Pickpocket Gangs of Addis Ababa

Ethiopia is the first stop on our tour of northeast Africa. We had three nights booked in Addis Ababa and no organized plan ahead of time. All the other stops on this trip required fairly extensive visa applications and organized tour planning and Ethiopia was basically just left over. Looking at the stuff people do on itineraries of a few days here, we figured we would just wing it. I think we also figured that Addis would be the “easy” stop on this tour. It turns out it has actually proven to be pretty challenging. This is really not a city for the uninitiated to be roaming around in. You probably shouldn’t be roaming around at all here at night. 

We arrived in Addis late on January 18th, with our first full day touring the city on January 19th. I’d like to say that we planned this trip with those specific dates in mind, but we didn’t. We read days before arriving that January 19th was a national holiday, but none of us had any appreciation for how significant the holiday was. January 19th is a holiday called Timkat, and it is the Orthodox Tewahedo celebration of Epiphany. What this meant for us was shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and closed streets all over the city with parades, dancing, and music. It was quite the spectacle. We took this in after visiting the National Museum. Afterwards, we visited St. George’s Cathedral, which was somewhat nearby.

Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany parade

 On the way to St. George’s was our first colorful interaction with locals for the day. Greg and Tara are with us on this trip. Now, any Westerners attract attention in this region, but between Greg’s tattoos and Tara’s blonde hair, we were getting quite a bit of attention at times. At one point, a guy (who seemed like a pleasant drunk at first) kind of latched onto Greg and started following our group. We could not shake this guy. He didn’t ask for money, and it really wasn’t clear what his goal was. Our first attempt to lose him was to head into a restaurant for drinks and a snack. This proved to be a pretty poor plan, because the guy  followed us inside. We got a table for four and he just lounged in a nearby table, harassing us and other patrons. After a while, I was pretty sure that if a brawl broke out, the other local patrons would probably have our backs. The manager kept trying to get the guy out of there. Eventually, he did leave, bothering other people that were eating outside… yelling, dancing, just being a completely unhinged weirdo. We took our time in the place (called “Pizza Bell”!!) and headed out to St. George’s after leaving. Up the road, the drunk guy spotted us again. We hustled, but he broke into a full jog to catch up to us. At this point, we figured we were screwed. We were not going to be able to lose this guy. We were annoyed enough I think that another tap on the shoulder was gonna get him a punch in the face. Unfortunately, this guy had clearly had his nose broken multiple times in the past, so it would seem that maybe violence hadn’t  altered his behavior. Before it got to that point though, I had one last plan. We were in a huge roundabout with only pedestrian traffic. Thousands of people mulling about. He was just one guy following us, but our group of four had to move somewhat slower, because we absolutely couldn’t lose track of one another in this horde. So, I pointed out a bright road sign as a landmark and said that all four of need to, quickly and without warning, scatter in four different directions. He could only follow one of us. Whoever that is, your job is to lose him. We would all circle back to the road sign. So that’s what we did. The guy followed Greg out of the four of us, but was quickly lost. We all walked back up to the sign about the same time. Mission accomplished, and we never saw that broke-nosed freak again. 

Now, that SHOULD be enough excitement for the day. Keep in mind, between all this, as well as the massive crowds and normal travel issues, you’re also constantly dodging beggars and touts of all kinds. Frequently, people are tailing you closely and as soon as that is noticed, our move is usually to make an abrupt turn and then come to a complete stop, looking back directly at whoever is following you. Usually you get a sheepish look (or nothing) and then just carry on. “Situational awareness”, as it is, is important in all sorts of travel destinations, but especially so in Africa. In general, I think our group has been pretty good on this front. Nobody with a backpack in the back of the group. Purses & cameras forward, or put away in certain areas. Generally nothing valuable in pockets. Wallet in a covered and zippered pocket. Always pay attention to your surroundings. We certainly did all of these things as we visited the Merkato in Addis Ababa. The guidebooks warn extensively about pickpockets in Merkato, so we were careful. Even without that though, the Merkato is extremely shady looking. It’s a wasteland of rubble and poverty. Half dead looking homeless people laying across sidewalks. People cooking on piles of construction debris. Hawkers selling piles of (basically garbage) stuff like used phone cases and broken remote controls strewn across blankets. Apparently you just have to see this place though, every itinerary mentions it. Because of Timkat, many of the shops were shuttered, which made the place in some ways safer, and in other ways, maybe not so much. After one lap through, we started circling back to head to our side of town. We had Google maps loaded offline so that was what we were using to walk until we got to a taxi stand or, as it happened, to the tram. 

