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  • Writer's pictureSamantha McCandless

Goederts in Ethiopia Week 8: Celebrating James’ Birthday


I said, “No peppers.” How hard can it be to order an omelet with no peppers. After all, there is a picture of an omelet on the menu and I pointed to the green things. Ethiopians like to add peppers to almost everything and, like I tell Martha, “I am a really sensitive guy.” One time I even went to the kitchen to explain that I didn’t want those things that make my mouth hot by acting like an idiot and waving my hand in front of my mouth. The kitchen staff really thought that was funny but I wasn’t going to repeat that every morning. Some mornings Martha makes oatmeal on the hotplate in our room, however, we have been without power for 1 week. Our respite is Ours Cafe attached to our building so for breakfast we order an omelet and double macchiato for about $5.00 total.  I knew that the Amharic word for ground pepper was “beriberi” but had some difficulty figuring out that whole hot peppers are “koria” and no peppers is “koria yellelo” I have become really disgusted with myself for not learning more Amharic. The truth is that it is a difficult language and I do not know their alphabet. In addition, it appears that you cannot substitute one word for another, even if similar. Sometimes the word has an accent that we are not exactly speaking correctly.

Each omelet comes with a small loaf of bread that is cut into four thick slices. We might have one slice each with our breakfast, which is plenty, and then take the remainder home for lunch or dinner sandwiches. We really love our Macchiatos for breakfast but, in true American fashion, we supersize by ask for a “double” which is really the size of a small coffee cup. A single order is more like a shot glass-(a really small shot glass in my family). Bread in Amharic is “douba”. So, the problem with ordering a macchiato double is that it can get confused with an order for a macchiato and an additional loaf of  ‘douba’. We really didn’t need two extra loaves of bread to go along with the two loaves that came with our pepper infested omelets that we could wash down with a single shot of coffee.


Last week, for my birthday, Martha arranged a ‘local fish market’ gathering with my graduate students, Ambassador Scholars and our friends. This place on the lake is a local establishment. Last year, it was a quiet little spot with three restaurants side by side on a point of Lake Tana with small patios with a few tables. Now the small cafes have expanded to include a nice view of the lake with a terrace full of tables and chairs filled with local patrons until we arrive. The spot is a virtual aviary with a beautiful variety of birds roosting in the nearby trees and roofs. Pelicans crowd around the incoming fishing boats begging for scraps while kites and fish eagles circle overhead looking for an opportunity to ‘scavenge’. The menu has a variety of fish meals like cutlet (cotelet), fried, grilled, and whole tilapia. Whole really means literally “whole’, from fisheyes to tail. It is cooked over a wood fire and is a lovely meal, if you don’t mind making eye contact with your food. Cutlets are less healthy, lightly breaded, deep fat fried with a whole plate full of thinly sliced fish. Last week when we ordered the cutlet, it was ‘beyond’ enough for a family, so with the remaining fish we asked for ‘take away’ which means ‘to go.’ While we are working hard to figure out the disparities of language and customs, we had this lesson to learn that night. The waitress brought our bill that was ‘way above’ the usual. Sometimes, plus or minus a few dollars brings home to us lessons we need to learn-nothing ventured nothing gained. We finally figured out on our walk home that the waitress had placed a second order for us to take home. As we hustled home, avoiding the unsafe darkness that was falling, we laughed about who would be the lucky person to get a lovely take-away. There are always many beggars along this route, as it is on the same road as the St. Michael monastery and church. In Ethiopia, nothing goes to waste, and we feel blessed that sometimes we can provide for others, despite ourselves!


At my “surprise” birthday party, the group who ordered whole fire-grilled fish were served along with beers. For those who had ordered cutlet, we started getting a bit worried after an hour of waiting. We were enjoying the local beer so weren’t getting too grumpy and the stories were unfolding like we all were Irish. However, when ‘asking about the coming order’, the answer was typical African fashion, “It is coming”. Another half hour went by and one of the locals at our gathering went up and was told ‘the electricity was out’. The waitstaff simply hate to give bad news so they put it off if possible. Truthfully, the food was ‘not coming soon’. When Laura was in Togo, she had planted a corn field. She left a local man in charge for a short time while she was away on training. The crop had been thriving before she left. During her absence, she kept calling to ask about the corn crop and was assured that it was doing great. She returned to find her field had withered and died. When asked why the caretaker didn’t tell her the truth, he responded by saying, “I didn’t want you to feel bad.” Our meal came after about two hours and we devoured every bit of it. Another lesson we learned, is about purchasing ‘wine’, but apparently not the bottle. We don’t drink a whole bottle of wine, so we bring what’s left home with us. As we left the fish market, we were stopped by a waiter and waitress but couldn’t figure out exactly what they wanted. They kept pointing at my back pockets, which made Martha laugh. Finally, they were able to communicate to us that while we had paid for the wine, we had not paid for the bottle.

Our waitresses try so hard to please us and we have become favorites in all the establishments we frequent. Some have good understanding of English and our exchanges are limited but enjoyable. Getting the bill, however, is a struggle. The time that it takes to pay is often substantially longer than the time to order and eat your meal.  Unlike the States where you are encouraged to pay and make room for the next customers, here there is no pressure to vacate a table. This Ethiopian culture is polite and kind, never wanting to offend, and they would be very amazed about our American ‘rushing’ at meals and then seeing waitstaff present a bill the minute they serve.

My birthday night, we arrived home to darkness, discovering that the electrical problem of the neighborhood was a transformer right next to our building. We have headlamps, solar lights and candles so it wasn’t a huge problem for us. In fact, it is a bit fun to read by candlelight and to avoid CNN. But daily we had to organize places to recharge phones and laptops and access the Internet. After a few days they wired the Wi-Fi from an emergency generator and got the Internet going again. The biggest problem with no electricity is no hot water. We try not to complain as we see from our window many homes without the benefit of wells and water. We admittedly have been spoiled with the luxury of hot water. At the seven-day mark, we were more than happy to see the new transformer arrive, repaired and ready to provide power for lights and hot water.

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