Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: A Misunderstood Land

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addis ababa

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: A Misunderstood Land

When I found out that I was being assigned to the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my family and I did not know what to expect. Because we were a military family, we were not strangers to travel or foreign lands. I was born in Paris and grew up in a military family. My father worked for the U.S. Embassy, and I grew up in exotic locales like Tehran and Bangkok. My wife and daughters were also seasoned travelers, having completed a tour in Tokyo recently. But we were not prepared at all for what awaited us in Addis.

The first thing that hits you when you walk off the plane in Addis is the different smells. It is hard to describe, but if you have ever visited a cattle farm, it would feel familiar. Addis Ababa is the largest city and capital of Ethiopia with a population of over 3 million people and lies in the foothills of the Entoto Mountains, at almost 8,000 feet above sea level.

The second thing that hits you is the sheer number of people and livestock that make the trek up and down the streets of Addis every day. Public mass transit is woefully inadequate and too expensive for most of the residents of the city. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average person makes about $1,700 per year. Foreigners stick out like a sore thumb, so, when you walk the streets of Addis. Be prepared for the number of people, mostly women and children, who will come up to you and ask for a handout.

Rural families send their kids to the city to try to earn enough money to send back home. Most of the children end up living in the streets and begging for what they can to survive. You have to learn not to help everyone who comes up to you. It will attract a crowd that will make your experience uncomfortable. My boss told me “you can’t help everyone, there are too many to help.” So he said to really take care of those you can like your maid and your guards.

Some of you may have a preconceived idea of what Africa, in general, and Ethiopia, in particular, is like. If you are old enough to remember the video “We Are the World,” you will have seen the effects of the Ethiopian famine of 1984. And the outpouring of international aid raised to help the starving people on the Horn of Africa. I had a bit of that in the back of my mind, but I was pleasantly surprised at how modern and beautiful Addis Ababa was.

Life in Addis Ababa

The architecture of Addis Ababa is eclectic, to say the least, and for most of the residents of the city, sorely inadequate. You will find many houses that are set aside for diplomats have an Italian flair. This is because the Italians occupied Ethiopia during World War II. We were lucky to live in a beautiful villa in a gated compound complete with a maid and a security guard (he doubled as our gardener). The grounds were amazing, complete with avocado and poinsettia trees, sunflowers and rosemary bushes that filled the air with aromas hard to describe.

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Our Home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

My two daughters went to the International School and loved it. They were able to make friends with kids from all over the world. They still talk about their experience living in Ethiopia to this day. You were basically off the grid in Addis Ababa. Electricity was unreliable, so you were on generator power several times during the week. This also made it risky to hook up your computer to city power. I lost a computer to a brown out.My wife had to make a huge adjustment when it came to the things that we took for granted living in the states. We had to go to the base commissary in the states, and buy two years’ worth of non-perishable groceries to last our tour at the Embassy. She also had to buy Christmas presents as well; no Walmart or shopping mall in Addis Ababa I am afraid. Internet shopping was also a must, but you were limited to a small package because all of the mail came in through diplomatic pouch.

My Work at the US Embassy

Working at the American Embassy was fantastic. I got to know the Ambassador and his senior staff on a personal level and the parties they threw for other diplomats were the stuff of films. As you can imagine, security at the Embassy was incredibly tight. Every time you entered the compound, you had to have your car inspected for bombs. It was a bit scary at first, but as with everything in Ethiopia, you adapt and take it in stride.

My title was Chief of Security Assistance, and I worked for the Defense Attache. The job mainly involved managing U.S. foreign military contracts and training programs that supported two customers; the Ethiopian military and the African Union. It was a fascinating job and felt I was really helping promote peace and security in the region.


My title was Chief of Security Assistance, and I worked for the Defense Attache. The job mainly involved managing U.S. foreign military contracts and training programs that supported two customers; the Ethiopian military and the African Union. It was a fascinating job and felt I was really helping promote peace and security in the region. I also helped run the landmine awareness program. Untold numbers of farmers and children are killed or maimed because of hundreds of thousands of unexploded landmines that litter the land. These mines are remnants of the 30-year civil war between Ethiopian rebels and the Marxist government that overthrew the Emperor Haile Selassie. The education program helps villages teach locals how to spot and report land mines.

