The Great Chat Scam of Ethiopia : Houstonia
A pair of young scammers tell our international travel correspondent how—and why—they do it.
By Bill Wiatrak
(Houstonia) -I KNOW ALL THE SCAMS. I see them coming a mile away and am often amused that people fall for them in their travels. There’s a million of them, but they’re all centered around separating a tourist from his money. I’d been taken years ago in Thailand in a gemstone con and have made a point since then to distrust most any stranger I meet. There’ve been a dozen attempts to trick me over the years, with most going south for the scammers.
I’d had an amazing first day in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. I was sitting with some locals in a corrugated metal shack in the back of a ramshackle shop where women were making injera, a flatbread that’s a local staple. We were drinking coffee and talking about how it is to live in Ethiopia, deep in our ninth bag of chat, a mild stimulant leaf that is slowly chewed on the side of your mouth with a handful of peanuts. As we sipped down the last drop of coffee and tossed away the empty stalks, a bill was placed in front of me. It was for nearly $100. A hundred American dollars for some Ethiopian coffee and a few bags of leaves? It couldn’t have cost more than $10 to buy something like this in a poverty-stricken country. I had to laugh; I’d never seen the scam coming.
I had just arrived in Addis Ababa and did what I normally do when I don’t want to embark on a lot of research: look on Trip Advisor and see what all the tourists like the most. It was the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum. Catchy name; sounded fun. I decided I would go to the Red Martyrs Museum and then walk from there to some of the other sights.
The Martyrs’ museum was very dimly lit and mostly a collection of enlarged photos, guns, and clothing from the Russian-backed military coup in the 1970s that wiped out over half a million people. It was a little difficult to navigate because of bad or no translations on many exhibits, but the pictures told their own tales of the hundreds of victims, starving children, dead animals and other atrocities that occurred following the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The most photographed room contains a couple of walls of glass cases filled with human skulls and other skeleton parts. Why human beings are so fascinated with seeing dead people is beyond me, but I was snapping away with everyone else.
I decided to make my way to the Mausoleum of Menelik II, now also a museum, and started to cross the road when I was approached by two 20-something men commenting about my cowboy hat and asking where my horse was. As a Texan, I get that a lot, so I always point behind them, they look, and then I laugh as the joke is on them. They continued talking to me and didn’t seem threatening or like they wanted anything, so I just went with it. I was told that it was a holiday and that they weren’t busy with school so they’d walk with me. We talked about Ethiopia, music, drugs, Bob Marley…the normal stuff 20-year-olds like to converse about. They spoke pretty good English, so I let them do some camera intros for my video series. We arrived at the museum, took off our shoes, and entered what looked to be a church.
It was a church—the Ta’eka Negest (Resting Place of Kings) Ba’eta Le Mariam Monastery to be exact. Women clothed in white with scarves lined the halls burning incense and chanting. There was almost a Buddhist feel to it, or possibly Turkish with carpets piled the floor, and the smell of smoke and myrrh surrounded us. We entered the main chapel with its ceiling paintings featuring camels and men with umbrellas. I was asked if I’d like to see the underground tombs. Of course I would!
The guide rolled back one of the carpets and pulled up a trap door. No one would have ever guessed that there was something below. At the bottom of the stairs were three giant marble tombs: those of Menelik II, his wife and his daughter. Menelik, who reigned from 1889 until his death in 1913, is considered to be the father of Ethiopia—the equivalent of our George Washington, if not greater. He modernized the country, united various tribes throughout the nation which had previously warred with each other, successfully defended Ethiopia’s independence in a war with Italy, and is widely regarded to have restored the ancient kingdom’s power. Even George didn’t do that.
When my new friends walked back up the stairs, I thought they were heading out for a smoke break—but when I walked outside the church, they were nowhere to be found. Maybe they were scammers and had seen my small wad of bills that I purposely kept in a different place than my wallet. Maybe there was a family emergency. As I looked around, I heard a strange grunting found behind me. I looked to see a giant tortoise, as big as a Galapagos turtle, making his way across the lawn. The source of the noise was two more of the creatures locked in conjugal embrace. The male was on top and was obviously enjoying himself. The female maybe not so much. She had her head inside the shell, perhaps embarrassed about the public display. I counted half a dozen more of the giant tortoises and, figuring my friends had left, moved on.
