Life of an Expat: My Experience in Mekelle, Ethiopia

expat life in Ethiopia - interview

Some time ago, I gave this interview for an expat blog, sharing my experience about living in the countryside Ethiopia. As it was eventually never published, I thought it is a good idea to share it here on my blog.
Hope it will be informative and entertaining, but most of all hope it will answer some questions about what it is and how it feels to be an expat in a country that is so different from your own.

 

At Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia

What inspired you to become an expat? Why did you choose city/country?Did you go alone, or did you have a friend/significant other with you?

Becoming an expat was not my choice although I enjoy this way of life very much. The reason for my expat experiences was the job of my ex-partner who is a civil engineer and usually works in underdeveloped or less developed countries; countries that have much more to teach us than the ones we call ‘developed’.

How long were you an expat and did you ever go home during that time?

I spent in Ethiopia almost a year and went home every three months for a month.

 

Abraha Atsbaha area near Mekelle

What was your first impression of your new home?

The first two months I was in shock. Not a cultural but poverty shock. Coming from a country where life is simple, but people have access to all modern amenities, observing the life of the Ethiopian people was devastating for me. As I was living in the countryside, almost all local people had limited or no access to water, electricity and basic health care. 

Local’s life near Debre Damo rock-hewn monastery

How did you feel when you first arrived? Scared, excited, etc…?

I am never scared; I am always excited when I arrive at a new place. There is so much to learn! Even in one of the poorest places in the world, Ethiopia, I was excited because although it is a Christian Orthodox country (as it is mine, Bulgaria), the culture was so different!

How did you spend your first day in Ethiopia?

The first two days after I arrived in Addis Ababa, my ex-partner and I travelled by car to Mekelle (the capital of Tigray province). At that time, no asphalt road was connecting these two cities (even now, when there is an asphalt road, it takes more than 14 hours’ drive). It was my first real adventure and familiarization with the country.

How did you support yourself abroad? (i.e.: teaching, freelancing, etc.)

I didn’t have a work permit in Ethiopia and back then didn’t have a travel blog yet. My ex-partner worked on the project he was assigned on; the project was the reason we were in the country.

How did you spend your free time?

My favourite moments were weekends when we could travel around the country and this way, we visited all the major sites in Tigray Province. Fifteen years ago, this province was not popular for tourism but now, after finishing the road project my ex-partner worked on (asphalt road connecting Mekelle with the capital) it is easily accessible. So now Tigray becomes more popular to tourists, especially because of its rock-hewn churches.  But at the time when I lived there, it was a traveller’s dream – no mass tourism, no tourist buses; only pure and authentic Ethiopian experience.

Typical life in the countryside of Ethiopia

Another favorite of mine was the weekly visit to the local market in Mekelle. There are so many colors, smiles and traditional products that can be seen there. And people loved that I take photos of them. They were not seeing often a blond foreigner woman wandering around and enjoying the interaction with them. It was precious for me that they would let me know them.

Were you able to travel within the country and abroad? What was a favorite destination and why?

Ethiopia is a very large country. As the region where I lived is in north, I could explore mainly the territories north of Addis Ababa. The old capitals of Ethiopia – Axum and Gonder were interesting; the Lalibela UNESCO heritage site was already very crowded and somewhat difficult to visit; the lakes – Tana, Langano and others, pleasant to see and enjoy, especially because Ethiopia’s landscapes are very dry and vegetation poor.

One of the old capitals of Ethiopia – Gonder

During my stay in Ethiopia, we travelled to Mozambique and South Africa. The several days in Maputo were incredible. After months spent in the soaked with poverty Ethiopia, the Mozambican capital looked to me as a European city with a Caribbean twist. In South Africa, we visited Kruger Park and enjoyed my first close encounter with the African animals. Then, I didn’t visit the rest of South Africa but later I visited Cape Town, its wine regions and even went back to Kruger Park on a safari in a private game reserve.  

If you could go back in time to before you became an expat and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to go deeper – be closer to the local people, listen to them more, collect stories and try traveling and exploring more the country. Chances come and go. Make good use of them.

How did you meet people in your new city?

Mainly on the market, shops and in connection with my ex-partner’s job. Mekelle is (was) a city where, in big contrast with the capital Addis Ababa, the social life was very limited. As expats, we were meeting other foreigners at house parties and with the locals we were having fun in discos and some of the few restaurants. The best (for me) was when we were invited to attend a locals’ celebrations as it allowed me to have an inside look of their life.

Talk a little about the language barrier {or lack thereof}.

This was a big problem. Ethiopian people at that time were not very affluent of English although they study it from an early age at school. There is an important engineering university in Mekelle and therefore some of the best educated young people were living in the city. Outside of the university community, it was very difficult to have a longer, deeper conversation with the locals.  The good thing was that Tigrinya people are very social, easily smiling and curious. It helped to communicate with them even if the language barrier existed. On my side, I learned very few words in Tigrinya (the official language of Ethiopia is Amharic but in Mekelle people speak mainly Tigrinya). Something I now regret. I could do better and have a better relationship with the locals. 

expat interview living in Ethiopia

What was your favorite local dish?

Wow, that’s a tricky question because … I didn’t have one. The traditional Ethiopian dish is injera, but I hated it. On a contrary, I liked eating all the sweet and juicy tropical fruits that Africa offers. They were all imported, as Tigray Region’s soil is very poor, but were coming from neighboring African countries.

What was the hardest part about being an expat for you?

The hardest was the lack of social life. The social contacts were very limited. The region is practically desert (as a landscape. Even if there is a big number of Ethiopians living around, for a foreigner it is difficult to enrich its life with interesting acquaintances. Of course, the fact that I didn’t work while living in Mekelle didn’t help. But even for my ex-partner it was a struggle.

Expat life in Mekelle Ethiopia
Views of Tigray Region

What was the best part about being an expat for you?

The best about being an expat is learning in deep about new cultures, connecting with people that have a totally different life experience from yours. All this help you become a better person, because you start to understand the others and why they are what they are.

The truth is that this whole cultural diversity in the world is a result of the different physical and historical conditions. You start accepting the nation’s mentality easier even if it looks totally strange to you. For example, if you know the Ethiopian history and the fact that the country was never colonized, unlike most of the other African countries, you will understand why Ethiopian people are so proud and believe that they are the ‘whites’ of Africa.

What is a major misconception that you have encountered about being an expat?

People who never have been expats believe that our life in a foreign country is always “flowers and roses”, as we say in my country. They believe everything is only about adventure and having a good time.

The everyday struggle to adjust to the new conditions, the homesickness and the loneliness are buried deep, they are not seen on the surface. And people without expat experience cannot understand that living abroad isn’t just an adventure but also a painful growth.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time as an expat?

The happiest memory I can think of is the weekend we spent on Langano Lake. The peaceful moments (we went there out of the tourist season) when I was lying on the beach, knitting a scarf (yes, Wi-Fi was an unknown concept in this part of the world), looking at the sunset and enjoying the silence. Felt like the time has stopped. It was priceless.

At Lake Langano

What did you miss most about home?

My son, my family and my mother’s cooking. And the talks with my girlfriends, of course.

Would you do it again? Why or why not?

Yes, but not for so long. Not in Ethiopia. Three months is more than enough because the conditions are hard, especially for a woman.

 

 

Nile River Ethiopia
Nile River Ethiopia

Although it was a very hard experience for me living in Ethiopia, I learned a lot – about the world and myself. Tough times make us who we are.

Have you lived in a foreign country for more than three months? What was most difficult for you during the period?

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