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Ethiopia - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Ethiopia boasts an impressive array of tropical diseases, but with some sensible precautions the chance of catching anything very serious is not great. Most travellers who spend a while in the country will become ill at some point in their trip, but this is most likely to be straightforward travellers’ diarrhoea or a cold. There appears to be a greater risk of travellers contracting more serious sanitation-related diseases (such as typhoid and hepatitis A) in Ethiopia than in other parts of east Africa, but the risk is decreased by having the appropriate immunisations before you leave home. You should also avoid high-risk foods and drink safe water once you are in the country. This prevalence of sanitation-related diseases has to be balanced against the fact that there is less likelihood of contracting malaria in Ethiopia than in most other parts of tropical Africa. Before you travel to Ethiopia, ensure you receive the necessary immunisations and, if you plan on entering a malarial area, seek advice on which tablets are currently most effective and also consider how to prevent mosquitoes from biting you.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Ethiopia is generally a very safe country. Casual theft and pickpocketing are fairly commonplace in parts of the country, most notably Addis Ababa, but this sort of thing is almost never accompanied by violence. In Addis Ababa, pickpockets might operate anywhere, but favoured areas are the Mercato, and in the vicinity of government hotels in the city centre. Violent crime isn’t a cause for serious concern, but as in any large city one should not wander around at night with a large amount of money or important documents.
In other parts of Ethiopia, the risk of encountering pickpockets is mainly confined to bus stations and markets, and even then only in larger towns. At bus stations, this is most likely to be a loner operating in the surge of people getting onto a bus. In the streets, a favoured trick is for one person to distract you by bumping into you or grabbing your arm, while a second person slips his fingers into your pocket from the other side. It’s advisable to leave valuables and any money you don’t need in a hotel room, to carry the money you do need in a relatively inaccessible place, and to always turn quickly in the other direction if somebody does bump into you or grab you. A useful ruse is to stuff something bulky but valueless (a bit of scrunched-up tissue or an empty cigarette pack) as a decoy in a more accessible pocket. If you need to go out with important documents or foreign currency, carry it in a concealed money-belt, and carry some cash separately so that you need not reveal your money-belt in public.
Thieves often pick up on uncertainty and home in on what they perceive to be an easy victim. In Addis Ababa, where there are plenty of experienced thieves and con artists, always walk quickly and decisively. When you arrive in a new town by bus, stroll out of the bus station quickly and confidently as if you know exactly where you’re going (even if you don’t). Avoid letting the kids who often hang around bus stations latch on to you. Once through the crowds, you can sit down somewhere and check your map, or ask for directions.
One area of risk that is difficult to quantify is that of armed bandits – shifta – holding up a bus. This was quite commonplace a few years ago, but is no longer a serious cause for concern, except perhaps in eastern areas near the Somali border.
It is easy enough to let warnings about theft induce an element of paranoia into your thinking. There is no cause for this sort of overreaction. If you are moderately careful and sensible, the chance of hitting anything more serious than pickpocketing is very small. Far more remarkable than the odd bit of theft, especially when you consider how much poverty there is in the country, is the overwhelming honesty that is the norm in Ethiopia.
The level of hassle experienced by visitors to Ethiopia is strongly dependent on how they travel. People on organised tours generally experience the country as almost entirely hassle-free, and those who fly or are driven around the country, and who make extensive use of upmarket hotels and professional guides, are also likely to have a smooth trip. By contrast, solitary independent travellers who bus between towns, who seldom explore sites with local guides, and who stay mainly in local hotels, often report the hassle factor to be the highest of any African country.
The most persistent irritant comprises groups of children who follow travellers around yelling ‘faranji, faranji’, ‘you, you, you’, or a variant thereof. This may sound harmless enough, and it is, but the children’s persistence can easily exhaust one’s reserves of good humour! The best response to this sort of thing is to poke gentle fun at the kids. If a kid shouts ‘you’, yell ‘you’ back, or if they shout ‘faranji’, respond with ‘habbishat’ (Ethiopian). Humour may not always defuse the mob, but it is generally a more successful ploy than showing anger or irritation! (A very occasional but more inherently worrying problem is children throwing stones at travellers. Why they do this is anybody’s guess, but the best way to deal with it is usually to appeal to an Ethiopian adult to get the children to stop.)