I started walking toward what I thought was the famed Holy Trinity Cathedral and ended up in a few back alleyways full of Ethiopian Orthodox devotees. Eventually I had enough of the rocky paths and I hailed a taxi to take me to the National Museum of Ethiopia, the current resting place of Lucy, the world’s oldest and most famous and humanoid skeleton. As I walked toward the entrance, my friends suddenly reappeared. By their account I had exited through the back of the church and missed them completely. The museum was three levels of dusty glass cabinets with some interesting clothing and furniture of former rulers, some ceramics and mediocre art work.
Lucy was found on the lower level, inside a glass display case housing bones considerably smaller than any modern-day person. The tiny Australopithecus skeleton is often considered the missing link—evidence to support that humans evolved from apes. It was quite a leap of faith in my opinion, and a little disappointing compared to seeing a T. Rex or mastodon skeleton.
After we left, my friends handed me a Coke they’d bought for me. Rule No. 1: Never take a drink from a stranger that has been opened or you haven’t seen prepared. There was clearly a broken seal and two inches of soft drink missing. I didn’t want to wake up the next day with no money and a missing kidney, so I passed.
They insisted, however, on showing me the old train station which hadn’t worked in years and some weed-covered statues. The sidewalk was full of deals being made on skinny religious candles and bright red umbrellas. I was visiting during the Ethiopian Orthodox Holy Lent fast, which lasts 55 days; this means many Ethiopians eat strictly vegan meals, and not until 3 p.m. It’s enough of a lifestyle during the lead-up to Easter that most restaurant menus have a fasting or non-fasting section to choose from.
We ended up at a little ramshackle spot where my friends ordered two meals: one fasting version, the other with lamb. It turns out one was Christian and two weeks into his fast. The other was, in his words, a part-time Muslim who only drank beer when everyone else was having one. It was every man for himself as we scooped up the meat and vegetables with the hunks of spongy, sour injera. There are no forks, spoons or napkins—injera does it all.
Injera, which is only made by women, is a big deal here—and not just because it functions as every eating utensil. It’s also consumed at each meal, including breakfast. No one seems to ever tire of it and, as far as I know, there’s no one else in the world that eats it other than Ethiopians and Eritreans. It’s made of an incredibly nutritious grass called teff, which is grown only in this part of the world and was one of the first plants to be domesticated, around 6,000 years ago. As the women continued to work, some Cokes appeared, some coffee, some bottled water and the real reason we had stopped, some bags of chat.
I must admit, it was pretty good for such a dive, and the cold Ethiopian beer took off the edge. After eating, we walked to a back alleyway and then down what seemed to be a dead-end dirt road between shacks. There, at the end of the road, was a room with wooden stools and plastic bags concealing the corrugated metal material that made up the walls. It was a kitchen of sorts, with three women making giant, 24-inch injeras and stacking them in piles to sell to restaurants and individuals.
Chat, also called khat, is a mildly narcotic leaf that is chewed socially by the people that live on the Horn of Africa. You pluck a few leaves, fold them into a small packet and chew them on the side of your mouth with a small handful of peanuts to cut the bitterness. It’s not terribly exciting and takes a while to feel a buzz, but after a while you sort of feel like you’ve taken a Ritalin.
I noticed a bit of uneasiness as my hosts took turns leaving and coming back. They had been very friendly, but suddenly seemed troubled. They started explaining how they had been sleeping in a church because they couldn’t pay their rent and that the place where they had been staying had all their possessions. Bottom line: They wanted a loan and would pay me back when I returned to Addis. They wanted about $150 to fix everything. That was never going to happen. Were they telling the truth? Who knows? I had had a wonderful day with them, they had paid for my lunch, transport and spent hours of their day hanging out with me. I could part with $50 and just consider it the price of my tour. But no, they needed it all. I wasn’t budging because I wasn’t getting scammed. This was on my terms, not theirs. And then the bill came.
