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“So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t — that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decision to make?”

Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuscinski The Other

For as long as human settlements have existed, walls have been erected around them. And for as long as civilizations have been aware of each other, they have been fascinated, terrified, and revolted by one another. The more different the other culture is, the deeper all of these reactions are. The original yearning to travel beyond one’s borders came not from curiosity and the spirit of discovery, but from the desire to conquer – to acquire land, goods, religious followers, and slaves. Even scientific exploration was mostly belittling to “primitive” or “savage” foreign peoples.

Anthropologist Wade Davis explains the universality of ethnocentrism:

“…[W]e need to remember that all cultures are famously ethnocentric and myopic and focused on their own interpretations of reality. The names that many indigenous people give themselves translate as “The People,” the implication being that everyone else is savage beyond the pale. This is something that is found in cultures throughout the world.”

The ancient Hindus referred to foreigners as mleccha – “dirty ones; barbarians.” An old Chinese belief held that a non-Chinese person was the devil’s spawn, or at best a victim of fate who was unlucky enough to not be born Chinese. The Ancient Greek idiom “πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος” (pas mē Hellēn barbaros) meant “whoever is not Greek is a barbarian.”

In the more recent Western world, equality of the Other wasn’t even considered to be a possibility until the late eighteenth century during the Enlightenment, but even that didn’t stop virulent racism and anti-Semitism that reached their respective apexes with slavery and the Holocaust. Even now there is still open hostility towards “job-stealing” foreigners in many backwaters of the West, even in those countries built on immigration (despite the fact that immigrants actually decrease crime and cause economic revitalization), not to mention towards Aboriginals in Canada and Australia, and Muslims and the Roma in Europe.

The Other is often used as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills. As xenophobia expert Professor Robert S. Wistrich writes, “The Other (who is generally assumed to share a different moral and social code) must take the blame and responsibility for everything that goes wrong in “normal” human society.” It is also used as a way to define one’s own national identity, especially when that identity is fragile or artificially constructed. A fairly benign example of this can be seen in Canada. Ask someone what it means to be Canadian, and he or she will often say “It means we’re not American.”

* * *

As a white person in Sub-Saharan Africa, you will often find yourself on the receiving end of one of a number of terms – mzungu is the most common, used in eastern, central, and southern Africa. It’s a term used to mark an outsider; an “Other.” When that Other is, like me, a Westerner, the relationship assumes a schizophrenic love-hate tone. Fascination; jealousy; idolization; suspicion.

I’ve been called yabancı in Turkey, inostranets in Russia, mzungu in Rwanda, and ferenj in Ethiopia. Becoming an Other in the eyes of people who to me are themselves Others is a strange experience indeed. The great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński, who reported from all over Africa for forty years, expounds on this phenomenon:

“Let us point out that the concept of the Other is usually defined from the white man’s — the European’s — point of view. But today, when I walk through a village in the mountains of Ethiopia, a crowd of children runs after me, pointing at me in merriment and calling out: “Ferenchi! Ferenchi!” — which means “foreigner, other.” This is an example of the dismantling of the hierarchy of the world and its cultures. Others are indeed Others, but for those Others, I am the one who is Other.”

Kapuściński goes on to point out that “the Other is a mirror into which you peer, or in which you are observed, a mirror that unmasks and denudes, which we would prefer to avoid.” We fall into the habit of thinking of ourselves and our own culture as “normal,” especially for Westerners whose culture currently dominates the globe, so what an experience it is when we realize that we are the strange foreigners outside of our own small world.

In Ethiopia, where I currently reside, I’m branded a ferenj. The word is derived from Frank, the ancient Germanic tribe. Ferenj probably originated in the Holy Land during the Crusades in the 12th century, when it more generally meant European. The Spanish and Portuguese, who were strongly influenced by nobles and crusaders from northern France, came to India, Persia, and Ethiopia during the Middle Ages in search of the mythical Christian ruler Prester John (who was never more than a legend), and they too were referred to using this word. Outside of Ethiopia, the word can also be found in Sudan, and derivatives can be found in India, Iran, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Neither mzungu nor ferenj can be simply translated as “foreigner.” A black African in a foreign country in Africa is never labelled with these words. However, a white African is, as are people (usually, though not always) from Asia and the Middle East. Further complicating matters, a black non-African, for example an African American, is not always referred to using these words, but a mixed-race person of partial African descent often is. Perhaps the best translation is simply a non-black person.

What these words do, more than anything else, is dehumanize. They are not said to you so much as at you, the way that one speaks to a dog. You become a two-dimensional characterization. The term is usually not meant to be cruel; it’s simply thoughtless, in that no thought goes into it. If most people sat down and thought about what it must feel like to be in a foreign country thousands of miles from one’s home, loved ones, culture, conveniences, and language, and on top of that to have strangers on the street scream “Hey, white person!!” at them every few minutes, they would probably reconsider. It’s not said to hurt your feelings, but rather because the purveyors of the word don’t take into consideration that you have feelings. They simply don’t think about it, because they’ve likely never had a meaningful conversation with a foreigner (or perhaps haven’t even met one). It is the faultless product of isolation and ignorance.

Though Ethiopians on a one-on-one basis are more often than not warm, dignified, and hospitable, the treatment of foreigners here has often been noted. For instance, the eastern city of Harar used to be infamous for killing or imprisoning outsiders. “The bigoted ruler and barbarous people threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within their walls,” wrote the famous explorer Richard Burton, the first European to travel to the city without being killed or imprisoned, which he managed to do 150 years ago using his title of Haji and his command of Amharic and a plethora of other African languages. He described living “amongst a people who detest foreigners.”

The contemporary irascible travel writer Paul Theroux, who’s lived in two countries and speaks two languages of Sub-Saharan Africa and has travelled in a rugged fashion to virtually every country on the continent, provided a characteristically blunt account of his visit to Harar:

“They disliked the very presence of outsiders, observing the old belief that foreigners make Harar unsafe and unlucky. It was not unusual for a person – usually aged and toothless and wild looking – to rush from a doorway and howl at me. Invariably, when I made eye contact with a Harari I saw distrust and menace, and usually the person seemed to mutter something against me.”

Theroux recounted how white people living in the town reported to him that they had even been spit on by locals. He was, like Burton, nonetheless enthralled by Harar, referring to it as “one of the great destinations in Africa.”

I myself hear the word ferenj on a daily basis in Addis. Local young men, staring like cats, howl it on the street, sometimes with a friendly smile, sometimes with a menacing glare, sometimes with astonishment, but usually with a look of simple amusement. My Ethiopian girlfriend Mahi tries to explain the combination of fascination and lack of understanding: “They look at you to find something new. They want to see how you move, how you talk, how you smile.”

I walk down the street with an open umbrella, failing to notice the rain has stopped, and a passerby laughs and says, “Is it raining, ferenj?” I get into a taxi van where I find a tipsy girl and her friends, and hear the word “ferenj” over and over again, interspersed with hysterical laughter. I hang my arm out of another taxi van one sweltering afternoon and someone pinches it hard, simply to see my reaction. A young street kid shouts “Mista, give money!” I shake my head no. “Fuck you!” he responds, indignant. I walk into a restaurant late one night and a group of well-dressed men who have been drinking and probably speak English burst out laughing simply at the sight of me.

At least I’m fairly certain they’re laughing at me. Perhaps they even hate me. Perhaps everyone here hates me.

These are the thoughts, however irrational, that enter my head. Such conditions instil in one a powerful paranoia, especially when considering past misdeeds by white European foreigners. Kapuściński is once again instructive as he illustrates this paranoia:

“…the issue of skin color suddenly loomed large. In Poland, in Europe, I never thought about it. Here, in Africa, it was becoming the most important determinant of my identity, and for simple people, the sole one. The white man. White, therefore a colonialist, a pillager, an occupier. I subjugated Africa, conquered Tanganyika, put to the sword the entire tribe of the man just now standing before me, the tribe of his ancestors. I made him an orphan. Moreover, a humiliated and powerless orphan. Eternally hungry and sick. Yes, when he looks at me, this is exactly what he must be thinking: the white man, the one who took everything from me, who beat my grandfather on his back, who raped my mother. Here he is before me, let me take a good look at him!”

Perhaps this is why most non-Africans here spend their time almost exclusively with other foreigners or completely Westernized locals, eat at expensive Western-style restaurants, and travel from one gated compound to another in their huge SUVs or private taxis. I am critical of this lifestyle and avoid it as much as possible, but I understand it and I sympathize.

* * *

One day a friendly young girl from a humble background who doesn’t speak English knocks at my door. Rather than speak a language she won’t understand, I try communicating with her using the few words of Amharic I know. She can’t control herself as her whole body convulses with laughter, finally falling to the ground. For her, my inability to speak Amharic is the equivalent of not being able to speak at all. I wasn’t offended, as she didn’t mean an ounce of disrespect, but it was a fascinating experience.

