Keeping Up with Ethiopia's Joneses

Mar 6 , 2021
By Kidist Yidnekachew

Many are in shock over the current rise in the cost of living. It has grown more concerning by the day. Yet some people are attempting to live the way they did as before.

Last week, I was invited to a friend's house for lunch on the occasion of a long overdue reunion. From the outset, things did not seem to be in order. Even though she went through the trouble of preparing a nice meal, it was clear right away that it was not enough for all of the guests.

The host has four children, while another relative brought two more. The adults might have understood, but the children fought over scarce resources. The children were not full with the portions they were given and demanded more. The guest that brought kids felt awkward and was putting some of her food on the kids' plates. But my friend could not take it with her children.

"Enough,” she screamed at them. “All the food is finished. I saved some for your father, but you'll eat later when I make some more.”

After that, she was noticeably embarrassed, as if she had just admitted to have not prepared enough food for everyone. I could sympathise, because I understood what she was going through. She had overstretched herself trying to prepare fancy food, going over and beyond her budget to the point where she was forced to borrow.

I had asked her why it was necessary to go over budget to invite friends for lunch and could not be content with what she could afford and is available, or as they say in Amharic,bet yaferawin.

That was not an option though, as far as she was concerned. She heard that the last invitation at one of the relative's house was lavish. She could not go, but the rest of her family members briefed her on the relative's house, cars and foods prepared. It was this same relative she was trying to impress this time.

Many Ethiopians are guilty of trying to keep up with the Joneses. They throw a wedding celebration that costs a million Birr either to make their parents happy or because the neighbour has done it first. Our penchant for extravagance pushes us to borrow until we can no longer pay to prove to others that we can afford a particular lifestyle at least for a day and spend 29 days of the month stressing and regretting our efforts to seem rich.

This reminds me of my grandmother, who threw get-together parties where family members near or far come together to catch up. Each member takes a turn to host this event. Since we were a large family, events took place pretty much throughout the year. They were marked by food and drinks that is enough to feed an army.

When it was my family's turn to host, my grandmother, with other relatives' help, used to cook lots of food not because she was rich but because she was generous and wanted to feed everyone. She also did not want to be "beneath" her other relatives and throw a less extravagant party. Even though the family gathering brought us together frequently, it also has a downside in forcing people to spend above their means.

It does not have to be this way. There should be other ways of measuring how valuable a neighbour or family member is, and this can start by revising the way we understand and estimate the worth of wealth.

In the case of the friend that threw the lunch party, for instance, everybody who went to the invitation at the rich relative's house was saying nice things about her even though they barely knew her. They insisted that she was hospitable, but it was hard to be convinced. They kept coming back to how big her house was, how expensive her cars were and how delicious and splendid the food was.

She is probably a very nice person, but it is clear that she was being measured based on her economic status. As long as this is how society attaches worth to individuals, it is hard to expect people not to try and keep up with the Joneses. This is how people feel they will get the respect of society.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 06,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1088]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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