Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Ethiopia

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Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we take for granted in the United States. Airmail from the United States to major cities in Ethiopia typically takes 2-4 weeks to arrive. Volunteers have been pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the Ethiopian postal service, but delayed and lost mail does occur. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes. Packages normally take 3-4 weeks to reach Ethiopia via airmail. Sending packages by ground mail can take up to a year to arrive so make sure to let your friends and family know this.

Your address during training will be:
Your Name/PCT
US Peace Corps/Ethiopia
P.O. Box 7788
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

You will purchase a personal postal office box once you move to your site. Mail arriving in Addis Ababa, after you have obtained your own postal office box, will continue to be held at the Peace Corps office until you pass through on official business or when a Peace Corps/Addis Ababa staff member visits you at your site.


Almost all sites have telecom centers with international long distance. Peace Corps/Ethiopia provides a telecommunications allowance. Cellular telephones are widespread in Ethiopia, although coverage varies across the country. You will have the option of purchasing a SIM card and phone during pre-service training (PST); almost all current Volunteers have mobile phones.

Computer, Internet, and Email Access[edit]

Internet access is available at Internet cafes in most towns and cities, but can be slow and costly, so most Volunteers use Internet about once every few weeks. Designated computers in the resource center at the Peace Corps office have Internet access, and you are welcome to use these when in Addis Ababa. Many Volunteers bring laptops for research, digital photos or entertainment, but as with any valuable item, there is a risk of theft or damage.

Housing and Site Location[edit]

As a Volunteer, you will most likely live in a peri-urban or small town and have electricity and a water source at your house, although these services suffer frequent outages and shortages in Ethiopia. When it comes to your housing, you should not lose sight of the guiding goal of the Peace Corps. Maintain your focus on service to the people of Ethiopia and not on the level of your accommodations.

Housing varies greatly among sites, so Peace Corps sets minimum housing standards:

  • There must be a private, lockable room with a private entrance, if housing is shared with other people
  • The room should have windows
  • The roof should not leak
  • There should be a cement floor and a place for a Volunteer to bathe
  • There should be a latrine that is private or semiprivate with a cemented floor
  • The Volunteer will use the same water source as his or her community

Your site assignment is made during PST in collaboration with the training staff. Site placements are made using the following criteria (in priority order):

  • Medical and security considerations
  • Priorities of the Ethiopian government
  • Site requirements matched with technical, crosscultural, and language skills of Volunteers
  • Personal preference of the trainee (expressed during interviews with staff)

Living Allowance and Money Management[edit]

Each Volunteer receives a monthly allowance sufficient to cover basic costs. The allowance enables Volunteers to live adequately according to the Peace Corps’ philosophy of a modest lifestyle. It is based on the local cost of living and is paid in local currency. Your living allowance is intended to cover food, housing, clothing, transportation from home to worksite, utilities, household supplies, recreation and entertainment, incidental personal expenses, communications, and reading material.

Food and Diet[edit]

In most parts of Ethiopia there is a regular, although limited, selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Butcher shops sell beef and lamb, live chickens can be purchased at market and in areas near lakes, and fresh fish is available. With a little creativity, you can enjoy a varied diet. Fruits and vegetables are seasonal, which means some items may not be available at all times. Vegetarian Volunteers will have little difficulty continuing their diets, as Orthodox Christians “fast” by eating a vegan diet on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Vegetarianism, however, is not common, so be prepared to explain your habits. Meat is eaten during special occasions and holidays, so it may be prudent to discuss your vegetarianism with host families early to avoid embarrassing or offending them.


All Volunteers will be expected to travel in Ethiopia using local transportation (i.e., foot, bicycle, public buses, minivans –called “blue donkeys due to the way they drive in tight traffic). Volunteers may not own or operate motorized vehicles in Ethiopia. Peace Corps will provide a stipend for Volunteers wishing to purchase a bike (with helmet) at site. If you purchase a bike, you are required to always wear a helmet while riding.

Geography and Climate[edit]

Most of Ethiopia is expected to enjoy a tropical climate due to its proximity to the equator, but since most of the country’s land mass is above 4,920 feet (1,500 meters), that is not the case. Ethiopia experiences extremely varied climatic conditions from cool to very cold in the highlands which most of the population inhabits, to one of the hottest places on Earth at the Danakil Depression.

Social Activities[edit]

The most common form of entertainment is socializing among friends and neighbors. Some Volunteers visit other Volunteers on weekends and holidays. The Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to remain at their sites as much as possible to develop relationships with community members, but it also recognizes that they need to make occasional trips to regional centers and to visit friends.