Many cultures define the “Other” as someone who doesn’t speak one’s own language. For instance, the Arabic term ajam refers to non-Arabic speakers, and therefore non-Arabs. The Greek term barbarian is translated as “someone who babbles,” implying that if someone speaks another language, they’re not even really speaking at all. The Aztec had the same notion –  anyone who couldn’t speak Nahuatl wasn’t considered a human being.

It’s difficult to wrap our minds around our mother tongue not being understood by others, to imagine hearing ourselves speaking and not understanding the words. What does English sound like to non-English speakers? We’ll simply never know.

This same girl washes our laundry one day, sees some brown dried blood on my sock, and excitedly exclaims to my girlfriend, “You see, I told you white people are different than we are!” not realizing that when anyone’s blood dries it loses its red colour. Another time she declines to walk with me in public for fear her friends will tease her.

There are many negative stereotypes about white people here – they are selfish, only capable of living in luxury, phlegmatic, and their lack of knowledge of local customs often makes them look foolish or rude. Often the complements I receive are roundabout slurs of the ferenj. “You’re different from the other whites…You share…You want to experience everything…Only your skin is white [but not your behaviour].” Having said that, I still devour the compliments with glee, and generally agree with most criticisms of Westerners and the West in general (which has led to a lot of animosity from a lot of white people).

* * *

The calls of ferenj on the streets are tolerable and understandable given the context; they range from slightly charming to a mere nuisance. However, a far uglier form the relationship between Habesha (Ethiopian) and ferenj takes is the virulent hostility towards interethnic romantic relationships, and the resulting street harassment. This comes exclusively from men, usually young men. Locals insist the harassment has nothing to do with race, but it’s a dubious claim. I am told the hostility comes from the fact that Ethiopian women seen with a white man are assumed to be with them for purely financial reasons. This is absurd, since one of the primary functions of marriage across the developing world is economic security, and even actual prostitutes aren’t harangued the way women with white men are (Habesha men with white women are similarly scorned, but usually not publicly). This xenophobia is even harder to understand when considering the fact that even the biblical Moses, himself a ferenj, was married to an Ethiopian woman.

This is an exceedingly uncomfortable subject for most Ethiopians, an incredibly proud and nationalistic people, and even for foreigners wary of being seen as insolent. Sometimes even acknowledging the existence of this phenomenon is seen as being “disrespectful” to the country. I get the strong impression that I’m not supposed to talk about such things, but Mahi, the victim of these assaults, is the girl I love, and I refuse to hold my silence.

The idea that pouring praise and ignoring the negative aspects of a country isn’t respectful – it’s patronizing. There is also a vast difference between insulting a culture and criticizing it, or merely recounting the occurrence of uncomfortable events. I understand the inclination to say only positive things about a country in which you are a guest, but when you live in a country, when you work and pay taxes there, when you spend most of your time studying its language and culture, you earn a right to an opinion. Imagine if a Canadian told an immigrant that they are not permitted to have a critical opinion about the country. I find that immigrants in Canada often have the most insightful criticisms of the country, and I’m glad to hear them.

We are advised by those who have never experienced this phenomenon to simply “ignore” the harassment, but that’s no way to live. It’s easy for me, but not for Mahi. Imagine being openly insulted several times a day by your own people in your own homeland. Turning a blind eye is akin to defeat. Often I’m told that this is part of Ethiopian culture (I would suggest it’s one part of Addis’s culture), and I should therefore “respect it.” But I wonder, if an Ethiopian man’s girlfriend were insulted on the streets of New York or Paris, would he simply hold his tongue and “respect” the local culture?

I’ve become obsessed, as a journalist, a political scientist, and a participant, with finding a coherent explanation for this hostility to interracial couples, especially after people who have travelled all over the continent tell me that it doesn’t happen elsewhere in Africa (I can certainly confirm it never happened in Rwanda).

Some point out that it has far more to do with the virulent misogyny common throughout the country than with xenophobia. Women from all walks of life are regularly harassed on the street, sometimes violently, not to mention in the workplace and at home.

Others insist it’s exclusively the product of uneducated poor people, which is incorrect (it often comes from well-dressed people who speak good English), and a poor excuse – when did education and wealth become prerequisites for empathy and compassion? And in small towns and villages harassment isn’t generally a problem (In Bekoji we were certainly never aware of it). The problem is Addis. When people come from their villages to a big city, they often lose something, a certain rural propriety. Perhaps the hardships of everyday life in Addis – the traffic, corruption, crime, noise, pollution, low wages and high rent – put everyone on edge.

Most of the harassment simply comes in the form of crude snickering. But it goes beyond that on a daily basis (though never regresses into violence; Addis is not a particularly violent city). In fact we’ve hardly gone more than 15 minutes in the streets without some mean-spirited comment.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in a nice part of Addis a prepubescent boy comes up to Mahi and asks her how much for a fuck. Some men in a restaurant we dine in advise me to keep an eye on my bags while in the presence of a prostitute. A merchant in a market calls Mahi a traitor to her kind for telling me the appropriate price of an item he’s giving me the ludicrous ferenj price for. A wealthy woman advises Mahi that “White men are good for sex, but you need to marry your own kind.” And on and on and on.

The strangest encounter yet came one night after dark in Addis’s Arat Kilo neighbourhood when my girlfriend and I were walking home. A young man, emulating the swaying gait of African American hip hop style learnt from movies and music videos, wearing expensive baggy clothing, and speaking good English in false Ebonics, shouted at my girlfriend, calling her a slut and far worse for being with a white man. How absurd is the space where Westernization and xenophobia collide. It’s gotten to the ludicrous point where I often have to walk 30 paces behind Mahi on the street when she needs a break from the harassment.

To be fair, many foreign men here treat Ethiopia, renowned for its beautiful women, like an amusement park, sleeping with as many (often under-aged) girls as they can get their sweaty hands on. They do things here that they would never try back home. These men establish a negative reputation for all white people. However, this still doesn’t excuse the catcalls Mahi gets. I hold the firm belief that if most people on the street knew the story of how we met, they would be ashamed of their behaviour.

But why Ethiopia? One would think the only country in Sub-Sahara to avoid colonization would be the least resentful of white people, not the most. That’s not to say the country has been free of deleterious encounters with the outside world, though.

For over a millennium, the Axumite kingdom had an isolationist foreign policy and was wary of the world outside its borders, which it experienced in the form of European imperialism and slave-taking Muslim Jihadists. A thousand years ago, the Jewish tribal queen Gudit sacked Aksum and destroyed many Christian symbols. Starting in the late fifteenth century, Muslim invaders began encroaching on the peripheries of the kingdom, by now under the Solomonic dynasty, and the ensuing wars left it devastated. Portuguese Jesuits called in to help fend off the invaders converted Emperor Za-Dingil to Catholicism at the turn of the seventeenth century, and a violent rebellion in response deposed the emperor. After that, virtually no foreigners were allowed into Abyssinia for 130 years. Emperor Tewodros arrested the British consul and other Europeans in the kingdom in 1868 after the British government failed to promptly answer his request for an alliance. In response, a British army invaded and quickly defeated the emperor in battle, after which he shot himself with a pistol given to him by Queen Victoria. Egypt tried to conquer Ethiopia in 1875 and 1876 to secure the headwaters of the Blue Nile, but was defeated by Emperor Yohannes IV.

And then of course, there were the Italians. They invaded in 1890 and established a colony in Eritrea, but were defeated by the legendary Emperor Menelik II at the famous Battle of Adwa in 1896. In October of 1935, they returned. Five hundred thousand Italians equipped with poison gas, tanks, and fighter planes invaded the country while the League of Nations dithered. Six months later Addis was occupied territory, Italian colonists were pouring in, and Fascist Blackshirts were slaughtering Ethiopian civilians by the tens of thousands. Their brutal occupation lasted until 1941, when dogged Ethiopian guerrillas used the Italians’ own captured weapons to defeat them.

* * *

The very idea of an “Ethiopian” is essentially an artificial construct created for political reasons. There are over 80 ethnic groups and 90 languages in the country, and each of them have been profoundly influenced by outsiders. As I’ve written before, anthropologist Ralph Linton speculated that external cultural influences account for as much as 90 percent of any culture’s content.

Ethiopia is no exception. It has influenced and been influenced by the outside world since the legendary Land of Punt (probably in eastern Tigray) started trading with the Ancient Egyptians 4,500 years ago. Arab culture had a profound impact upon Ethiopia (and vice versa). Migrants from southern Arabia who started arriving 3,000 years ago contributed Semitic language, writing, and stone architecture. The very word Abyssinia, from which Habesha is derived, is of Arabic origin (from the Arabic word Habash, the name of one of the first Ethiopian groups the Arabs came in contact with). The first Abyssinians to become Christian did so from the influence of Byzantine traders, and the empire’s decision to officially adopt Christianity in 340 AD was influenced by the Egyptian Coptic Church. A thousand years ago, trade flourished with Arabs, Armenians, and Greeks. Local art historically had Coptic, Byzantium, and Syrian influences. Foreign artists and craftsmen were summoned from places such as Italy and Greece to join the royal court in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Soccer, now in competition with running for the title of Ethiopia’s national sport, was introduced by foreigners in Addis in 1923. Ethiopian music has been heavily influenced by English language rock, jazz, and funk, as well as Japanese and Sudanese music.

