Rural accommodation in Ethiopia

Mark Chapman, founder of our Ethiopia vacation specialists Tesfa Tours, says he gets all sorts of travelers staying in his guest houses. He remembers one in particular: “She called me up very concerned saying, ‘My husband would go trekking in sandals anywhere, but I like my comfort, I like things to be clean, I don’t like getting cold.’” 

It’s testament to Mark’s enthusiastic way of talking about rural village life that the kind of travelers who would normally prefer a little more luxury choose to stay here. But the guest houses don’t disappoint. “At the end of their tour,” he says, “this traveler said the four nights they spent with communities were the highlight of their trip. They’d spent some nights in really posh lodges as well, but she said she absolutely loved being with the communities because it’s not staged, it’s not set up, it’s authentic.”
It’s a unique chance to have a real insight into what goes on in rural Ethiopia.
Mark has lived in Ethiopia for over 20 years, where he has devoted his time to developing community-based tourism. He describes this as a partnership between businesses and local communities (which part-own the tourism enterprises) that creates sustainable benefits for local people. The guest houses are “a sort of village co-operative”, as he explains, where host communities receive a significant portion of the profits from travelers booking tours there.
“We’ve built the guest houses – I say we, but the communities have actually built them – by working with NGOs and other donors to get funds for them,” says Mark. Communities have put in the manpower and provided many of the materials themselves, meaning accommodation is simple and in keeping with the look of the local tukuls – traditional, round stone houses with thatched roofs. “We are the only people who have worked with villages to build guest houses that they then run as cooperatives,” explains Mark. “It’s a unique chance to have a real insight into what goes on in rural Ethiopia.”

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Ethiopia rural accommodation, nr Lalibela

Ethiopia rural accommodation, nr Lalibela

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Village life

Mark suggests that everyone on his tours should spend at least two nights in rural community accommodation. “I encourage as many of our travelers as I can towards it, unless I get a message from them pretty fast that this isn’t what they want to do, because it really does give you that insight.” 

There are two locations where travelers can stay in rural villages, one near Lalibela, the other near Tigray. Guest houses are often built on the outskirts of villages, which are in turn often clustered around a church. Some areas will be spread out to make space for farmland or homesteads. When you wake up, you’ll see the shepherds in the fields that cover the long escarpments. You can watch how they make the food, see the herds of sheep and cattle and chat to the kids. Through your guide, who can help you translate, you can talk to them about what their parents do or what they’re learning at school.
Mark is keen to emphasise that visitors’ experiences are of authentic local life, nothing here is staged for their benefit. “Sometimes in the evening, people get a jerry can and use it as a drum and people do traditional dancing, but that’s if they feel a sense of fun with the people they’re with and want to do it. It’s not part of what we say will happen, it’s that authentic sharing of experiences.”
The sharing goes both ways; local people really benefit from you being there when you stay in the guest houses – 55 percent of the profits are paid straight to the hosting communities. All the guides on your tours are local too, whether you’re trekking in the mountains or visiting cultural sites.
It’s support that’s really needed in the rural areas where our Ethiopian tour experts work. For some families, life is a struggle. “Half of the year they have food and they share their food, you’ll find people come up to you in the fields and give you beans and things like that,” says Mark. But in the time between one harvest and the next there often isn’t enough. “They also have coping strategies themselves,” he explains, “and tourism fits into that as it gives certain people an extra income and a flow of much-needed cash.”

What is rural accommodation in Ethiopia like?

Eco-friendly facilities

For a few reasons, the facilities at the guest houses vary from one to the next. “The original concept was that there would be composting toilets, but when I’ve left people to go and build them they’ve never been built exactly how I wanted them,” says Mark with a chuckle. “It was supposed to compost in the pipe but you have to get the angle just right. So we’ve built pits at the end of some of them, and that’s where it composts.”

The basic model for the guest houses comes with three bedrooms, each with a double and a single bed in it. The beds are built with a stone base, but covered with a thick, foam mattress bought in Addis Ababa. “There’s no electricity,” warns Mark. Some have solar installed, but candles are standard for most properties. Some have a shower cubicle, some just a jug of water. As Mark points out, in the dry season, there’s not that much water around: “So people don’t feel like washing that much anyway. A couple of jugs of water can be nice just to have a little splash with.” It’s basic, sure, but your accommodation’s carbon footprint is as low as it could realistically get. 

Who is rural accommodation in Ethiopia for?

When it comes to what kind of travelers typically stay in the guest houses, Mark says: “We get a whole range, because our accommodation is so uncommon.”
From outdoors-loving families with active kids who are happy walking, to older people who are still fit and active but want an added cultural experience, the accommodation appeals to all sorts. “Increasingly, we’re getting a little bit more of a younger, 35-50 year old group who are a bit short on time but want to do something a bit more strenuous on their vacation,” says Mark. With a laugh, he adds, “For older kids, though, there’s no WiFi, but if parents are happy to give them a detox for a few days... Even across the country the WiFi is pretty poor, it’s one of the things with traveling in Ethiopia.”
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tesfa Tours] [Top box: Kevin Perry for Tesfa Tours] [Village life: mulugeta wolde] [Who is it for?: Jenn]
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