Violent crime in Addis Ababa is fortunately rare, particularly where visitors are concerned. However, petty theft and confidence tricks are problematic.
The Merkato has the worst reputation for pickpockets abound – targeting not just faranjis (white foreigners) but Ethiopians as well. You are advised to leave hand luggage and jewellery in your hotel if you plan on visiting the Merkato.
Other spots where you should be vigilant include Piazza, where many foreigners get pickpocketed or mugged; Meskal Sq; minibus stands; outside larger hotels; and Churchill Ave, where adult gangs have been known to hang around the National Theatre. Common gang ploys are to feign a fight or argument and, when one man appeals to you for help, the other helps himself to your pockets.
Don’t let any of this scare you, though – Addis is very safe compared with many other African capitals. On a personal note, in all the time this author has spent in Addis he has never once felt even remotely threatened.
One scam that still seems to be snagging tourists is the ‘siren scam’. It takes various forms, including offering you a ‘cultural show’ or a traditional coffee ceremony. Approaches are made to couples or groups, as well as to single males. Most commonly, the person approaching you is a young, well-dressed Ethiopian male, often claiming to be a student.
The venue is usually somebody’s living room, where a hostess will promptly dish out copious quantities of tej (honey wine) and, perhaps, traditional dancers and musicians will perform. Suddenly the ‘entertainment’ comes to an end and an amount upwards of Birr1500 is demanded.
If you end up in a situation like this, offer to pay for anything you’ve consumed (a litre of quality tej shouldn’t be more than Birr65), and if it’s not accepted, threaten to call the police. The area around the hotels in the Piazza and Churchill Ave seem to be prime hunting grounds for potential victims.
An old ploy at the Merkato is for someone to step blindly into you, while another gently lifts your belongings in the subsequent confusion. A less subtle tactic now being used involves one person diving at your feet and holding your legs while another pilfers your pockets.
Another increasingly popular scam involves the delightful technique of a passer-by ‘accidentally’ spitting on you. He then makes a big fuss trying to wipe it off and in the process he (or an accomplice) relieves you of your wallet.
Another one involves someone waving a packet of tissues in your face pretending to sell it to you. As you’re distracted the accomplices pilfer the contents of your pocket or bag. Still, at least you’ll have some tissues with which to wipe off the spit!