Kapuściński outlined three choices that people had when they encountered the Other: “They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.” The third choice seems the obvious one, but more often than not, it’s overlooked. I usually put the burden of making the third choice firmly on the foreigners, especially when they are educated, worldly Westerners. After all, it is we who have chosen to travel, and to become the Other. Perhaps one must first experience being a foreigner firsthand before one can accept the Other. Only then can we realize that we are all Others.

Please see here for my other writings from Ethiopia.


Please see here for an article written back in 2011 about an Ethiopian woman who married a Western man. In her experience, the harassment didn’t get any better after they got married:

“Zewde is glad that they lived most of their married life outside of Ethiopia because she feels that many people are unable to accept them as a real couple. When they came to Ethiopia on short visits she dreaded taking her husband to social events because of the stares and whispered comments. It was particularly worse when she took him to the countryside to introduce him to her elderly father. Neighbors there, unlike their counterparts in Addis Ababa, did not even bother to hide their comments behind covered mouths. They freely made sport of all that they found strange in her husband’s appearance. Women hid their babies, children ran away at his approach and elderly people shied away from sitting near him.

“I was hurt even if I knew it was no different from the way I had first reacted to him. He had really tried to be accepted and practiced the correct way to address different members of my family for weeks. But they laughed at him when he spoke our language and made him feel ridiculous. I decided never to take him back to the countryside and we’ve never been back.”

And please see here for an essay written in 2014 by an American Peace Corps volunteer, describing what it’s like to be a white woman in Ethiopia:

“I want you to know what it looks like to be a foreigner and a woman, to be a target for unceasing ostracism and contempt…Every other day, at the very least, for the past 21 months, I have been sexually harassed…In our All-Volunteer Survey, over half of our volunteers surveyed reported that they are sexually harassed at least a few times each week. A quarter of all the volunteers surveyed reported they are sexually harassed more than once each day. When these surveys were compared to those throughout the rest of Africa’s Peace Corps posts, Ethiopia ranked First in sexual harassment.”

One of the comments at the bottom, by one ‘S.F.,’ an Ethiopian man, was quite extraordinary:

“I felt the urge to resist and say you are defining “Ethiopian men” based on a small sample of despicable men, who may very well be living in the stone age. Of course, that would be a lie. It wasn’t that long ago that I sat behind the walls of my parents’ house and made cat calls with my friend Mikias. It was a source of entertainment for the both of us. It was an after-school activity. What my friend and I did after school was nothing compared to what my friends who went to another school near Beherawi Theatre did. They would regularly visit the school at the end of the day, which is around 10 Ethiopian Time (4PM), to grope breasts and buttocks of female students. He and his other friends would go in groups of three or more for the very purpose of groping and sexually harassing women.”

49 thoughts on “Foreigner

  1. While I am fascinated by many of the things you discussed and elaborated efficiently from culture to history of Ethiopia, I am very baffled by the way you described how “the people of Addis,” react to the “outsiders,” very negatively. Granted it has nearly been 20 years since I left Addis and became “an outsider,” myself in the US. I was born and raised in Addis where I lived until my early 20’s. I honestly felt like you were talking about a completely different Addis from the one I grew up in. Call me naive or sheltered, but I was pretty much around “foreigners,” most of my late teens till the time I left Addis in Sep of 1995, and I had yet to witness the “harassment,” or the “glares,” or the “rude comments” you described in you essay. In my experience, the interactions of most Ethiopians with the foreigners had been one that is of fascination, curiosity, and the desire to be beneficiary of the preconceived idea that all “ferenjis'” are rich and generous, which is why little street kids used to run around ‘hollering, ferenji give me money,’ every time they saw one walking on the streets of Addis. From the English books I’d read growing up and the movies I was exposed to, I myself thought that “ferenji” people were the most romantic and generous people ever … dating or marrying one was something people looked up on as a good thing not a “curse,” as you described it. Anyway I am sad to say that if what you described is indeed the Addis today, my city of youth has definitely transformed into something that is foreign to me. I do visit Addis every few years, but my visits are usually short and spent traveling around the country that I have not noticed the animosity toward foreigners that you describe so much. Life as an immigrant in the US has never been a smooth sailing for me either. However, I am a better person as a result of my rich and various experiences that I have come to acquire that I wouldn’t have otherwise should I stayed “home.”

    Anyway, while there is a gap in my knowledge, I think your article was great overall.

    • Well, to be fair, I didn’t write that people in Addis have a mostly negative opinion towards foreigners. I wrote that the impression is usually one of amusement. I haven’t been to Addis in the past, but everybody tells me the xenophobia is getting worse every year, which is a bit strange since you’d think they’d get more and more used to foreigners.

      I do find that a lot of Habeshas and most foreigners are just totally out of touch with their own city. I’m not saying I’m uniquely “in touch” with it, but my Habesha friends ARE uniquely in touch with it, so I think I have a pretty unique perspective.

      Thank you very much for your comment!

      • they don’t like foreigners in the long run because they start to get to know them better, the way they are, the way they think, and what they did to Africa…that’s why they will hate you, when they know you more, they see behind the fake-ness and see your true self, That is truth because I have experienced it my self…you might be a nice guy but I have come to conclusion as most africans and the rest of the world are coming to realize that you guys are truly a very messed up people.

  2. lol typical ferinji, stating opinions and rumors as facts…you should be happy with the respect Ethiopian people give you for they don’t know how your people treat them when they come to your countries…if you don’t like it, you are free to leave the country!!!

    • Yes, you’re right, if you come to Canada people will yell “Hey black man!” on the street, overcharge you, and if you dare date a white girl, they’ll call her a slut. You’re obviously a very well-travelled guy…

      • man i live in the states, I see how white people treat Black people, I never thought people can be this cruel to other people…Ethiopians don’t know this, but its all changing and that is why the more they know about your deeds the more they hate you…its just fact

      • Sure, America can be a racist place. Canada and Ethiopia too. But you can’t talk about “white people” as if we are all one big family, as if each individual white person is responsible for colonialism and all the other horrible things the West has done. Most white people hate colonialism, hate racism, and don’t agree with much of the politics of the West.

        And don’t talk about Canada if you’ve never lived there. I would never talk about Ethiopia without having lived here and done extensive research.

      • I don’t care, In fact I think He and his evil people should not step foot in Africa, Look at what they have done, everywhere they go the destroy things, Every one of the human family hates them, Asians, South Americans, Africans, they have done everyone wrong, still they treat everyone like shit and expect to be treated like royalty…LOOK what happened to the real owners of the land now they call “Canada” USA” “Australia”, they killed those people…this people are evil and that is why our ancestors fought them…They should never step foot in Ethiopia if i had my way.

      • You’re right EthiopianLion, most Western governments have done horrible things, just like governments everywhere. Slavery, colonialism, Cold War power politics, etc. But so have Ethiopian governments. Remember the Derg’s Red Terror? Remember Haile Selassie having thousand dollar meals while his people starved? Remember when slavery existed in Ethiopia for thousands of years?

  3. Very interesting read, I always find it fascinating when a white person becomes a member of the visible minority in a foreign culture.

    Having lived my whole life as the ‘other’ in Canada (Manitoba, Alberta, and now Quebec) I can relate to everything you’ve written about in this post. The shades of xenophobia in Canada take on a slightly lighter hue, but that is only because people have become accustomed to practicing a polite racism.

    • Ha, I’m actually from Winnipeg! Yeah, Canadians have this very polite way of being quite cruel sometimes, you’re right about that. I apologize for that. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Very interesting. To me, the main culprit that explains this is patriarchy. The underlying thinking is that Ethiopian men have ownership over “their” women and they are justified in censuring any woman that dares defy the proud Habesha man’s birth right to keep her to himself. This was in full display during the still unabated embarrassing saga with Big Brother Africa’s Betty, who had a sexual relationship with a fellow housemate – it is no secret that the anger people felt towards Betty was due in no small part to the fact that the housemate in question was a Sierra Leonean man. Anyways, thanks for this, I enjoy your writings on Ethiopia a lot.

  5. Having grown up in Addis, then left for a long while, and returned recently I was dismayed to find that the culture I left behind as a young boy had taken on slightly darker overtones in my absence. Off course, as a young boy I hardly noticed (nor cared) about the sexual dynamics of my culture but having returned after entering manhood in the west I was frankly astonished at the severely dysfunctional relationship between men and women in this society. But that’s a topic that deserves an entire blog post of its own.

