Ethiopian Customs

I want to share a few of the more poignant Ethiopian customs I have run into living in Ethiopia. In this post I will highlight 4:  gursha, man to man interactions, buna bents and taphadhu

I’ll begin with the least surprising aspects of Ethiopian life.

Coffee or as they call it here Shayi/Buna. Twice a day sometimes more Ethiopians take a break to grab some coffee or tea. It is cheap, 1 birr for tea and 2 birr for coffee. There are a myriad of buna bents (coffee places) in every Ethiopian town I’ve ever been to. In my town, Lalo, of 7,500 people there are at least 30. Every family has a coffee set too. Ethiopians make coffee differently as well, which is very labor intensive. They start with the raw bean and then they roast the beans. Next they take a staff and mortar to grind the bean by sheer force. Lastly, they toss the ground up beans into boiling water and boom, Ethiopian coffee. The coffee is stronger, served in espresso portions. When I go to an Ethiopian home the first thing they do is make coffee, at least two cups, more likely three. I consume absurd amounts of coffee. In both tea and coffee they put ridiculous amounts of sugar into it. The tea is closer to a cider it’s so sweet. Ethiopia still hasn’t figured out how to put sugar in baked goods but, by god, they more than make up for it in their liquids. Here in Ethiopia a common addition to both coffee and tea is what is called xenedami (pronounced tenadami, x is an explosive t). I believe it’s rue* in English but translating certain herbs and food can be very inconsistent because even the people that know English don’t know English names for herbs and obscure food. Stir with a sprig of xenedami and it adds a fruity, earthy flavor.

Gursha. This is an Ethiopian practice I have embraced to the fullest extent. It is taking a hunk of food then feeding it to a friend. As any Peace Corps member living in Enchini can attest I Gursha’d someone, anyone every day. There is an art to the Gursha. It’s not as simple as putting a bite of food in a friend’s mouth with a fork. Gursha has dangers, teeth and fingers in close proximity. The giver has to have a tight hold on the food, but also release the food into the receiver’s mouth at the perfect time. Or else there’s dropped food or teeth indents on knuckles. I am proud to say I am the best American but far from where I want to be. I will share my trade secrets. First, you must have a large piece of injera with a solid amount of food. It’s a complete failure if you drop the food on the journey to the mouth. Next, right as you pass the lips with your morsel twist and push. Twisting is the secret, much like the twist when chugging beer from a boot. As soon as you finish the twist release and pull out. Be quick with pulling out, some people are quick to chomp. Now you can try at home with your friends, you’re welcome.

Ethiopians feel as if you should never be alone and if you are with a group you should be active in the conversation. Very social, very friendly. One issue for me, I am far from fluent in their language. I have a 10 to 15 minute ceiling on my Afan Oromo conversations. When I get quiet or maybe I am just sipping some coffee and want to ponder my thought, if I am not speaking they say “taphadhu” or “dubadhu.” This means “play” or “talk” respectively. It’s a unique experience to be told to talk on the spot in a language I’m not comfortable with. To be blunt, I hate it. Every time someone says dubadhu I die a little inside. A small ball of rage festers inside growing a little bit each time I hear it. On average 20 times a day. It’s purely culture and they just want me to be social and happy, but I feel like a dancing monkey when I’m told to talk. It gets unnerving, and they will say it over and over again. I tell people now, you too in Afan Ormo then continue zoning out, but that doesn’t stop the staring and expectancy for me to talk.

The last and most interesting Ethiopian custom is the male to male interactions. It may be similar for female to female interactions but I never see women together in public or ever, really. If I go grab some bread and tea at the local bread house I will see 20 men entranced by an Indian soap opera, quirky sight. Ethiopia is anti-homosexual, it is what it is. But, the men are all over each other all the time, exclusively out of friendship. By American standards they are flaming more than white iron coming out of a furnace. They not only hold hands, men will wrap their arms around each other’s fingers, arms and bodies interlaced like fingers caught in a Chinese finger trap. Sitting on laps, no problem. Hands on thighs, of course. Hand in a buddies back pocket, you betcha. The men and boys look so graceful doing it too. If I tried half of what they did I would look more awkward than, well, me trying an Ethiopian dance. I am in the precarious position of making friends, being a foreigner, and being an awkward, giant white guy. Here’s an example. I was having coffee with my counterpart Geneti, wonderful guy. He put his hand on my thigh. As soon as he did that I had an internal freak out. Play it cool John. He’s doing it out of friendship. Yes! Made it to second base on the Ethiopian friendship scale. Shoot, do I do something back? Hmm, arm around him? No, I’m too lanky. Hand on his thigh? No, too far too fast. Hand on his hand? Good middle ground. Shit! Wrong move John, what were you thinking? My hand on his hand on my thigh! Now he’s looking at me funny. Time to go!

* Rue, also known as common rue, ruta and herb of grace, is a small, evergreen herb that has a strong smell and a somewhat bitter taste.

In Ethiopia, rue, locally known as ‘tena Adam’ is a very important condiment and is used to flavor various dishes and beverages, especially coffee. Sprigs of the plant are first cut, washed, boiled for a few minutes and then added to strong black coffee. This not only gives a refreshing flavor and aroma to the drink but also adds therapeutic benefits to it. In addition, ruta is used to flavor yogurt, eggs, milk and cheese in Ethiopia.   Taken from

2 thoughts on “Ethiopian Customs

  1. John, this is priceless. I could just picture you in the situation with your friend -hand on thigh thing. My suggestion? Hmmm, what would you do in West Palm with a pal? A friend? Probably a casual arm about the shoulder even if the shoulder is 1 1/2 feet lower than yours. Just a random thought! I love you ….. more, Gram


  2. John. I love reading about your adventures as you soak in the culture around you. Please keep feeding us more stories so we can learn too. What a fine young man you’ve grown into.
    Coach Gary


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