Dispatch from Ethiopia VII: Culture is the Spice of Life (part 3)

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. This is the fifth installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. This post is the final in a series of three this month about Ethiopian culture.


Ethiopia has a rich tradition of both secular and religious music. Singing accompanies agricultural activities, religious festivals, and ceremonies surrounding birth, marriage and death. Ethiopian music is played on a variety of traditional instruments, including the massinko, a type of one-stringed violin played with a bow; the krar, a six-stringed lyre; the washint, a simple flute; and different drums played with sticks or hands.Ethiopian pop music and modern-style bands have developed in recent decades. Noted Ethiopian jazz musicians have been playing for decades also. The most popular pop star in Ethiopia now is Teddy Afro. When his latest CD “Tikur Sew” came out last year, everyone was playing it. You could hear non-stop Teddy blasting from every shop and on every bus. This CD is full of great songs so I never got tired of hearing it. When I return to the U.S., this CD will bring me right back to feeling like I’m in Ethiopia. Famous Ethiopian female singers like Aster Aweke and Gigi also have well-produced music and beautiful songs. I play Gigi’s music more than any other singer, American or foreign.

Community and closeness
Researchers say that personal space in the U.S. is about 1.5–4 feet depending on how well we know the person, with minimal or no contact if we don’t know the person. They refer to this as the “American bubble.”Personal space in Ethiopia is zero feet zero inches no matter how well you know a person. I’ve had people on a crowded bus prop themselves up on my thighs, rest their arms on me, fall asleep on my shoulder, and ride smashed together with six people in a back seat designed for five. This took a little getting used to, but after awhile it’s just part of life. We’re too uptight about personal space in America anyway. I like it when people squeeze together on a bus seat to allow a third person to sit down, or share a single chair when there aren’t enough. I can’t imagine someone in the U.S. scooching over on their chair during a meeting to make room for me.Another cultural phenomenon in Ethiopia that differs from the U.S. is that male friends hold hands while walking together. Men and women rarely if ever hold hands in public. Public displays of affection between the opposite sex are taboo.

Personal space doesn’t exist in Ethiopia. You can see how close the students are packed together at this HIV/AIDS training. Friends often hang or lean on each other.
Personal space doesn’t exist in Ethiopia. You can see how close the students are packed together at this HIV/AIDS training. Friends often hang or lean on each other. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.

In the U.S. we have a one kid/one bed tradition. In Ethiopia, three or four siblings will pile into the same bed or sleep on the same mat every night, so it’s no wonder people are conditioned to being close. When you’re poor and part of a big family, it’s just not possible to have your own bed or your own space.

Making friends with kids is a quintessential Peace Corps experience and I walk down the street holding kids’ hands every day of my life here. They make me feel welcome and they think it’s a novel experience themselves. It makes me part of the community and parents laugh and appreciate it. I can’t even imagine walking down the street hand-in-hand with kids I didn’t know in the U.S.

The kids in my town are very affectionate.
The kids in my town are very affectionate. Photo contributed by Paul Voigt.

This is just a small taste of Ethiopian culture. There are foods, languages, religions, clothing and customs in this incredibly diverse country that I haven’t mentioned, learned about, or experienced. Discovering each new cultural ingredient is the spice of a Peace Corps volunteer’s life in Ethiopia. I’ve learned it all from scratch in order to share it with others.


Join our community of travelers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RollerbagGoddess

Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia.

Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here.


Creative Commons License

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

One thought on “Dispatch from Ethiopia VII: Culture is the Spice of Life (part 3)

  1. what a captivating and devinely written piece about ETHIOPIA. One of the best ethio-related articles around. We were sarching for Teddy Afro related articles initially when stumbled across this piece, we will gladly promote and share this article. If it is not intrusive we would like to invite to our new site as well, for which we are gathering all things TEDDY AFRO https://www.facebook.com/officialteddyafro


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