    To address your points specifically, I think what you and Mahi have been subjected to stems from the fact that in any culture (not just ours) a man is expected to provide income, shelter, and food for his family. I would go even further and say it is inextricably linked to the concept of “manhood.” In a poor country, where most young men, have very dim prospects of finding a job that would pay enough to afford a house, or even a car this goal can seem almost unattainable. This would not normally be a problem. After all, when most of the suitors are from the same socio-economic background you have a more-or-less level playing field for every one. However, when you introduce a foreigner, who by virtue of being able to travel to another country has proven he is of a better socio-economic status, you completely change the whole dynamics of the game. Essentially, just by being there, by simply being who you are, you’ve already eliminated 99% of the other players on the field. You get to pick the best mates and the most beautiful girls from the pool of females most sought after (those considered of marriageable age). Hence, the hostility from young men who see you as encroaching on their territory. And, as in most patriarchal societies it’s rarely that the man gets blamed for this state of affairs.

    This is not unique to Ethiopia. This would be the situation pretty much every where in Africa. However, in Addis (I am deliberately singling out our capital city here) there is another dimension to this. Among educated urbanites there is a sort of schizophrenic duality of how we perceive ourselves. On the one hand there is this feeling of pride that we were never colonized, that we have a long and rich history as a (more-or-less unified) nation state, that we are the political capital of Africa. On the other hand there is the visible fact that we have fallen far behind the rest of the world in terms of development. That to most of the western world our country is synonymous with famine and poverty. If you don’t believe this scan the #Ethiopia hashtag on twitter some time. Every once in a while you’ll see the odd comment of “Missed lunch today. Starving. #Ethiopia”. This is in sharp contrast to all the foreign missions, organizations, and NGOs that work out of Addis. The typical Addis resident probably rubs shoulders with more westerners than the average African. I suspect that this leads to frustration and anger that (even) all things being equal the typical Ethiopian female prefers a “ferenji” male to an Ethiopian.

    I suspect this may be one situation where nice guys *don’t* finish last.

    • Very insightful comments, Mike, and I agree. But I wonder, is there such hostility towards rich Ethiopians who “steal” Habesha girls from working class Habesha men? I’ve asked this to all of my Habesha friends, and they say no, so I do think there is a purely racial or at least nationalistic element to it.

      Another element is that there are many foreign men who sleep with prostitutes, often underaged, and there is a huge resentment against them. However, again I must ask, is there a resentment against Habesha men who sleep with prostitutes? I just asked some colleagues, and they said NO, and that there is definitely a huge double standard when it comes to foreigners.

      • No, there is very little hostility between Ethiopian men. The very little hostility there is arises when the girl is of one ethnic group and the man from another that the woman’s ethnic group believes is inferior or has wronged them in the past. While this isn’t so much of a problem in urban areas it is distinctly more pronounced as you move farther away from the cities. Even, if you’ve lived there your entire life there is still the feeling that you are not really of that community.

        On the subject of prostitutes, there is a classic case of doublethink. While, everyone condemns it publicly, in private the men frequent them anyways, and most women accept that most men do it anyways. But God help him if she finds out! This is probably partly due to our culture, which actively discourage women from going out to bars or clubs. Although, this is changing to some extent in Addis as more young women enter the workforce and become economically independent. One of the things that really struck me when I first came back was when I went out to a club with friends, and I realized that literally every girl in the club was either a waiter or a prostitute (and often times both). This leads to a sort of feedback loop where women are discouraged from going to clubs, so all the men find there is prostitutes, so women are even more strongly discouraged from going out, and so on… The crucial difference between Ethiopians and foreigners in this respect is that an Ethiopian man would never openly acknowledge that he is with a prostitute (nor be seen with one during the daytime). So, the resentment isn’t so much that the foreigner is with a prostitute as it is with his acknowledging it publicly. After a while people just assume that if a foreigner is with an Ethiopian girl, she must be a prostitute. As to the underage comment I can only say that I don’t think Ethiopia is the kind of destination that people frequent specifically for this reason (like some other countries).

      • I see. Yeah, I’m sure it’s not as bad as somewhere like Thailand for underaged prostitutes.

        I’ve also been told by some people that there’s less of a taboo against prostitution here than in a lot of other countries, and that some prostitutes have even risen to become prominent public figures. Is there any truth to that?

  6. You tried to make your blog sound deep but you barely scratched the surface. You talked about colonialism but foreign meddling(more exactly western) has caused and still causing innumerable suffering to that country and we are still suffering due to that. Look at the wars we are fighting in every direction now. Even the so called humanitarians are self serving, patronizing snobs who come for business. If we are xenophobic why were the Chinese construction workers able to assimilate into everyday life much easier even in the remote rural villages?

    • You are really preaching to the choir here…

      Of course foreign meddling occurred long after colonialism – Cold War power politics, “humanitarian intervention,” “development experts,” etc. I am EXTREMELY critical of so-called humanitarians and aid workers, and I agree they’re often self-righteous, and impose Western values and control.

      Chinese construction workers have assimilated well? Perhaps in some cases, but I’ve heard quite the opposite. And yes, as I say again and again and again, most Western expats are terrible at cultural adaptation, which causes a lot of resentment.

      However, none of this changes the validity of a single word I wrote.

      And I wonder, are you as critical of your own government and culture as you are of the West? Or are you simply one more in a deluge of blind nationalists?

  7. By the way I am not condoning what you and your girl friend are going through every day life. That makes me ashamed as member of the society tho I never did it personally. And about Ethiopia being a political entity, tell me which country isnt. Even canada has French and English regions which is a larger division than our tribes.And from what I hear it isnt as smooth ride as you want me to believe. Its even more true with USA. I just dont know what you wanted to convey with that statement.

    • As I want you to believe…? When did I say Canada was perfect? Why does everything have to turn into a competition here. How is what happens in Canada relevant to this topic? But I think you should at least try living there before having an opinion. I would never write about Ethiopia without having lived here.

      But thank you for your sympathy. There are a lot of great people here who have expressed similar empathy, and it is hugely appreciated, and why we stay here.

  8. Yeah, I guess you could look at it that way (that it’s less of a taboo than in some other countries). For example, there isn’t the sleaziness associated with owning an establishment that provides prostitutes like in America. As for one rising to become a public figure: I honestly don’t know. Although I suppose I could see how it could happen if she went from a working girl to owning her own shisha house or bar and then working her way into respectability. Given the low cost of living it isn’t uncommon for an expat Ethiopian/expat foreigner/rich local to setup a girl with the initial capital to start a small place of her own.

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve always wondered about the experience of foreigners residing in Addis/Ethiopia, and it was interesting to hear your perspective. Your story actually reminded me of the Pankhursts and Bambis’ of Ethiopia, who have been in living in Ethiopia for quite some time, and it made me wonder if they have had similar experience. Did you have the chance to connect with any of them?

    Having said that, I disagree with your translation of ferenj as a non-black person. I’d say that at least in Addis ferenj = a white person, all Asians are labeled as Chinese, regardless of what country they come from, and people distinguish Arabs and Indians from whites, unless it has changed over the past few years.

    I’m also convinced that your situation is quite extreme because you’re dating an Ethiopian. It actually reminds me of an incident that I witnessed a while ago, where an elderly man, seemingly upset at the sight of an Ethiopian girl with a white person, hit the girl with his cane and told her to find ‘yagerishin lij’ (someone from your own country). As Melhik noted above, perhaps this is best explained by patriarchy. Do romantic relationships where the guy is Ethiopian also face similar hostility? I don’t think so, and if it does, I suspect that it’d be much less hostile.

    Also, there were some minor things in your article that I thought indicated some misunderstanding/misinterpreting of certain aspects of the culture. I’ll give you examples. Speaking of the girl who burst out in laughter after hearing you speak in Amharic, you said that your inability to speak Amharic was the equivalent of not being able to speak at all. That’s quite an overstatement, don’t you think? You also said that “soccer” is now in competition with running for the title of Ethiopia’s national sport. If there’s such a thing, football has by far always been the national sport of the country. I don’t mean to nitpick, but I think it shows that haven’t yet spent a considerable amount of time in the country.

    Perhaps the secret to finding a coherent explanation lies not in political theory and history but in time and cultural understanding.

    I wish you all the best in your love life and in Ethiopia!

    • Thanks for your comment. The problem is, every Habesha gives me their opinion as though it is the objective, national truth of Ethiopia, as though they speak for every Ethiopian, but every Habesha tells me something totally different. It’s interesting for me to get as many opinions as possible, then decide for myself which holds the most water.

      Interesting about the difference between Chinese, Arab, Indian, and “white,” but I know for a fact a lot of Habeshas would disagree with you, saying that they are all “ferenj.”

      I’ve met and had long conversations with a lot of interracial couples here, and most of them are a white girl with a Habesha man. These couples still face a great deal of hostility and resentment, but not nearly as much as couples where the girl is the Habesha.

      Having studied linguistics quite a bit, I’ve read that historically, especially during the Roman Empire, people often considered those who speak a foreign tongue to be merely “babbling,” (or “baring,” hence the word “barbarian”), and not really speaking. And what else would explain someone actually falling down with laughter merely at hearing a foreign language, or their own language being spoken badly?