You will find it easy to make friends in your community and to participate in weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, and other social events. It is impossible to overemphasize the rewards of establishing rapport with supervisors, co-workers, and other community members. A sincere effort to learn the local language will greatly facilitate these interactions. chelsea rae harris

Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior[edit]

Ethiopians regard dress and appearance as an outward sign of the respect one holds for another individual. Neatness in appearance is more important than being “stylish.” Volunteers should always wear clean and neat clothes. Buttoned shirts for men and blouses and skirts or dresses (to or below the knee) for women are appropriate during business hours. T-shirts are appropriate only for casual, non-business activities. Tank tops, see-through blouses, or low-cut blouses are not appropriate; exposing one’s shoulders is unacceptable. Blue jeans should not be worn during business hours unless the conditions of the job assignment or training activity allow it, and never when visiting government offices. Shorts may be worn only at home, when exercising (if appropriate), or when doing work. Aside from dress, there are other standards of appearance that must be respected. Women should wear appropriate undergarment, including bras and slips. Your hair should be clean and combed. For men, beards should be neatly trimmed.

The matter of sexual behavior is, of course, a highly personal one. However, because of other social implications of such behavior, it is important that Peace Corps standards be clear. Sexual mores in Ethiopia are very conservative and strict, and you are expected to respect them. Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex, such as kissing, hand holding, or hugging are not generally socially acceptable, though hand holding among men is very common. Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia and punishable by imprisonment or deportation. Further information will be provided during your PST on appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior.

These restrictions have been formalized in response to specific instances of inappropriate dress and behavior by Volunteers. In general, the above guidance is meant to convey to Volunteers that adherence to professional standards is appropriate at all times and in all places. When in doubt, look to your Ethiopian counterparts for guidance. If the country director determines that willful disregard of cultural standards is jeopardizing your credibility or that of the program, you may be administratively separated from the Peace Corps.

Personal Safety[edit]

More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Ethiopia Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Ethiopia. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.

Each staff member at the Peace Corps is committed to providing Volunteers with the support they need to successfully meet the challenges they will face to have a safe, healthy, and productive service. We encourage Volunteers and families to look at our safety and security information on the Peace Corps website at Information on these pages gives messages on Volunteer health and Volunteer safety. A video message from the Director is on this page, as well as a section titled “Safety and Security in Depth.” This page lists topics ranging from the risks of serving as a Volunteer to posts’ safety support systems to emergency planning and communications.

Rewards and Frustrations[edit]

Before accepting this assignment, you should give ample thought to some of the potential obstacles you will face. Until your adjustment to Ethiopia is complete, you will undoubtedly feel out of place speaking a new language and trying to practice customs that may seem strange to you. No matter what your ethnic, religious, or racial background is, you may stick out as someone from outside the Ethiopian culture. However, many situations can be overcome with a sense of humor and an open mind.

Your work situation may also present many difficulties and frustrations. Most of your work will be to educate, motivate, and organize community groups, an often slow task. You will find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your colleagues and take action with little guidance from your colleagues and counterparts. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results or feedback. Co-workers, severely underpaid and burdened with extended family commitments, will have a much different outlook on life than your own, and rainy and agricultural seasons will delay many project activities. As each Volunteer’s job description will be uniquely dependent upon the expressed needs of the community and the skills that you bring, you will be constantly defining and redefining your role as you attempt to meet the needs of your community. This is both a gift and a challenge. A gift in that you are free to work in areas where you are needed most, and a challenge in that you must invent and reinvent yourself in an oftentimes unstructured work environment. Defining your role and finding your “niche” within your community will be one of your greatest challenges, but one that can be achieved with time, personal drive, resourcefulness, and a flexible and patient mind.

Peace Corps service is not for everyone. More than a job, it requires greater dedication and commitment to serve than do most other work environments. It is for confident, selfstarting, and concerned individuals who are interested in assisting in other countries and increasing understanding across cultures. If you have the personal qualities needed to accept the challenges described above and can demonstrate them for a two-year service commitment in Ethiopia, you will have a rewarding, enriching, and lasting experience, while at the same time making a much-needed contribution to the development of Ethiopia.

Even with the many economic, social, political, and environmental challenges facing Ethiopia today, there is an atmosphere of excitement and hope. The changes occurring are some of the most important in the country’s modern history. To join the people of Ethiopia in this effort, and to be part of this historical and defining moment, will be both fascinating and satisfying to Volunteers willing to work hard, be tolerant, and give generously of their time. The HIV epidemic strikes across all social strata in Ethiopia. You will probably be working regularly with people living with HIV/AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll this disease can have on Volunteers and take care to maintain your own emotional strength so you can continue to serve your community.

See also: Ethiopia