Bersabeh Gizaw, 28, is single. She works in a prestigious engineering firm in Addis Ababa, has good relationships with friends and co-workers, she is easy to talk to but has not been able to find a long-term life partner. Part of the difficulty, she says, is the lack of opportunities she has to meet available single men.
“I spend most of my day at work. I meet very few new people there. I try to go out with friends on Saturdays. Sundays are usually for family,” she explains.
For young, educated, renting and hardworking individuals in Addis, the dating scene is transforming. Traditional means of meeting someone and courting with the prospect of marriage still hold strong but are no longer viable for an emerging segment of the population.
Typically, most young people find a partner through family recommendations, religious institutions or mutual friends. These three have the common property of introducing individuals that have certain things in common and are likely to make a lasting connection.
If a single person does not want to remain single for long, dating is necessary. Berasbeh talks about the generational gap between her and her parents that prevents her from getting their help in finding a mate. “Their ideas of dating and relationships are entirely different. Most Ethiopian parents don’t even want to know their daughters are dating. A girl reaches a certain age and suddenly she’s asked where her husband is,” she says incredulously.
Older relatives have been known to threaten women over the age of 25 with spinsterhood and a ticking biological clock that is running out of time. With loneliness reaching the level of national epidemic in the US and the UK, younger people’s living conditions getting increasingly difficult when trying to get a steady income and routinized, dating and relationships are changing. Ethiopia’s social structure may not allow for loneliness to reach such dangerous levels for decades to come.
Additionally, Addis Ababa is not without social clubs for young people. Clubs for people that love volunteering, those that want to improve their social skills, bible study groups, dance classes, language classes and many other groups that introduce strangers with something in common exist. Mingle, a bi-monthly event held at a local restaurant, intends to create a relaxed atmosphere where strangers can meet and talk uninhibited. People between the ages of 24 and 35 spend their Friday afternoons drinking and listening to music.
“But where do you find the time?” Bersabeh asks. Working a full-time job and a social circle that is unlikely to grow after a certain age, the opportunities to meet new people dwindles, especially if one does not make conscious effort to do so.
Local number Hello 8387 is a call center for marriage and relationship seekers. Upon calling, the receptionist asks for name, age, phone number and religion. Then the questions get a bit more personal. The caller’s health (with a hint at HIV status that is inexplicably not asked directly), and an astounding question that asks the caller to describe physical looks; including the question ‘are you pretty?’ is asked. This is followed by a description of the ideal partner. Caller receives a code and is told to expect a match in a few days.
All this is done via phone conversation. When a potential match is found the male match seeker pays 350 Birr for the service but the fmale seeker is not expected to pay any fees. This payment occurs for every match the 8387 service proposes.
This is where social media and dating apps come in. besides being free to use, users can view pictures and judge mutual compatibility before they meet face to face.
With many relationships and even marriages having started from innocent flirtation over Facebook, the avenues for dating apps and matchmaking websites are opening up. A recent Facebook post by a local woman seeks a foreign lover, stating “Hello, who wants to get married [sic] Ethiopian girl. I have been there. I have done that but now I wana get married. So If you are interested, a decent guy only … PM me.”
FikirHiwot.com is such a site that launched after observing the increasingly desperate need. A matchmaking site especially catering to an Ethiopian audience, FikirHiwot is highly intuitive and user friendly.
Natnael Alemayehu, co-founder and managing director of FikirHiwot.com, says their London-based company was intent on producing a highly secure site that created a comfortable user experience.
By building a personal profile users can chat, view prospective matches, read the sites blog posts that offer advice on dating and relationships.
Built on the premise of becoming Ethiopia’s home of love, FikirHiwot is available in both English and Amharic. The app version, which is due to release in less than two weeks, functions less as a matchmaking site and more as a dating app like Tinder.
“We haven’t invented anything new. The younger generation needs this. The way we look at love is changing so why not give this an opportunity,” Natanel explains about the conception of FikirHiwot. He refers to #YeneShekor, a twitter thread among the Ethiopian diaspora that showed young people mentioning their favorite thing about an Ethiopian potential mate.
FikirHiwot, with a focus on single 18-35-year-old Ethiopians in the country and abroad, hopes to organize date nights every month and allow people to meet and get to know each other in a non-threatening environment. By offering a platform where young people can openly discuss love and relationships, it hopes to create a continued dialogue. The blog posts on the site are by local and foreign relationship experts and psychologists.
Tinder itself is gaining popularity in the city. Generally populated by expats and travellers, more Ethiopian users are joining the app. With terms like ‘tinder tourism’ already in use, the app and many like it are easy to abuse.
Even though ease of use might make dating apps and sites attractive, technology frequently leads to miscommunications. Hurt feelings and unwarranted expectations abound. It is easy to swipe left based solely on someone pictures or simply ignore a message. According to many dating experts and psychologists, it is difficult to build a relationship when common courtesy is waning.
The multitude of choices available can mean a variety of options for seekers but it can also be easy to dismiss a potential mate for a trivial comment with the prospect of so many more matches. Power relations online make continued contact difficult. Ignoring someone or ‘ghosting’ is even easier to do online. The rules of engagement are constantly changing.
Due to inadequate information about the person at the other end of the phone, people are forced to overanalyze simple texts and emojis. Or the overwhelming amount of information about a person on social media can give the viewer an exaggerated feeling of intimacy without actually meeting the person.
Bersabeh is willing to try the FikirHiwot site. She is sure it will save her time. “Since it’s new I don’t think it will be full of creepy guys looking for quick hookups.” FikirHiwot has many hurdles to overcome but the road seems like it is full of possibilities.