That aside, independent travellers may sometimes find it rather trying to operate in an environment where they have no privacy, and where every move seems to attract comment or attention. This manifests itself in many small ways: beggars will cross the street to catch your attention, arbitrary bores will monopolise your company, aspirant guides will latch on to you for no good reason and later expect to be paid for their imagined service, and even the most straightforward situations such as catching a bus or ordering a meal often entails fuss and complications.
There is no absolute way of dealing with this sort of thing. Generally, however, if you need help or directions on arriving in a town, it is far better to approach somebody yourself than allow yourself to become obliged to a bore, or an aspirant guide, or anybody else who comes across like they have an agenda. Also, when you are travelling rough for a long period, it genuinely helps to take the odd break – an afternoon with a book in the garden of a smart hotel can, for instance, be tremendously therapeutic.
With Kim Wildman
Most feedback from female travellers suggests that Ethiopia is a relatively safe country for single women travellers. The risk of rape or seriously threatening harassment is probably lower than in many Westernised countries. From this female updater’s perspective, Ethiopia has been the easiest, most non-threatening African country I have travelled in for work, and not once over the three months I conducted my research for the Bradt guide was I threatened or harassed in any way. If anything, I was probably shown more respect. As a fellow female traveller Hisako Tajima also claimed: ‘As a solo female traveller, I found Ethiopia to be a very easy and friendly country, refreshingly free of amorous male advances that make countries like Egypt and Turkey such a chore.’
The most regular complaint from any female travellers is teenage boys yelling out the F-word from across the street, something to which male travellers are also subjected. Yelling out obscenities at tourists is not an everyday occurrence (unless you decide to live in Shashemene), and it is unlikely to happen when you are in the company of a respected guide or another local person. Although unpleasant, it is ultimately a less innocuous variation on the sort of verbal crap that all single travellers have to put up with from time to time in Ethiopia.
One place that several female travellers have found threatening is the Mercato market in Addis Ababa. Fran Gohd, who found the country safe and friendly in general, writes: ‘We went to the market. We were the only women and were given hostile looks and hissed at repeatedly. I was called the F-word several times after I didn’t give in to the men asking me for money. I was asked by a 12-year-old boy if I wanted to have sex. This got worse as we approached the part of the market where they sold chat. I felt like I could’ve been dragged off the street and disappeared without trace.’
Women travellers are naturally urged to avoid staying at hotels at the brothel-cum-barroom end of the price scale. Outside of Addis Ababa, no respectable Ethiopian woman would dream of going to a local bar, since Ethiopian men assume that any woman they see in a bar is a prostitute. While they might recognise that this isn’t the case with a female traveller, hanging about in the lowest shoestring hotels does place you in an environment where motives might be misinterpreted.
On the subject of dress, Ethiopia has a substantial Muslim population, and in rural areas particularly both Muslims and Christians tend to dress modestly. In general it is good sense to look to what the local women are wearing and follow their lead. Anna Rank has this to say: ‘If I wear sleeveless clothes then I tend to get a constant stream of comments and stares, although this does not particularly bother me in Addis. I would not dress in this manner in smaller towns where faranjis are few and far between.’ Fran Gohd again: ‘We came prepared with skirts and headscarves, but there was no need to wear them. We wore pants/trousers and that was acceptable. I saw some women travellers wearing shorts, but I’m not sure that I’d feel comfortable with that unless they extended below the knee and even then I’d think twice.’
A couple of readers have highlighted the problems specifically facing black female travellers in Ethiopia, where women retain a somewhat subservient role by Western standards. European women are not expected to fit the mould, but nobody seems quite certain on which side of the chasm to place black Western women. Black women who travel alone in Ethiopia are in for a strange time, and they will often experience African sexual attitudes at first hand. The obvious area of solution is to dress and carry yourself in a manner that precludes confusion: don’t come with a rucksack full of flowing African dresses and bright blouses, but rather wear jeans or preppy clothes, things that would rarely be seen on an Ethiopian woman.
On a practical level female travellers should note that finding sanitary products, in particular tampons, is nigh impossible outside of the capital so stock up before you depart Addis.
One final point is that you should be aware that when Ethiopians ask you to play with them, they are not suggesting a quick grope but that you make conversation – the Amharic techawot means both to talk and to play.
Travelling with a disability
You can find general information and advice about disabled travel in Africa at Gordon Rattray’s excellent website: www.able-travel.com. In addition, the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (www.ecdd-ethiopia.org) have produced a detailed guide entitled Accessible Addis Ababa. It is available in pdf format from the centre by contacting them via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The centre also has plans to produce a countrywide guide in the future.