Standing behind gate at tram station, comfortable with federal police armed with machine guns.

On the outskirts of the Merkato is where we ran into trouble. After talking about things later, our mistake was this: we delayed on a busy street corner considering which way to turn. We probably only talked for a minute or two. That was enough time for people with ill intentions to formulate a plan though. In general, when entering a place where I know we’re going to be accosted, we’ll discuss ahead of time which way we’re going. If we don’t know, then we’ll just agree on a direction (Left!) and stick with it confidently until we can get ourselves sorted. We had just left Merkato though and maybe our guard was down a bit. We ended up needing to make a right down a side street, walking down a narrow sidewalk that was rimmed with some typically shady people loitering as well as a few people selling random junk. A little way in, several things happened in quick succession. First, a guy tried unzipping Tara’s bag. She caught him, yelled, which alerted Greg a few feet ahead. Greg had his attention focused back at that guy, likely considering whether it was worth it to go beat the hell out of some middle-aged creep. I’m ahead of the group a bit, looking ahead at the moment because another guy is approaching in a suspicious way, looking at me. Then I hear the unmistakable sound of a fist striking flesh… like somebody punched a slab of meat. Immediately, mentally, I’m like “oh shit” as I turned back…. This is what happened… So, while Greg was distracted with the guy that had tried Tara, a team of two guys tried to get Greg’s iPhone, which was visible in his front pant pocket. The first guy bumped into him from the front, very brazenly. Greg was already on guard and thought it suspicious, and aggressively pushed that guy aside. A second guy was on his left and had slid his hand in Greg’s pocket for the phone. Greg wheeled around and punched the guy right in the jaw, completely connecting with all his body weight. By the time I turned around. The pickpocket was stumbling backwards, holding his face, looking confused but also definitely not looking like he wanted any more of that. The other two guys, one now behind Greg and one in front of me looked like they were considering their options. Greg yelled a few expletives and everyone pretty much scattered. So for us, thankfully, nobody was hurt (Greg’s hand was ok) and all property was accounted for. Take home message though: in shady areas, always keep moving.

Spread for four at Yod Abyssinia

 The rest of the first day was uneventful, ending at a real gem of a restaurant called Yod Abyssinia. Excellent Ethiopian food with live music and dance performances. We visited there on our first trip to Addis in 2014 and really enjoyed it both times.

Now, you would think that the excitement of the first day would be sufficient, but you would be wrong. Our second day proved to be quite similar and was another learning experience. We slept in a bit and had plans on going to an Ethiopian coffee chain before heading across town to visit the Ethnological Museum. Our hotel is in a “nice” part of town, in the Bole district. We made the short walk a few blocks to a Tomoca coffee shop.

Tomoka Coffee

On the way, recounting the adventures of the day before, a group of teenage boys cut into our group, one of them zeroing in on me to try and say hello and give a handshake, another to my left with a tray, ostensibly selling tissue packets. A third guy was ahead of our group, possibly the leader, and likely a distraction for the front of the group. I politely told Mr. Handshake to fuck off and back up, and moved around the tray guy. They persisted, and within a few seconds, handshake guy grabs my right arm and gives it a shake, screaming hello or something. Greg clapped and moved in, yelling. I yelled. Kid backs away. A few more expletives. Weird, right? I feel my left pocket… no iPhone. Maybe 5-10 seconds elapsed, and I darted across the road after the trio. Greg was behind me but not quite as reckless in terms of daring a car to hit me. My plan? Probably to grabbed the smallest and slowest of them and send them to the hospital. That wasn’t necessary though because I just yelled “give me back my phone motherfuckers!” as I came up on them… the bigger, older one came forward and held out my phone. No discussion. No further drama. It was curious, but then again it wasn’t.

