Is Ethiopia Safer Than Chicago?

Warning: The story that follows may scare mothers with children living in Chicago.

I decided during my last week living in Chicago, waiting for visa clearance, that I had nothing left to do other than adjust my schedule to East Africa Time (+8 hours from Central Time). After attempting an all-nighter on Sunday, I took some melatonin and hit the hay at 5pm on Monday with plans to wake up at 1am. I had no idea that I’d have the support of adrenaline to fuel my schedule adjustment on my first day of being nocturnal.

Chicago is a city known for its violent crime, which in general is overblown in national media. As one of the most segregated cities in America (both socioeconomically and ethnically) with significant gang presence, most of the crime is both concentrated and targeted. Despite living in the city during one of its most violent periods, I’ve had very little direct or indirect experience with crime and have generally felt safe at most hours of the day.

That changed on Tuesday morning.

I awoke naturally at some point in the early morning (I didn’t bother to check the time) and stayed in bed while coming out of my melatonin-induced stupor. Some 15-20 minutes later, I heard some voices coming from what sounded like the alley adjacent to my building. It’s not unusual to hear people (and cars) going through the alley at most hours of the day, so I didn’t think twice about the chatter. 

Until I heard it: POP-POP-POP. Then silence.

My first thought was fireworks or something. But what were they celebrating? Is it too late in the night for fireworks – what time was it anyway? If they were fireworks, its weird that everyone went silent so suddenly, right?

I picked up my phone. When I saw it was after 1:30am, it hit me that the noise couldn’t have been fireworks. I heard my upstairs neighbor, who is in the Chicago Police Department officer application process, stirring. Trying to convince myself there was no way what I’d heard were gunshots, I turned to my source for breaking news: Twitter. 

My unfortunate suspicions were confirmed. Within a minute of seeing those tweets, blue lights from the police car were streaming into my window from the alley, an ambulance (firetruck?) pulled up in front of my apartment, and muffled voices from the response team flowed into my room.

There was no risk of falling back asleep. Too concerned what I’d see upon looking outside, I chose to stay put in bed. It was in these first minutes, followed by the quiet morning hours, that I reflected on safety and security in Chicago. The (warranted or unwarranted) fear in that moment made me realize the day to day stress that many people deal with in less safe areas of the city. Living in neighborhoods where shootings like this happen on a weekly (or more frequent) basis must take a significant physical and emotional toll. The experience of waking up literal feet from gunshots with my front porch suddenly a crime scene gave me a small dose of how some people have to experience this city I’ve called home – always looking over their shoulder in fear. However, I cannot imagine short-lived fear I felt and the sleeplessness I experienced in that moment being a persistent feeling.

When I tell people that I’m moving to Ethiopia, the three of the immediate questions I get are “what will you be doing,” why Ethiopia,” “how safe is it there.” More on the first two later, but my experience this week made me reflect more on that last question. Might I be moving to a safer, more secure city by leaving Chicago for Africa?

Everyone that I’ve spoken with that has visited or lived in Ethiopia echoes the same sentiment, that the Addis Ababa is actually really safe. Thelevel-two designation(“exercise increased caution”) from the Department of State is mostly concerned with avoiding areas of (mostly peaceful) civil demonstrations and potential political disruptions. Crime against expats in Ethiopia is quite low and is more petty/opportunistic (pick-pocketing) and rarely violent.

So, I decided to compare some of the available data. While I had difficulty finding specific data points to compare, I did want to share some figures for reference (below).

Recognizing quality concerns with some of the data and limited apples to apples comparisons, there aren’t many definitive conclusions to draw about the relative safety of Chicago vs. Ethiopia. However, given some of the figures, the conclusion I would draw is that Ethiopia (particularly Addis Ababa) is no less safe than major US cities or other places that I’ve traveled. There are certainly different issues to be concerned about (civil unrest or protest), but by exercising the same common sense and awareness I am no more concerned about Addis than I am Chicago.

(per 100k)ChicagoUS (Total)EthiopiaKenya
(For stats not collected for Ethiopia)
Violent Crime1,098249N/A32.1
Murder rate24.15.37.64.9
Assault570321N/A32.3

Some other comparisons can be found here [note differences in some figures relative to UN reporting].

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