Discrimination or an example of a perfect market economy? The “skin tax,” as one Ethiopian coworker called it, is rampant in Gondar. Every day assumptions are made about me based on the colour of my skin. Usually- I’m rich, I’m a tourist, I’m a doctor, I’m a teacher, I don’t speak Amharic, I’m loose, I’m here to give out money, I think I’m superior, I’m rude, I tip well, I don’t tip at all, I’m Israeli, I’m Italian, I’m definitely not German, I’m short term, I’m a foreigner, I have a watch… and it’s ok to charge me extra.
Some of those assumptions are true, some are very not. And every volunteer gets different assumptions based on their gender, ethnic background, accent, language ability, and where in Ethiopia they live.
For me, I live in a tourist town. Gondar is well-known for its “ferenji waga” or “foreigner’s price.” Restaurants have two menus, hotels have two rates, and historical sites have multiple admission prices. The reality is that if I were a tourist those price differences wouldn’t matter all that much. While sometimes there is as much as a 300% increase on a menu, the difference between a 75 cent meal for a local and $3 meal for a tourist is still cheap for the traveler.
The problem is, I’m not a tourist, or an NGO worker, or a doctor. I don’t get a salary in USD, I get a stipend… in birr. About the equivalent of a middle class Ethiopian. I’m certainly not struggling, but getting overcharged over and over again takes a toll on my budget.
Community integration is incredibly hard to measure. How close are you really to your community? You many never know. Especially in a city, I break my communities into pieces. Souk owners I frequent know me, check. I have coffee or tea with Ethiopian friends around the city, check. I am getting more and more work, which is hopefully a sign of trust, check. But the clearest indicator so far of community integration has been when I get charged “habesha waga” or “local price” at a restaurant.
It’s not just a sign of my language skills. I usually have to explicitly ask for the local price, assert that I live here, and that I’m a volunteer. But owners I know and who have seen me around for a significant time are getting more lenient. Now I only have to ask once.
What bothers me isn’t the existence of the price racketeering, it’s the assumption that I fall into that bracket. The idea of different rates isn’t a bad thing necessarily. In fact a completely free economy dictates price based on worth for the consumer. For a tourist, who is used to $20 meals at home, a $5 meal here for the same food is a deal, even if it is twice as expensive as its local worth. But what makes me grit my teeth is that this price rating is based on skin colour. Tourists from other cities like Addis Ababa are charged local prices, and people born in other countries who live long term in the rural countryside are charged the tourist rate.
The other frequent occurrence is people trying to overcharge me at the market, yet for some reason that does not bother me at all. Yes, I get annoyed when I know the real price (I just bought eggs here last week!), but I’m not going to fault people for trying to eek a few extra birr out of me if they can get away with it. Haggling is part of the culture, and while it is exhausting, it isn’t annoying. What gets under my grill is the standardized price gauging, the institutionalized, printed, pre-determined unfairness. If I could sit down at a restaurant, talk in Amharic and get a local price while the tourist gets charged extra- fine! In fact, great! But when I come in, sit down, talk in Amharic, ask the waitress about her day and her work and still get handed the “English menu” with the higher prices simply because I don’t look Ethiopian is frustrating. And when I say don’t look Ethiopian, I don’t mean “white.” I mean dark black, Asian, Hispanic, and white. If you don’t look like you were born 15 feet from that restaurant you will not be treated like you live 15 feet from that restaurant… even if you do.
Ethiopia is an incredibly diverse country. There are 87 languages, 100s of tribes, and at least three fairly prominent religions. But for how diverse it is on paper, Ethiopia is also incredibly homogenous. Homogenous if only because people do not or cannot travel. Culture develops at the village level and may be very different from the next village over, or the next region over, but there isn’t much mixing except in cities, making diversity still very strange for most people here.
While I get assumptions in Gondar, if I go more rural, I get bewilderment. I met a woman the other day who was working as a cleaner in a hole in the wall restaurant who had never seen a ferenji before. Granted, she had just come in from the rural village last week, and not many tourists frequent that particular area, but even in Gondar, there are still pockets of isolation.
So the skin tax is both an example of institutionalized discrimination, the effect of a capitalistic economy (ya they’ll pay it, because they can afford it), and the subject of gripe for many volunteers. But we can ask, we can live, and maybe every once and while we get charged the habesha waga. And when that happens, you feel great for a week!