      In terms of running and football in competition with each other, that came to me directly from the lips of the famous Coach Sentayehu Eshetu of Bekoji. Though admittedly he’s a little biased in favour of running!

      It’s true I’ve only been here for three months, but I’m a journalist, and I spend almost every moment studying the country in one way or another. I’ve met aid workers who have lived here for years that have shocked me with their ignorance of the country. Honestly, I’m sure if I spend 10 years here, learn fluent Amharic, and write a dissertation on Ethiopian history and culture, people will still say “You don’t understand because you’re a foreigner.” But you’re right, the more time I spend here, the more my knowledge and credibility grow.

  10. @Nick – I am actually becoming your fan. This article is well researched and the way you touched on Ethiopian history is fascinating. You write extremely well – you might consider opening a private writing school in Addis – I am sure your skillset will be very much sought after.

    You touched upon many things – I donot know where to start. One thing I know is the word ‘ferenji’ is not meant to offend. It simply means “white person”. I have never used it to Indian or Chinese or other african or african-american people. I have never heard it used differently either. I learned from your article the origin of the word – it is interesting – I have been looking for that origin at some point. And donot forget foriengers are called ‘Aliens’ in america – as if we come from the ‘outer space’! :~)

    To be honest, my understanding is ferenji’s are favoured in Ethiopia. To be honest, many Ethiopians (my self included) donot really experience what racism is until we travel abroad. They hear about it but never experience it. That means many ethiopians donot really have that animosity and anger towards the ‘ferenji’ as such. The italian experience is short-lived and we got out of it as winners. The second time Musoloni came to revenge, he only managed to push through the massive ethiopian defence by using mustard gas(phosgene) despite his massive and hi-tech weaponry. Not something to be proud of as such when you look back for Musolloni/Graziani fans (despite building statues for him). Either way, even in losing the battle of revenge, we won the war!

    Here are some of my takes:

    (1) I once took couple of ferenji (dutch and norwegian) colleagues from where I work to my family house in addis. They told me they want to know how ordinary people live in ethiopia – as they are always in hotels etc . I told my mother and she invited them lunch and we took a taxi to my mother’s place. That was when for the first time I noticed what it means to be a ferenji in Addis. Every kid and every dude would say something. I even had a fight with a couple of dudes. Everyone considered me as a tourist guide or a chauffeur or some one helping those ferenji’s[no offense to people who do that but I was surprised). This is what I say to my habesha folks – the ferenji experience is completely different in addis. We need to talk about it – discuss it on radios, FMs . to create awareness.

    (2) The animosity towards couples has to do with the problems you already mentioned. Look I live in the United States. I make good enough money. I think I am good looking in someway :~). I can go to any bar in europe or america, talk to a girl ( of any race) and do what I can to to make her interested and appeal to her. I have done that many times. I go to Addis Ababa (my hometown) and blend with the population ( I hate to visibly look like a diaspora), and go to the bar and all the girls are not even looking at all – they are busy scanning the ferenji. It is really sad. And then, you see a berlusconni with a little hot little girl, right there. It annoys many people. Only because we all know that these little girls are being abused because they are poor. When I date a white american girl in america, everyone understands that it is because we liked each other – so it is different (although some folks may be angry about it anyway!)

    (3) The discrimination about pricing is touchy. But come on -once I was traveling with an irish colleague in Ethiopia and she was bitter when the hotel owner told us to pay different prices for our rooms. But look – her per diem was 50 pounds, mine was 70 birr. We are in two different worlds. The hotel was charging me 20 birr and charging her double for the similar room. It is still cents for her – but still, she bitterly felt discriminated. Look – there are two economies in ethiopia – the ferenji/international economy and the ethiopian economy. I go to Awash Park and it said 50 birr for a ferenji and 5 birr for habesha. They can’t charge cents in dollars for foreigners- it will be a joke. They can’t either charge the same price for people paid from the local economy – it will be impossible to pay. On domestic flights, Ethiopian Airlines charges diaspora ethiopians with a foreign passport differently from Ethiopians with Ethiopian passport. It is really not disrimination as such – it is pricing gauged to suit different economies.

    (4) For betty with BBA thing, I disagree with the commenter above. It is not at all about dating a foreigner. It about disrespecting the flag and being a bad role model for our little girls watching her and supporting her on Live TV. I will never forgive her for what she did! No one wants his country to be called a land of prostitutes. Too many have died for that flag – I donot have the guts to watch it being disrespected with brainless hookers!

    • Hello abakostor,

      Interesting read. I like your comment in this thread. But I can’t help wondering, if it makes any difference that your Irish colleague, were Ethiopian with 50 pounds per Diem? Don’t you think charging someone differently based on skin color is discrimination? I understand your standpoint based on the economical differences we have with the white folks, but hey how about treating everyone equally despite color of the skin.

      • Hi Blen,

        You are right – that is the reason why I mentioned the Ethiopian airlines case – it is not so much about how much you get – it is whether you are a foreigner or not. The preception is foreigners are coming from a different economy . . .

        If Ethiopian Airlines charges the same fee that it charges to foreigners (diaspora with foreign passport included), not a single local consumer can ever afford to buy a ticket on domestic flight. If they charge the same local fee to foreigners, I wonder if they will be able to maintain any profit as such. Given they have to buy fuel with dollars and given the weakness of birr against the dollar – that is the problem! My cousin recently took a flight from Addis to Bahirdar and he had to pay a foreign-fee as he has an american passport!

        Anyway, the problem is much complex. The discrimination is not just in the fees. For example, in colleges in Ethiopia, indian lecturers are paid 30 times more than their Ethiopian counterparts – despite doing the same thing – at times, the ethiopian lecturer is much more experienced and the indian guy could be a fresh one. The salary and per diem discrimination is across multiple sectors, NGO’s. It is not just against ferenji’s when they pay for services and commodities( I am not condoning it though). In some way, you can say the Ethiopians are also discriminated in a different way. It is much more complicated – with budgets coming from several sources with different policies.

        I remember in a college once, there were a couple of Brits from VSO’s (Voluntary Service Overseas) from the UK – much like the Peace Corps of the UK – they came as volunteers to teach and agreed to get paid the local college salary. Later , when they came and saw the situation, they got pissed of with the fact that the Indian professors were getting 30X more while doing the same thing and cancelled their contract and left after a year! The Official University explanation was the indian professors salary was coming from a different source – some UN organisation (UNESCO or something not sure . . .) . .But it created friction in the work place . . .

        I wish citizens be aware of such problems and fix it. A german guy once told me happily how he liked Taytu Hotel and I asked why and he said, “there is no discrimination there – ferenji or habesha – everyone pays the same. ” I went and saw that it was written clearly on the walls – No DISCRIMINATION! Our FM radios and news papers should take on this issue and address the problems and make the city hospitable for everyone!

      • Yes, that’s true. I think that may have more to do with where your qualifications are from than the colour of your skin or passport though. People generally just don’t trust universities in non-Western countries, whether rightly or wrongly. Though I wonder if the Ethiopian had a degree from a foreign university, would they get paid the same as foreigners?

        I definitely feel bad for immigrants in Western countries who have PhDs and still have to drive taxis because their qualifications aren’t recognized.

    • Thank you very much for your comments and compliments Abakostor. Very well thought-out and insightful.

      First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s terrible or super difficult living here as a foreigner. It’s not. I mean, occasionally foreigners here have little break downs due to the day-to-day hardships, but if you aren’t prepared for that you probably shouldn’t come in the first place, and I’ve really never had a problem. What IS so hard is living here as a white man with a Habesha girlfriend, and 99% of that difficulty is faced by my girlfriend, not me. It’s easy for me to just say zorbell or something and forget about it, but it’s not so easy for her.

      As I explicitly said in the article, the word “ferenj” is most often said with amusement. Occassionally with animosity, occasionally with love, but most often simple amusement. I’ve heard the word probably 1,000 times by now, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it.

      You’re right in that most Habeshas have absolutely no idea what kind of life foreigners live here (and unfortunately vice versa). I tell Habesha friends about what people on the street have said to me, or especially to me and my girlfriend, and the reactions range from shock to disbelief – like, flat out calling me a liar, saying those things couldn’t possibly happen, sometimes even one hour after it’s actually happened. People often say, “You don’t understand because you’re a foreigner,” but my response is always “You can’t understand unless you change your ethnicity for a week or two.” It’s the same thing with my girlfriend. She tells her friends and family about what she’s experienced while being with me, and they literally do not believe her. It’s really quite incredible. I suppose it’s because the media, art, etc. have sort of completely ignored the issue. I can’t tell you how many private messages I’ve gotten from Habeshas and ferenjis alike saying “FINALLY someone is talking about this.”

      In terms of Habesha women liking white men, I have never experienced that. First of all, I’ve been to a club here (went with my girlfriend and Habesha friends) one time and hated it. Secondly, I’ve absolutely never had any Habesha girl here show me any interest whatsoever. So I can’t at all relate to what you’re talking about in regards to that.

