Five Emotions from Living in Ethiopia

In four weeks we leave Ethiopia, our home for the past two years, and return to live in Ireland. Here are a few of the meaningful things I’ve learnt about myself, through five emotions.



Sometimes I find myself driving around or working at my desk and all of a sudden it hits me all over again that I live in Africa. The past two years have been full of adventure for us. Fiona is an adventurist at heart while I tend to be a little slower to explore (!) But she has helped me to embrace the crazy of it all. We’ve experienced a new culture, country and people, have been stretched in so many different ways and experienced the A- Z of emotions from joy and wonder to loneliness and fear and everything in between. We’ve swam in the Indian Ocean, explored 4th century churches carved out of the rock, stood at the side of a live volcano, shoulder-danced with the locals, experienced breath-taking beauty, tried new food, vomited up new food, learnt to drive a 4×4 and hosted dear friends from home. When we got married 4 years ago, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would live in Ethiopia.



Most of the dominant emotions I experienced in the first few months were from deep culture shock. I walked around those first few months feeling a mixture of confusion and bewilderment. Why is that woman selling her onions in the middle of the roundabout? How is that bamboo scaffolding supporting 6 workers? Why is that man doing his press-ups on the motorway?


I remember going to the main supermarket in our first week:

“Excuse me, where can I find sugar?”


“Oh…ok. What about a tin of tomatoes?”

“Also finished.”

“Right. Tin foil?”

“Yes, we have. 1,850 birr” (about €60).

“Em….. I’ll leave it. Thanks.”


I’ve had my grocery expectations dramatically lowered as I’ve begun to realise that basic condiments are often not available and the ones that are can be extremely expensive. Whenever I came back to Ireland I engaged in my own form of ‘mindful shopping’ – walking around Supervalu and appreciating the variety of choice when it came to jam, cheese and pork products!



If you were to film me driving around the city you may recommend I enrol in an anger management course. There is no such thing as a right of way on the roads – whether that’s on the roundabout, turning left or at a pedestrian crossing! Ethiopians have a different culture, a different way of working and communicating. I’ve noticed my own biases and judgmental attitudes, how I find myself thinking, “It should be this way!” But I’ve been learning to let go and seek to understand more. I’ve tried to see differences as just that – different ways of moving and living and being in this world. I’ve tried to appreciate the things they do well, that we in the West could learn to do more of.


However, being completely honest, the past two years has also made me profoundly grateful for being able to live in Ireland. Two weeks ago the Ethiopian government decided to switch off the internet in the entire country for four whole days to try to avoid cheating in the school state exams. That is not a joke! Five days ago the government again decided to switch off the internet in the country for something a lot more serious. On Saturday night a series of top government officials were assassinated in two cities, including Addis Ababa. The media were calling it an attempted coup. For five days (and counting) we’ve been plunged into communication darkness – no WIFI, no 3G, no text messages. It’s a chaotic and uncertain time in the country.



On 11th March this year, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 en route to Nairobi plummeted to the ground minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board, including a fellow Irishman. The sense of sadness was overwhelming. So much life lost in the blink of an eye. I remember feeling a paralyzing sense of shock that Sunday morning. The plane crashed 60 miles from our home on an airline we have boarded many times, on a route I have taken many times.  The profound tragedy of that day was like a jolt to my system. It was an unearthing of all the things that are actually important to me in life and a sobering reminder to simply be grateful for life itself. We can never know the time or the hour.




Being able to find work here that I love and value is the thing I am most grateful to God for. Coaching leaders and helping them develop emotional intelligence has provided me with purpose and an overwhelming satisfaction that I can contribute to society here and facilitate space for leaders to talk about their challenges, emotions, reactions and behaviour, helping them discover clarity or find solutions. I have worked with NGOs and embassies, young Ethiopian entrepreneurs and business leaders. More recently I’ve been working with staff in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Walking onto the UN campus has been surreal. Before we left Ireland, everybody was asking me what I would do in Ethiopia. I’d have to answer with “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to see.” Finding a sense of deep purpose through work that is both challenging and rewarding has been an unexpected gift from God.

2 Responses to “Five Emotions from Living in Ethiopia”

  1. Marie

    Matthew – what a wonderful blog. You captured so much of your life with so little words yet I felt I was there with you. What an amazing opportunity for you both but delighted you got to use all of you too.

  2. Kate Flanagan

    Matthew, thanks for this authentic look at your experience in Ethiopia–life-changing, for sure!! There is nothing like living in another culture to strip you of some attitudes that need to go. Very humbling, as I remember my own experience. “Different doesn’t mean wrong” Although it FEELS wrong!! I am looking forward to seeing you and Fiona, hopefully in 2020.

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