Ethiopia is a country of many unique attributes, known for its’ 13 months of sunshine; the traditional Ethiopian calendar is 13 months long. Located in the Amhara Region of Africa, Ethiopia hosts Lake Tana which is believed to be the source of the historic Nile River. It has also been dubbed as the “Cradle of Mankind”, because scientists refer to Ethiopia as one of the oldest locations of human existence. Across much of the world it is believed that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder, Kaldi, in the ninth century. All of the ancient history attached to Ethiopia creates an interesting environment for volunteering; volunteers observe the current state of the country and reflect on the origins of the people and their culture, while contributing to the growth of children, families, and their communities.
One of the many countries on the massive continent of Africa, Ethiopia lies in the Northeastern region, bordering five countries including Sudan and Somali. Ethiopia has a highly diverse population of over 90 million people, with over 80 different ethnic groups. The major groups, making up more than three-quarters of the population, are the Amhara, Tigreans and Oromo. The Amhara people are culturally and politically dominant. This ethnic group occupies most of Ethiopia’s central highland plateau. Making up about 40 percent of the Ethiopian population, the Oromo is the largest ethnic group in the country.
The majority of the population subscribes to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Formerly the official religion of the imperial court, the Orthodox Church dominates the cultural, social and political life of Ethiopians. There are innumerable priests and deacons in the country, which appear in society in colorful robes, often carrying crosses that Ethiopians faithfully kiss as they pass by. Islam also has a strong following, and continues to exist peacefully alongside Christianity. There are Ethiopian Jews, but for the most part they have moved to Israel. The Evangelical churches are more recently increasing in number, but Orthodox Christianity and Islam continue to be the most common religions in the nation. Muslims also reside in the lowlands of Ethiopia with a focus on business, as a whole Muslims tend to dominate the business community.
There are four climatic zones in Ethiopia, classified based on elevation and typical weather patterns, the tropical zone, Danakil Desert, Dega or cool zone, and the subtropical zone. Volunteering in Ethiopia during the months of June, July, and August will have volunteers experiencing the Kiremt or Meher, which in English refers to the summer season. The country gets heavy rainfall during summer, unlike many other summer periods around the globe. Also known as the harvest season, Tseday or spring, falls during the months of September, October, and November. The winter season lasts from December to February when characteristic dry weather spreads across the nation. During the remaining months, Ethiopian autumn, occasional showers occur; May, however, is the hottest month in Ethiopia.
There are more than 80 distinct languages in Ethiopia. The most common native dialects are Oromigna, Amharic, Somali, Tigrinya, Sidamo, Wolaytta, Gurage, and Afar. Many Ethiopians still use the ancient alphabet called the Ge’ez script. The most widely used formal languages are English and Arabic. English is the medium of instruction used in secondary schools and universities.
Ethiopian cuisine commonly consists of vegetables and spicy meat dishes, usually in the form of a stew laid out atop an injera. The injera is an important staple food all over the country, serving as the base of almost all meals. The injera is made of teff, a fine grain found only in Ethiopia, spread out to form what looks like a large tortilla. Most people who try the injera for the first time are overwhelmed by its sour taste, but find the taste improving as they try it overtime. The sour taste makes for a much-needed neutralizer for the spicy food served on top of the injera most often. Those from the lowlands are forced to substitute the fine grain with millet or sorghum, due to a lack of available teff, which results in a completely different quality of injera that is dark, coarse, and thick.
A delicacy unique to Ethiopia, the tere sega or raw meat, is considered a luxury food in the country. Also called the gored gored, this exotic dish is traditionally served at weddings and other special occasions, but some restaurants can also be found throughout the country that specialize in it. The meat is served fresh and raw, with nothing but awazi, a mix of chili and mustard sauce, and berbere, a basic Ethiopian spice mixture used in most Ethiopian dishes, mixed with it. There is a primal feel to the experience that makes it strangely delightful and definitely worth a try.
Visiting family and friends is a favorite pastime in Ethiopia. Get-togethers usually mean gathering around for a coffee ceremony a traditional ritualistic, elaborate way of serving coffee. Guests are expected to drink at least three cups of coffee at the gatherings, so individuals who despise coffee may best avoid such ceremonies. Most locals are too poor to offer visitors anything of great value, but they always try to genuinely offer what they can.
Those from the countryside are known for their unwavering pride and dignity, but overall, Ethiopians take pride in their country, identity and culture. It is best for foreigners to avoid critical discussions about Ethiopian religion and way of life, or they may quickly lose the hospitality that is freely given. A healthy dose of inquisitiveness is completely acceptable to Ethiopians supplied in the appropriate manner, like showing genuine interest in Ethiopia’s traditional customs and beliefs.
Men and Woman should equally prepare for cultural social practices before visiting Ethiopia. Foreign women travelling in the country, should not be offended when men avoid eye contact or address all questions only to male counterparts. This is actually Ethiopian male’s way of showing respect to women. Men travelling in the country, should adamantly display good manners and especially maintain formal, distant contact with women. Visitors should also prepare themselves to meet some people with unusual physical characteristics at some point during their stay in Ethiopia. Individuals may encounter exotic Afar girls with sharpened teeth, Mursi women with ornamental lip plates, or Hamer men with scarifications to signify their vicious bravery.
Football is actually quite popular in Ethiopia. Locals can be found playing the game just about everywhere, with some using a makeshift bundle of rags for a ball. In rural areas, men like to participate in games like pole-vaulting, wrestling, and even horse racing. Ethiopian men sometimes play an equestrian game called gugs during festivals where riders race at high speed and hurl dummy spears; opponents defend themselves with shields made from animal hide. The game was originally organized to prepare men for war. On the other hand, a favorite pastimes of young girls are jacks and hopscotch; card games and board games are also popular. Resembling hockey, genna is a traditional game played during Christmas season. The players use t’ing (bent sticks) and irur (wooden balls), in the place of hockey sticks and pucks. The game has no player limit and there is no defined playing area, goals sometimes go as far apart as two villages. In larger cities, people frequently spend their free time enjoying modern recreations like theatre, films, and nightclubs.
The national currency is the Ethiopian Birr, which is one of the top currencies used throughout all of Africa. Roughly 18 Ethiopian Birr is equal to one American dollar, and 25 Birr is equal to about one Euro. Due to the overall poverty of the nation, in comparison to developed nations, foreigners most often find Ethiopia to be extremely affordable. Meals at high end restaurants hardly break the six Euro or eight USD mark and the nation’s famous coffee costs around five to ten Birr typically.
Programs in Ethiopia often focus on work with children. Volunteers can work with children in a variety of ways, they can help give street children the resources to move forward, provide supplies to children affected by disasters or civil violence, teach English to elementary children, and even spend time with orphaned children from HIV/AIDS infections. Medical placements or public health related placements are also available frequently.
Housing arrangements are almost always included in the cost of the program, and include homestay with a local host family or group living with fellow volunteers. As with most volunteer programs, the duration of programs in Ethiopia are usually tailored to the desired length of stay of the volunteer. Programs are typically open to any nationality and accept volunteers from all parts of the world, at rural and urban locations.