      It is absolutely true that a lot of white men come here and visit prostitutes, often underage, and really treat the country like a candy shop. But I hate those people just as much as any Ethiopian does, and to be fair, those Habesha women are sort of taking advantage of the white men just as much as the opposite – sex for money, etc.

      Staring I understand, and it happens everywhere in Africa and a lot of other places. I don’t find it offensive at all. Glaring, which happens a lot more than you realize, is another thing altogether. Imagine if everywhere you went in the US people glared at you. Imagine how paranoid you would become.

      If I’m being charged more because I’m “rich” (which I’m not), that’s one thing, but it’s another thing altogether if it’s because I’m a foreigner. If wealthy Ethiopians are given totally different prices for everything, then ok, that makes more sense because it’s simply economics, but I don’t think that’s the case. Imagine if people in America charged you more for being a foreigner, or even if they charged you more for basic products and services because you are wealthy. There are many Habeshas in Addis who have a lot more money than I do who don’t get charged as much as I do. I work at an Ethiopian newspaper and get an Ethiopian salary (OK it’s much higher than the average salary here, but considering how many hours I work there, it’s far below an American minimum wage). People ask me why I don’t take private taxis or just buy a car. It’s because I can’t afford to! I take about five taxi vans or buses per day, and I walk, and when me and my girlfriend are together, it’s the same thing.

      I’m not sure how long you’ve been living in the US, but from what I’ve heard, things have changed a lot in Addis over the past 10 – 20 years. I’ve been told there used to be this phenomenon they called the “ferenj frenzy,” where white people were sort of celebrities, but this phenomenon is totally over, at least in Addis (definitely still exists in the villages though). I have definitely never felt like a celebrity in Addis, and I’m actually glad for that. I don’t like so-called “positive discrimination” either. The way that you describe how people view foreigners in Ethiopia is very accurate in villages, but not in Addis. In villages people stare, and often smile. Here they stare and glare. I mean, it’s more complicated than that. It depends on where you are, who you’re with, whether or not the people know you, how respectful you are and how well you follow the customs, and most of all, how much Amharic you speak. But I’m just saying I get a lot of glares. I’ve also heard the animosity towards foreigners has really increased a lot in recent years. I have no idea for myself because this is my first time here, but I here it over and over again.

      One last thing that I didn’t touch upon in the essay, and which I was just being told about by some Habesha friends over dinner, is the racism towards “Africans,” people who come from other places in Africa. They told me the racism they face is 10 times worse than anything white people here face, and I believe it. I’ve had many “Africans” here tell me the same thing. ALSO, people from a mixed-race background. Perhaps they get treated the worst of all.

      Anyways, it appears as though I’ve written another short essay! Thanks again for you comments, and if you’re interested please read my other stuff. Cheers.

      • Your last para is a bit worrying. Yes we have that problem. It worries me a lot! I have a lot of African friends now – and I see this issue with extremely high sensitivity! It happens in the diaspora communities as well. My african friends have told me of problems in Washington D.C. they encountered from Ethiopians there. I really want to dig into the root cause of that issue. Is it a cultural misunderstanding? Is it just a cultural barrier we created towards anyone foreigner? is it insecurity because of communication issue, language? Is it because we are isolated from the rest of Africa and the world for centuries and that we are culturally isolated? I guess we need to understand that problem and heal it – I donot really understand it. The irony is that the AU is there for almost half a century – the city has seen many africans come and go. I wouldn’t dare call it “racism” – the thing is the moment that “other african” speaks Amharic, that barrier simply evaporates. It is thus obviously not a skin color issue – it can’t be – Ethiopia has many colors – all in black tones! I guess it is a deeply embedded attitude towards anyone “who is not like you in some form”, as someone to “keep at bay” for whatever reasons. May be some sociologist have studied this already . .if anyone knows, I would love to be enlightened. My understanding is that habesha people generally tend to want to live in isolation , cultural isolation- there appears to be that tendency. I could be corrected though! The food is different, the music is different, the terrain is different, th dance is different in many ways from the rest of Africa. May be that – I really donot know – it worries me deeply though!!!

      • Yes, it’s definitely an incredibly unique country, and the more Amharic one speaks (or Oromo, Tigrayan, etc.) the smaller the barrier becomes. It’s really disappointing when foreigners living here don’t bother learning Amharic because they “can get by without it.” If every foreigner here just learned the language, 90% of the problems would evaporate.

  11. Hi there,

    I agree with most of the things you have written. Ethiopian men should learn to mind their own business, when they see a white guy with habesha girl. But too bad, they can’t help it :P. They have to say something about it, or they will act as if your girlfriend owes them an explanation. I hope in the future, when Ethiopian people have a chance to travel around the world, they will really get it that ‘minding their own business’ is important thing to get along with one another. Further, I get the vibe from your blog that you might perhaps perceive Ethiopians as a racist. I can’t blame you. We like to label foreigners. It is annoying to you, but we don’t think of it as being racist. We might also be so proud that we are a bit of different and we call other black Africans ‘Baria’. It is the naked truth. But still, in our defence, it doesn’t come from bad intention. I also hope one day, people start to realize what’s offending and what’s not.

    I wish you best of luck for you and your girlfriend 🙂

    • Thanks for you comment. I don’t think racist is quite the right word. It’s really really complicated, and different for different people and situations. There is definitely some kind of undercurrent of bitterness, hurt pride, etc. for many historical and economic reasons, and more often than not, it’s simply easy to “blame the foreigner.” It happens throughout the Western world too, all the time, and I HATE it. Whenever people say bad things about immigrants in Canada, America, etc., I get really mad and argue with them. I’m just writing about Ethiopia right now because this is where I live. Thanks again for you comment. Cheers.

      • A couple of insights into our psyche:
        1. There’s a story (I don’t know if it’s true or not) that when Emperor Haile Selassie first visited the U.S. he was asked by a reporter about how it feels to be the first black head of state in the White House. The Emperor replied, “Well… we don’t really consider ourselves to be black.”
        2. There’s a popular misconception here that the Italian defeat at Adwa was the first defeat of a European army by Africans. In actuality, the Zulus defeated the British at the Battle of Isandlwana 17 years earlier. Granted, it was on a smaller scale and granted, the British promptly mounted a second, more successful invasion, but non the less it was the first time an indigenous African force defeated a better trained and equipped European army.

        If there’s one thing I love and admire about my peeps it’s our belief that we are not inferior to anyone. However, unless it is also accompanied by a willingness to continuously examine and question the validity of one’s beliefs it can quickly turn into self-righteousness and intolerance.

      • Ha, interesting story, and yes I’ve heard of the Zulu defeat of the British. Ancient African civilizations are fascinating, and I wish there was more of a written record, but that’s yet another amazing thing about Ethiopia – there IS a written record.

        Yes, I also admire the sense of pride many Ethiopians have in their rich history, but there are two kinds of patriotism – the kind that says “We are great!” and the kind that says “Everyone else is terrible.” I’m personally not a fan of either kind, but I’m an unusually unpatriotic person.

        I’ll send you an e-mail about meeting up for a beer.