These guys were professionals. There are lots of hotels in the area and lots of much easier pickings. I really have to give them credit though, because they were organized and very slick. If I had shook that guys hand, guaranteed he would’ve distracted me in a less bizarre way and it would’ve taken me at least another 20-30 seconds to figure out what had transpired. They’d be long gone.

It’s hard to believe, but before leaving, we ended up with yet another cluster of insanity on the streets of Addis. On our last night, we walked the two or three blocks (up what is supposed to be the “nice” and “rich” area) to a local burger place. An Ethiopian knock-off of In-and-Out Burger. Anyhow, on the way, an older lady started following close for a bit and then a younger guy with a tray of goods comes at us from the side. We knew immediately what the deal was and flew into a string of expletives at the guy, just daring him to take a step closer. He didn’t, and the old lady behind us immediately disappeared. After dinner, as we’re walking back, we hear a commotion behind us and see a couple of young guys basically strong-arming this older male foreigner. He was feebly trying to fight back but they were all over him. This was in probably the best lit square in the nicest area of the city. I grabbed a chunk of concrete rubble and ran at the group along with Greg and they backed away quickly and scampered off into the dark. The guy was shaken, hard to tell what they got off of him. Of course, we still had one more tray guy approach us on the way back and we ran him off as well. And that pretty much wrapped up our visit to Addis!

Ok ok… so now what? Lessons learned? First, no phones in pockets. Nothing of value in any unsecured pocket. Moving in a group of four, Greg holds up the rear with nothing of value on him, so he can focus on scanning ahead and around us. I’m in front with a backpack. Whenever stopping… for a taxi, buying something, whatever… one person keeps watch on surroundings without being distracted by anything else. Another general lesson we learned here is that the strategies for avoiding trouble in South and Southeast Asia are largely ineffective in Africa. In Asia, you need to perfect the 1000-yard-stare, looking through and not interacting in any way with  touts, scammers, or beggars. In Africa, you can’t afford to disengage. When a group approaches, you need to be looking right at them and constantly assessing what’s going on in a very clear way. In limited situations, the threat of violence seems pretty effective. Unlike in, say, Thailand, you’re not going to get swarmed by locals ready to join the fight. When Greg punched that would-be pickpocket in the face, there were at least a couple dozen local witnesses. Nobody joined in on that. Nobody. Can’t speak for other areas, but the pickpocket groups in Addis seem to operate independently, without any good backup if things go south. So if you’re on a stroll here, keep those pockets empty and consider bringing a tactical selfie stick I guess. 

So the particular threats in this city are a bit new to us, and as I’ve said, we needed to keep evaluating safety strategies. I’m not sure if the pickpocket groups are as much of a problem in other large African cities, but they are all over the place in Addis. If you’re considering a visit here, you’ll likely see them mentioned in guidebooks. We did. Even still, we’re leaving here with a new appreciation of the craft and cunning of these guys.

Our next stop is in Asmara, Eritrea. My understanding is that the country is far more closed off. Police states and dictatorships tend to largely mitigate street-level safety concerns, so I’m thinking the next stop will feel a bit less perilous. Also, we have a guide and driver there, so that should also help. I’m not sure if this post made it sound like we had a terrible time here. I definitely didn’t… honestly it’s been a lot of fun altogether. We were lucky to visit during a massive celebration. I feel like we saw some very vibrant contrasts in what might otherwise be a dull metropolis full of poverty and crime.

4 thoughts on “Pickpocket Gangs of Addis Ababa

  1. Damn, this post had me on the edge of my seat! It felt like i was reading some made up story or a scene from an action movie. At the end I screamed “get’em Tito Greg!” This place sounds like somewhere I never want to visit and this post and your pics are enough for me!

  2. I’m glad you all made it through okay! That definitely was some Indiana Jones action. I love the pictures- the colors are so vibrant and beautiful!

  3. I had enough adventure just reading this and looking at your pictures! Glad y’all are safe and have all that you came with. I’m also happy to hear that despite the trouble you all are enjoying yourselves. Beautiful pics and I love your stories of your adventures!

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