The highlight of my military career was when I was asked by the Ambassador to accompany him to a visit with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles and talk to him about a concern the State Department had with a C-130 (military cargo airplane) contract that I managed. It seemed that Ethiopia owed the U.S. Government $6 million in late payments on the contract. Our meeting in the Prime Minister’s office was cordial, and I explained what would happen if his country did not pay what was owed, to continue the support we were giving his air force. Prime Minister Meles said that we valued the relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S. and ensured the Ambassador and me that he would resolve the issue — and he did.

Traveling in Ethiopia

Because Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea were locked in a bloody border war, travel around the country was dangerous, especially in the northwest of Ethiopia, along its border with Eritrea. The conflict originated back when Italy governed Eritrea as a colony from 1889-1941 and a provisional border was set up between the two countries, and was never internationally recognized or agreed upon. In 1993, after a 30-year struggle for freedom, Eritrea was granted independence from Ethiopia. In 1998, a dispute over several border villages that were claimed by both countries led to an all-out war. Even though they signed a peace accord in 2000, tensions are still high, and it will not take much for the conflict for flare up again. I really hope that there can be lasting peace between these two countries, which have a shared history and culture. The war costs tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars that neither country could afford to spend on a senseless dispute.

addis ababa

Addis Ababa means “new flower” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

I did get a chance to travel to several villages to take in the local culture and history. Some friends of mine, who were teachers at a local English language school in Addis Ababa, invited me on a trip to Harar. Harar is a city in Northeast Ethiopia near the border with Somalia and is a seat of Islamic culture. Its walled city is home to more than 100 mosques and is considered the “fourth holy city of Islam.” The walled city was built in the 16th century to protect the city against religious invaders.

My friends were going to the SOS Children’s Village in Harar to do some teacher training. Almost all of the children who attended the school in the SOS village were AIDS orphans, brought to the village by relatives who could not or would not care for the children. It was so heartwarming being able to visit with the kids and the staff. Everyone was so upbeat and optimistic, despite their circumstances. The sad irony is that the kids are better off being part of the SOS school than the circumstances they were in. The school will ensure that the kids get a good education, and will be well fed and clothed. Many of the students go on to secondary education and even to university.

Harar was also home to Ras (often translated as “prince”) Tafari. If the name Ras Tafari sounds familiar to you, it should. Tafari Makonnen was the given name of Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia. I was able to visit the house that he used as his official residence during his time in Harar – more historical than impressive.

Who Wants to Feed Some Hyenas?

The last night I was in Harar, I was told of a man who feeds hyenas by mouth! At first I thought they were playing a joke on the “faranji,” or foreigner in Arabic, as the local call us. We had been sitting in a local pub drinking a “Harar Beer,” when a local tour guide convinced us that this was a real attraction. He took us to the Fallana Gate where the “hyena man of Harar” welcomed us. We watched in amazement as he called out to the hyenas by name in Harari. Since our car headlights were the only light available, we could see sets of red beady eyes start to appear around us.

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Feeding Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

He then called the hyenas one by one to come and take a piece of meat from a stick he had in his mouth. Since I know the power of a hyena’s jaw was enough to crush bone, I was a bit unnerved, to say the least. That is when I was told it was my turn to feed them. In my mind, I could hear my wife saying “are you crazy,” right before I stepped forward to feed the hyenas of Harar. You really get a sense of their size and power when you have their jaws just inches from your face!

Closing Thoughts

Ethiopia is a land often misunderstood or misrepresented in the media. It has had more than its share of hardship, war, and devastating famines over the years, but the people and the country are amazing. Ethiopia is full of history, intrigue and beauty, and for the adventurous traveler, it is a must see destination for those visiting Africa.

Check out more stories about working abroad, like Working in Lagos, Ethiopia.

James Stewart

James Stewart

Jim is a retired US Air Force officer and self-described life-long traveler. Born in Paris, he spent most of his childhood living overseas in Iran and Thailand. Jim has also traveled the globe extensively, living and traveling in the England, Japan, Korea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa. He is currently a freelance writer living with his wife in Pennsylvania.


  • Erika

    I feed my cat everyday, but never a hyena – that takes guts.

    May 26, 2017 at 9:04 pm
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