  12. Well, yes, FINALLY someone opened a discussion about this topic! Thank you Nick! And thank you everybody who contributed to it, it’s a pity that Ethiopian Lion disappeared because he represented a good part of the Ethiopian youth of today…
    I am afraid that my posting will be a bit long, pls forgive me for that but I am living here for 3 years (in a provincial capital), and being a social scientist (historian) teaching at an Ethiopian university I have a lot of things to say.
    One recurrent issue is (from both the blogger and the comments) to argue with phenomena from the U.S. Yet, apart from the obvious historical fact that the U.S. has been established on racism and is therefore still a racist society (vice versa on at least 5 sides) what concerns me more is the influence of the American Ethiopian diaspora on the homeland. First of all the biggest Ethiopian diaspora is in the U.S. Second, since the fall of the Derg visiting the homeland is easy and safe for the diaspora thus tens of thousands of American Ethiopians are coming home every year, from all generations, including the youngsters who were grown up and educated in this racist American society and influenced by many factors like the hip-hop culture, the so called Afrocentrist pamphlet literature etc. They simply import it to Ethiopia and a vast number of Ethiopian youngster are victims of it (I can also add the influence of the internet, MTV etc.) The consequence of this is that thousands (millions?) of Ethiopians tend to believe that what is true in the U.S. is equally true to every white people. Throughout the blog I felt Nick to defend Canadians against the U.S. (although very carefully), and I think he is right. There is racism everywhere but on different levels and in different manifestations. I cannot deny that there is racism in my native country, or Canada or in Poland, what makes it different in Ethiopia that it comes into your face, every day and almost everywhere, if you are white. And not only if you have an Ethiopian girlfriend. Once alone, in a very popular Addis Ababa nightclub, a young man started to explain to me why he hates ALL white people (“because what they did do to us”). On the other hand, many people think in Ethiopia that ALL white people are racist; I assume this phenomenon was also “made in the U.S.” because many older Ethiopians told me that this is a quite new issue. (You already discussed about the changing attitudes of generations.)
    From this point I have to go further. It is not only a false equalization between America and the white people, but also a fake perception about being “Westerner”. Although Ryszard Kapuscinski also calls himself a Westerner, in fact he was Polish, i.e. from Eastern/Central Europe. I always surprise my students in Ethiopia when I explain that us from Eastern/Central Europe, we use the term “West” almost in the same meaning as Africans do, I mean in public conversations not in Academics. Coming from the Eastern part of Europe, I am NOT a Westerner, and I don’t let anybody to define my identity. When Nashdown says “most Western governments have done horrible things”, I don’t feel touched…We did not get much good from the West. Moreover, if we leave the useless debate over the terminology, Central/Eastern Europe was even colonized, by the Ottomans, by the Habsburgs, by the Russians/Soviets. And yes, slavery is not only a Trans-Atlantic black-and-white issue; thousands of white slaves were held in Africa all over the centuries. I don’t mean it as a nonsense competition, but it belongs to our common human history.
    This nightclub affair of mine mentioned above is very similar to EthiopianLion’s argument. He is a typical Black-Americanized youngster who totally forget about his homeland’s real history. I am a historian so I really know all of the mistakes, sins and misconceptions what Europeans caused to Ethiopia. But this is still only one side of the coin. Being in an academic institution in Ethiopia I really know what I’m talking about, i.e. there is a general Habesha historical amnesia regarding foreign influence. Sorry Nick, but when you cite foreign influence in Ethiopian arts, you are a bit naïve; just mention it at a conference in Ethiopia and you will become an enemy. The current Ethiopian thinking denies everything coming from abroad. Ethiopians are proud to win over the Italians in 1941, yet no one mentions that some ferenji (British) were there too. They are proud to be victorious against Somalia in 1978 and no mention about the Cuban support. Millions of Ethiopians think that berbere is an indigenous plant. Or belez which was introduced by a ferenji Catholic monk. One of the hardest things here at the university is to convince our students that no culture is isolated, they are interconnected and dynamic, and there is NOTHING bad about foreign influence (if it is only cultural). Back to the point, I could continue with more surprising arguments from the Nine Saints (yes, they were ferenji although probably not much more white than the Habesha that time) to Bob Geldof and the Live Aid.
    There is a sort of Africanization of the highland Habesha history and culture in the last 50 years. While I understand its political reasons (nation building etc.) it is quite weird from a historical point of view. When Habesha people are identifying themselves with the victims of the Atlantic slave trade it is simply fake. The opposite is true: the Habesha were the slaveholders in Ethiopia.
    If you go to nightclubs, birra or bunna bets, you see a lot of pictures on the wall. All of them are thought to be black. Yet one of the most popular, Bob Marley (“Bombarley” according to the local pronunciation) was a halfcast. The reggae and hip-hop icon Damian Marley’s mother was white. But the funniest experience of mine is when, in a coffee house, I pointed out to Mother Theresa on the wall and explained to my Habesha friend that she is the first ferenji I could see on the walls. My friend’s respond was quite shocking: “Not at all, the Ethiopians think she was Indian”…
    Some words about the “rich” ferenji. Poorness and richness are not simply financial terms, yet I admit that MOST (but not all) ferenji are more rich than the average Ethiopian. Nevertheless, MANY of my friends here in Ethiopia are MUCH MORE rich than myself or my friends in my country. None of my friends have big four wheel cars, more than one house, and none of them could never afford to send their children to expensive Western universities. Nor me. Yes, as a university professor I get more salary than my local colleagues (ten times more than a colleague with the same education). But I have more expenses too: ferenji price house rent, flight tickets at least two times a year, etc. I am really sorry to say but arguing that expatriates are doing the same as the local colleagues is simply not true in most of the cases. What I have seen in the three years I spent here is revealing… Ethiopian colleagues, most of them having only MA, are doing their profession without having only very slight ideas how to do. Research moneys are taken as additional salaries (sometimes 30-40 thousand birrs per year) while the research is simply plagiarized from the Internet. 99 per cent of these researches are never published. Teaching in the classroom is again a different issue. I am using different teaching and exam methods as I learned and experienced, while local colleagues just write on the blackboard for 60 minutes and then preparing the exam 100 % multiple choices… Are we doing the same? (And yes, we don’t take away any Ethiopian money since we are paid from abroad.)
    About aid and relief organizations – I fully agree, and I feel even disgust for those NGO workers who are living in big expensive houses, driving big cars (oh, I was mistaken, the paid driver is driving them) and doing the BIG NOTHING. Honestly, I don’t have words for those so-called volunteers who, becoming jealous of Indian professors, left their duty… But… we have to see the Ethiopian side, too. The corruption. What I see day by day is that while I am walking kilometers every day, donated UN, Red Cross etc. cars (and petrol) are used for private purpose by Ethiopians. You see them everywhere, any time, even in the night parking in front of “nightclubs”.
    Maybe all of this is connected to the moral issue. While most Ethiopians claim to be religious, stealing from a ferenji or tricking a ferenji is a sort of virtue close to patriotism. It has a long and understandable historical background from the 17th century Jesuits to the Italian occupation.
    In the discussion, racism within Ethiopia has been slightly touched. While this seems to me to be a totally different issue from the ferenji case (and therefore deserves a separate entry), let me put here that it was very strong before the Derg and still exist in a rather hidden form. And this is also connected to historical perceptions. The Aksum Empire or the Battle of Adwa are mentioned frequently as national pride while for an Ethiopian from Oromo or Gambella origin has absolutely nothing to do with it. When Abakostor states that “many Ethiopians … donot really experience what racism is until we travel abroad” he represents a merely highland Habesha attitude, ignoring the majority of Ethiopians, i.e. the non-highlanders.
    All of this is very complex and complicated but, as a historian I have a growing feeling that it is still connected to the Kebra Nagast. This Ethiopian legend is still esteemed by millions of Habesha, perhaps not in the ivory tower of academics but among the religious Christians (the role of the Tewahido church is another long topic). According to the Kebra Nagast, the Habesha are the chosen people of God and Ethiopia is the promised land given to them. That’s it, this explains the superiority complex of many Habesha. But also explains more. If Ethiopia is the promised land of God, any human change on it is a sin. If the Habesha are the chosen people, the OTHERS are not, therefore everybody else, Jesuits, Italians, NGO workers are intruders.
    Regarding prostitution, it has a complex historical/sociological background in Ethiopia out of the scopes of this discussion. However, underage prostitution is a different thing. Someone wrote that most probably Ethiopia is not a frequent destination for that. Maybe not from Europe but I am not sure about it in Middle Eastern context, not to mention the thousands of Ethiopian girls working in Arabic countries. Within Ethiopia, why underage persons are allowed to enter nightclubs? Where are the police?
    Regarding the ferenji prices, my opinion is that while it is highly discriminatory it can be justified by economic arguments as Abakostor did. But come on! There is a less discriminatory way for that, as it is worked out in many countries. Fix a maximum price and give discounts for Ethiopians. If a ferenji will see that the 100 % price is valid for him and Ethiopians can get, say, 80% discount (s)he will not say a word. (I just mention here that Ethiopian Airlines does not operate double pricing for more than 3 years now.)
    Dear Nashdown, I fully agree with almost everything what you say. But when you put that when you hear bad things about immigrants in Canada you get really mad, aren’t you a bit naïve? I appreciate philanthropy, but I refuse any generalizations let them be negative or positive. Are all the immigrant humble refugees?
    Sorry for giving historical examples, but this is my profession. Ask any Habesha in your environment: Was Lucy Ethiopian? The general answer is yes. When I say that if she was Ethiopian then she was Portuguese, Afghan etc. in the same time, they usually don’t understand what I am talking about. Second question: if Lucy was an Ethiopian, then what about “Ahmed Gragn”? Was he Ethiopian? The general answer is NO which is right although he might have more arguments to claim himself Ethiopian. (You already mentioned the Battle of Adwa as “first black victory over whites”, and I think the Mahdist victory over the British at Khartoum is a better response…)
    Something from the ferenji dark side. I see at least three points where we should improve. First, while we are complaining that Ethiopians consider Habesha girls with us to be prostitutes, in fact many ferenji men considers all Habesha girls potential prostitutes. Especially tourists, seeing real prostitutes in nightclubs easily come to the stereotypical consequence that all Habesha girls are easy. Second, many ferenji (especially Americans according to my experience) are simply shouting in the streets, restaurants etc. in a society where conversations are usually quite silent (I am not talking about drunken people in pubs or nightclubs). Third, the average Ethiopian perception about ferenji people is that ALL of them are smoking. Even if it is not true in general, smoking ferenji should consider that public smoking is still somewhat “sympathy with the devil” in Ethiopia, especially in the countryside.
    All of this is not to say that I’m not having a good time in Ethiopia. I like the country, its history and culture in many ways, I like most of the people, having many friends. Habesha bunna is number one, tegamino, sheqla tibs and doro wot are excellent. Temkat and ashenda are beautiful. But Ethiopians should consider that while they are proud of their culture and traditions, they are not isolated but surrounded by other cultures which are challenging each other. There are international standards, we like them or not.
    Finally, I fully agree with Abakostor when he says that creating awareness is crucial. And not only in the media but in the national curriculum too. As soon as possible, before it’s too late!

