Q&A: Ethnicity in Ethiopia

In our last email update, we asked our readers to send us their questions. Here is one question and our response. Please continue to send us your questions; nothing is too big or too small. If you have a question for Charlotte, she would love to answer it.

As you know, race is a big topic right now in the USA. I wonder if this is also a problem in Ethiopia, maybe between tribes or religious groups. Is a white person who lives in Ethiopia treated differently, looked at more negatively, more positively?

This is a great question and points to one of the biggest challenges Ethiopia faces. First, white people are looked at differently, primarily because of the history of colonialism (even though Ethiopia was never colonized, they were subject to Italian occupation and exposed to colonialist practices throughout Africa) and association with–and access to–wealth. This makes for some challenging interactions as it is true that we do have more money and access, but we are unable to provide the support that is often requested (nor would it be prudent from a sustainability perspective). So, from a financial perspective, we are seen and sometimes treated differently–whether this is positive or negative is complex and often depends on context.

With regards to religion, historically there has been tension between Orthodox and Evangelicals and between both of these and Muslims. This tension has sometimes become violent. We have heard many different stories and perspectives about these interreligious tensions. We have not personally witnessed violence, but we are certainly aware of tense conversations and dialogues. Recently, however, the Prime Minister has brought together Orthodox and Evangelicals for dialogue, which has historically been almost impossible. Given that the Prime Minister is Evangelical with an Orthodox mother and Muslim father, he seems to be well situated to bring these groups together. It is our prayer that this dialogue continues and unity and peace prevail.

The most significant obstacle for Ethiopia currently, though, seems to be inter-ethnic tensions and hostility. Here, too, there is a deep and complex history. It is impossible to adequately discuss this history here, but current political unrest finds its roots in these historical narratives. Primarily, in an attempt to recognize and honor the various ethnic groups within the country, the Constitution itself emphasizes these differences, for good and ill. Good in that each ethnic group is given official recognition and representation, but ill in that ethnicity has become one of the primary lenses through which personal and group identity is formed. And it is ethnicity that is sometimes the driving force of politics and economics.

This poses significant challenges politically and for the Church. Recently, I (Than) had an opportunity to read more about this complicated reality in proofreading an edited volume being published by an EGST faculty member. Each author and chapter highlighted different factors that impact ethnic identity and inter-ethnic hostility and offer some ways to overcome these challenges. From a theological perspective, the authors also point to the larger Church’s ministry in such a context and explore what it means to love our neighbor. Although addressed to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian Church, there is much we can learn in the US from these reflections.

A Day in the Life

Our alarm buzzes right as the sun begins to rise. But our “first alarm” happens about 20 minutes prior to our actual alarm as the chanting and singing begins at the local churches. While the days are warm, the nights are chilly and we all want to stay cozy in bed for “just 5 more minutes.” We dress is layers, knowing that the walk to carpool will be cold, but by the time Charlotte returns from school her sweater and socks will be in her backpack and the legs of her leggings will be pulled as high as she can get them. And yes, as you can imagine, returning sweaty and sockless makes for some very stinky shoes. 

After a quick breakfast (usually toast or oatmeal), while listening to Keys for Kids and our current favorite Cedarmont Kids playlist on Spotify, Charlotte and Than are out the door at 7:05 am to get to the carpool meet up spot.

On his way home from carpool Than often stops to buy bonbolino. Bonbolino is basically fried dough – like a savory donut. A LARGE savory donut I should add. We limit ourselves to having it about once a week and coming in at only 7 birr each (around 20 cents) it’s a nice break from our usual bowl of oatmeal. Fried dough comes in various, delicious forms here. Our other favorite is called “fetira.” It’s served with honey and we often will eat it on Saturday mornings at a local cafe. 

While Than and Charlotte are on their way to carpool, I try to get some exercise. I go for a walk around our compound (well, a few times around) while listening to my Amharic recordings. I return home and  throw a load of laundry in, make coffee and get ready for the day.

Amharic tutoring begins at 8 am for me. Thankfully it’s just about a 5 minute walk from our home. Than heads out around the same time for his office at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. More on his days coming in a future post!

When I return home from tutoring, I hang our laundry out to dry (this is SO much easier during the dry season which we’re in right now), catch up on emails and projects, tidy up, work on my Bible study, listen to my Amharic recordings (yes, again) and do food prep. I could write a whole post on food prep and cooking here (and perhaps someday I will) but let’s just say it consumes significantly more time than it did in the US. Thankfully I (mostly) enjoy cooking.

Charlotte arrives home from school between 1-1:30 pm (KG1 is only half days) and we have lunch together. We fill our afternoons with playdates, trips to the Zoma Museum (very near our home), rest, reading, grocery shopping and baking. On Mondays we have lunch with friends which is great fun for the Moms and kids. We take turns hosting – I’m so grateful for the friendship of the women I’ve been able to meet through these lunches. 

On Friday’s I attend a women’s Bible study – mostly with other expat women who live here in Ethiopia.

Of course, many days are far from ordinary. Sometimes the water goes when you’ve just shampoo’d your hair, while other days a monkey will come into your kitchen and knock your pizza dough off the counter. Inevitably things take longer than planned but we are getting used to that.

On the weekends we enjoy time together as a family. We are getting more and more involved in our church – Ruthina helps teach Sunday School to the younger kids and Than occasionally preaches and helps lead the service.

Every month we settle more and more into our life here. Our responsibilities and relationships continue to increase. We grow in our understanding of the culture and the needs here. The things that were once so unusual to us are becoming more normal. On the best of days and the worst of days and all the in between ones, we end the day writing in our family gratitude journal, an exercise grounds us, changes our perspective and points our eyes back to our Provider.

6 Months of Calling Addis Home


Today marks 6 months since we landed in Addis. It’s amazing to think back on the years of dreaming, planning and preparation and here we are. Our new normal. 

We still have so much to learn (looking at you Amharic). And of course there’s always something new to navigate – from processes to relationships and expectations to living in the tension of being surrounded by so many needs and wisdom to know where to invest our time and resources. 

I sense the change that inevitably happens in yourself when you build a life in a new culture. Ethiopia has left a mark on us, but no doubt we’ll only see this more fully when we return for a visit to our home country. There are days when frustration is high. Days when culture shock threatens to bowl us over and makes us want to hide in our house eating Doritos (which we amazingly found at the grocery store recently for an obscene price – and yes, we splurged). But there are also days where this all feels perfectly normal and at times even better than life at “home.”

One certainty we have here is the uncertainty, unexpected, and unknown. But that’s all part of the new normal. We have far more “good” days than “bad” days and even on the bad days we have so much to be thankful for. Slowly but surely our hearts are getting more and more entangled with this country and the beautiful people here as we continue on this journey of participating in what God is doing here.

Our home here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We are very  blessed to have some grass to enjoy in a city full of concrete! Charlotte especially loves that we have an upstairs.