Tuesday, 17 April 2012


I hate tipping at the best of times.

When I was about 12 my family went on a day trip and my dad gave me my pocket money at lunch time. I left the money on the dining table. We went back to look for it, but it had gone. My dad explained that the waitress had taken it as her tip, and there was no way I was going to get it back.

Tipping in Ethiopia is difficult. There is not much of a tradition of tipping, although sometimes people will leave a few birr cents on the table. Tourist restaurants often add a service charge, and you are not expected to add a further tip. Tipping too much is arrogant, and distorts the economy towards serving potential big tippers over everyone else.

For our hike we paid a lot of money and were told this did not include tips. Everyone was very vague. “Its purely voluntary, you don’t have to give anything, but just do what you think is right”. Not very helpful!

At the start of the last day we were told the mule drivers should be tipped now. These guys pack up our tents and baggage after we have left in the morning, load them onto mules, and then take them to the next site by the most easy and direct route, while we take a scenic route. When we arrive, the tents are ready, and our baggage is waiting for us. It’s the luxury hiking experience we paid for. We don’t know their names, and we never see them at work (which is a shame, as I would have loved a photo of our luggage, complete with Air Canada bar code tags, roped onto the back of a mule!). They provide no more and no less service than what they were hired for.

How much would you tip these three guys?

My first guess would be to tip our guide and cook, who both were friendly and made an effort to provide us good personal service, and not to tip the mule guys at all.

Eventually we decided on 100 birr between the three of them. They did not seem pleased. Later, our guide said they had shouted at him and abused him for not making sure we gave them a bigger tip. He said 500-600 birr was about what they expected. He said they were paid 300 birr for the two days, so by my reckoning 33 birr was a 10% tip which was about right for people who did nothing more than their job. The guide said that we had given them only enough to buy 2 kg of teff, the basic grain used in Ethiopian cooking. I pointed out that in Canada or the US you would only tip a guide or driver a few dollars, not twice their salary. The whole thing became a rather heated and unpleasant discussion.

When the other two arrived we tried to decide what we would now do about tipping our cook, cook’s assistant, guide, van driver and the armed “scout”. The problem was made more difficult as we did not have a lot of cash with us, especially in birr or small US notes. In the end we gave the guide $US 100 and told him how we wanted to divide it up.

Later I talked to the person who we had booked the trip with, who said that 500  birr for the mule drivers was about right. Shame he did not tell us that before we left Gondar, or better still, before we signed up for the trip.

I don’t know why I care that there are three disgruntled mule drivers in the outback of Ethiopia who think I am a cheap bastard, but I was pleased to talk to a British couple who gave their mule drivers a similar amount of money.

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