  13. Thank you very much for your comments.

    Ethiopian Lion had more to say, but finally I had to block him and MANY others. I wanted to include a little just to provide an example, a specimen if you will, of the type of attitudes one often encounters here. However, after a certain point, their contributions stop being constructive, so I’ve had to censor for the first time ever.

    Canadians, very generally speaking, tend to be fairly racist towards the Aboriginal population, but not so much towards black people, though the black demographic in Canada is far different from that in America. I hate nationalism so much that I actually feel compelled to be critical of my own country as much as possible, but one thing that Canada does extraordinarily well is absorb immigrants (20% of Canadians were not born in Canada; 55% in Toronto).

    I’m not sure if Kapuscinski referred to himself as a Westerner. He used to point out that what he, as a Polish person, and most Africans had in common was a history of oppression. I often use the term (all the more so after spending two years in Moscow) to describe anyone of any colour from a country that was impacted by the Enlightenment and Renaissance. I definitely don’t consider Eastern Europeans Westerners (and I definitely don’t mean that as an insult to Eastern Europeans). I do find the term useful, because often when I say “In Canada…” I find that whatever I’m about to say also applies in the US, Britain, Germany, Norway, etc. I also find that people often say “In Ethiopia…” when observing a phenomenon prevalent across Sub Sahara.

    Regarding your disagreement, I assume you were talking about the “despite the fact that immigrants actually decrease crime and cause economic revitalization” part? Did you read the article I cited though? The quantitative and qualitative evidence is pretty hard to argue against, and there are many other such articles, though Canada has an excellent system of immigration whereby only the most qualified are let in. For example, I’m sure at least a quarter of my professors were immigrants, and this helps create a very positive attitude towards foreigners. And I actually think generalizations are very useful, so long as we understand they are not laws, and come with many many exceptions. For example, I think I can safely say that “Russians generally like to drink vodka” despite the fact that many Russians (a minority) do not. If the majority of a population possess a certain trait, or if a certain phenomenon is widely prevalent in a given place or time, is it not useful to point that out?

    One mistake you made: at no point do I ever refer to the Battle of Adwa as the first victory of blacks over whites. I don’t have a PhD in African studies, but I’m a little more well-read about the continent than that.

    And believe me, I completely agree on your criticisms of ferenj’s here. There’s something about this country that attracts a lot of very bad people (I think we can both think of many reasons why). I tend to avoid expats whenever I live abroad. I find most of them live in a bubble, constantly complain, believe that Western values are “universal,” and don’t adapt well at all to the local culture. The only expats I spend time with are the ones who are well-adapted and usually share my annoyance of the other expats. I’ve been to exactly one bar one time in my four months here, and I went their with my Habesha girlfriend and Habesha friends. I spend the minute amount of spare time I have with Ethiopians (usually talking about Ethiopia), studying Amharic, and reading about Ethiopia and the wider region.

    Anyways, if you’re in Addis and you send me an e-mail, I’d love to get together some time.

  14. Pingback: Genna Buck | The killing camera

  15. I”m an Ethiopian woman with a White American husband living in the US. I traveled with my husband thrice all over Ethiopia, so I read your post with a lot of interest. There was much that you wrote about Ferenj hysteria that was sadly true, however, it seems to me that what you experienced was way worse then what my husband and I did. First off all, we NEVER experienced hostility because of our biracial marriage. Not once, no where in Ethiopia, and we traveled all over, from north to south. If anything, it seemed to me that people became friendlier to him because he was married to an Abesha. I was in Ethiopia in 1992 and 2005. I do want to add that all “girl friends” are looked down on in Ethiopia even if both partners are Abesha. There is still in Ethiopia that Judoechristain/muslim shame associated with premarital sex. I think the main problem for you was in your case, both of you stood out as you are obviously not related, and can only be an unmarried couple. It really helps I think to be married. Ethiopia is still conservative like that, which means people can be terribly judgmental- especially of the “girlfriend”.

    The ferenj hysteria my husband experienced was never hostile or hateful but horribly intrusive and grating. As an Ethiopian, I was stunned, disgusted and ashamed by this aspect of Ethiopian behavior. Ironically, my husband was not put off by it as much as I was, and even found it amusing at times taking it all in stride. The behaviors he experienced (and I with him) were constant begging, staring, kids following him with with “you, you, you”, constant overcharging for goods, and teenagers making funny faces. I did pushback with anger and irritation a lot of times, shooing the kids away, telling the teens to leave him alone, all to no avail. It got tiring to fight with the public every time we stepped outside. The only time the constant harassment stopped was if we had another adult Ethiopian male was with us.

    BTW, your efforts to explain Ferenj hysteria by presenting Ethiopians as victims in their encounter with foreigners during ancient and medival periods completely misses the mark. Ethiopian Christians are not victims of history, and are just as guilty war mongering, crusading and slave raiding as the Europeans and Muslims you mentioned.

    As much as I was shocked at the level of hysteria, on self-reflection, i did realize that as a child growing up in Ethiopia, i was guilty of some ferenj hysteria as well. (oh the irony!) Let me just say that my friends and I had no hatred at all towards ferenj, and neither do the vast majority of Ethiopians. Its just that Ferenjs seemed so alien to us, as if they came from outer space. You can not underestimate how a ferenj looks to children who have never seen one in real life. It is shocking to see white skin, hair and eyes when the only race you know you know is brown and black. I know I always stared in wonder, thinking “are they real like us?” Imagine if green aliens walked around in new york or london. Everyone will stare in shock and wonder.

    Ethiopia is racially homogenous to the extreme and for HUNDREDS of years Ethiopians have NEVER seen a foreigner-white, arab or asian. The rare episodes that our kings have dealt with one or two foreigners are meaningless to the average Ethiopian.

    Ethiopians had no cultural framework for relating with foreigners-except with shock.

    Other Africans have been colonized by and are familiar with Whites and Indians (Kenya for example). For decades, they have experienced whites and others as administrators, missionaries, teachers, traders, soldiers etc. Whites might be called muzungus, but they are not alien to Kenyans.

    Secondly, from an Ethiopian perspective, Ferenjs are wealthy beyond belief, educated beyond belief, with healing powers (medicine) and mind boggling technology. These points feeds awe and yes even jealousy in to the otherness of the ferenj.

    By the way, in my last trip to Ethiopia, in 2005, there was so much less Ferenj hysteria! Ferenj have lost their mystique at least in addis ababa for some obvious reasons. More Ethiopians are like “ferenj” now (lol), with a growing educated and tech-savy middle class that follows a western type life style (clothes, music, food, even religion). Ethiopians have become much more cosmopolitan with a global perspective. There is a huge diaspora living in the West, the ME and even Asia. Even peasants has a relative or two overseas now. Most of the infamous pesky kids are now in school during the day (ethiopia has attained (96% primary school attendance), and not out and about in the streets anymore-wild and unsupervised.

    There has been a slow paradigm shift in the way Ethiopians see foreigners-the word is out-ferenjs are human :-).


    • Thanks for your comment.

      From what I’ve heard, a lot has changed, even since 2005, so I think the Addis (and I was talking about Addis specifically, not Ethiopia) of today is very different from what you experienced.

      I agree with most of your points, and I think you’re even echoing some of the points I made in this essay, such as the history of isolation.

      Regarding the history of Ethiopian slave trading, etc. that you mentioned, that’s of course true, but how many Ethiopians even know this history, and how many refuse to acknowledge it for nationalistic reasons? There is an incredibly strong perception throughout Africa, including in Ethiopia, that all of the continent’s problems are caused by white foreigners (though not the Chinese curiously, and they seem to have forgotten about the massive Arab slave trade). It’s absolutely true that the outside world has done perhaps irreparable damage to Africa as elsewhere, but this argument is often made from ahistorical grounds from those whose knowledge is purportedly based on their ethnicity as opposed to actual study.

      And according to this article written about Habesha women marrying Westerners, things do not get particularly better when they get married:


      “Zewde is glad that they lived most of their married life outside of Ethiopia because she feels that many people are unable to accept them as a real couple. When they came to Ethiopia on short visits she dreaded taking her husband to social events because of the stares and whispered comments. It was particularly worse when she took him to the countryside to introduce him to her elderly father. Neighbors there, unlike their counterparts in Addis Ababa, did not even bother to hide their comments behind covered mouths. They freely made sport of all that they found strange in her husband’s appearance. Women hid their babies, children ran away at his approach and elderly people shied away from sitting near him.

      “I was hurt even if I knew it was no different from the way I had first reacted to him. He had really tried to be accepted and practiced the correct way to address different members of my family for weeks. But they laughed at him when he spoke our language and made him feel ridiculous. I decided never to take him back to the countryside and we’ve never been back.”

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