them everywhere we go. Donkeys and horses remain an important way to transport goods, so it’s common to see them walking along streets throughout the city. In villages outside of Addis, horse-drawn wagons and donkeys far outnumber the cars. The other day after sitting in a traffic jam in Addis for a long time, our taxi finally made its way to the cause of the slow-down. Police officers were trying to move an errant herd goats out of a major intersection.
Cows of the neighborhood

This frequent interaction with the animal kingdom can be a good and bad thing for our girls. While it’s fun to see a little herd of cows grazing around our neighborhood, a shepherd leading his goats along the road or piglets following their mama sow across a major street, other animal encounters have been a little more traumatic. Once we passed some dogs eating the remains of another dog. We’ve also driven by the large animal market in town several times, where live sheep and goats are tied and forcefully loaded into the trunks of cars. Seeing this type of thing can be very hard on our animal-loving kids.

All of these differences have made our time in Ethiopia an incredible learning experience for our entire family. Seeing life being lived in such fundamentally different ways has opened our minds and given us a new perspective on things. Ethiopia was a big step out of our comfort zone, and yet very quickly it’s started to feel normal and familiar. When we leave we’ll miss the goats, the minibuses and the little kids calling us “China.” Maybe not the pickpockets, though.

About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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1 Comment

  1. Your journalistic/creative writing is incredible! You have me checking each day for another adventure. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family…….especially during this upcoming holiday season.

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