I looked at the bill and had two reactions. First, shock. Second, I had to laugh. They were running two scams on me and I’d never seen the second one coming. It was a variation of the famous Chinese Tea House Scam—but with chat instead of tea.
In the Chinese tea house scam, you’re approached by two pretty Chinese girls in a place like Tiananmen Square who are students and wish to practice English. They engage you, entertain you, and invite you for tea. You don’t see the prices until you’ve ordered and they have snuck out the back. Your tea ends up being as much as $100 a cup—and you have to pay for theirs as well. There’s usually a big guy there to make sure you settle your bill; either way, you’re outnumbered, so you pay up.
Here, there were no pretty girls, no tea, no big guy—just overpriced chat leaves. They had ordered nine bags as well as drinks and the tab had soared to over $100! For leaves! No one in Ethiopia spends that kind of money for anything, least of all chat. The whole reason anyone does chat at all is that they can’t afford other types of stimulants like alcohol, hookahs or drugs. My friends had also forgotten to mention that I’d be the one paying as they kept ordering things. When the bill came, they seemed as surprised as I was. They were extra-special-reserved-for-special-occasions leaves they explained. Not those cheap ones everyone else chews. Oh … yeah; that makes sense.
Arguing in these cases rarely does any good. The best strategy is to just not have enough money. I purposely had a pocket of “small money”—about $25 in birr—and everything else tucked away. I pulled it out, pocketed $4 for the taxi to my hotel, and gave the owner the rest while explaining to him that though I appreciated the fine acting on everyone’s part, this was the last of my birr and I had no intentions of walking home. It was apparently enough to cover expenses, but not enough to pay off the men who’d brought me here. The scammers work with the owner, you see, and then get a large portion of the “dumb tax” the victim has paid.
I explained to them that I had a wonderful time, and that I wasn’t mad, but their hopes of getting the $50 from me was forever lost, because I no longer trusted them. They followed me, insisting on their innocence. I walked back to the main square where I’d met them and when they realized I was about to leave, that’s when they decided to come clean. They apologized and said they had mixed feelings about scamming me, because I had been resistant to the normal dialogue they used and seemed to be a little more aware than most of their victims. They’d really liked being in my videos and were sorry about everything, but that is just how they made a living.
Honesty goes a long way with me (or at least improv scamming) and I was extremely curious to learn how all of this worked anyway, so I came up with a proposal: If they wanted to meet for dinner, I’d buy and then give them some money in exchange for their secrets. I felt like I was paying off an FBI informant. They reluctantly agreed.
At 7 p.m., they were skulking outside my hotel. Ethiopians are very polite, well-mannered and typically reluctant to engage in confrontations. We walked down the street to a tourist restaurant and I could feel their nervousness increase. A meal at such a place is very reasonable by Western standards but expensive for locals. We sat down and ordered some beer, some local spirits and a giant plate of injera and stews to share. After they’d had a few drinks, they spilled their guts.
I felt like a priest at confession as they explained the steps they use to build confidence with a potential victim. The first scam involves taking the mark to a music store where they sell bootlegged CDs for 10 times what it costs them. Okay, no big deal. That’s how the music industry works everywhere else. Then there’s the travel agent referral, wherein they take you to one of their friends who helps you book some things for a premium price and then shares the proceeds. They confessed that when we’d gotten separated at the church, they were running to borrow some birr. Otherwise they couldn’t pay for lunch and museum entry, and then they’d never get me to the last place so they might finally make some money.
I had asked them about chat when we had first met, so they thought I might know their plan and just be toying with them. After all, most tourists have never heard of it. Later, when I paid the owner, they explained that what I paid was almost exactly the real price before they marked it up; the fact that I pulled out the right amount made them think I was playing them, not the other way around. They shared a few stories about other people they’d conned and how much money they usually got. On a good day, they could usually make $100 to $150 between the two of them if the tourist was compliant. With me, they had lost money because they paid for everything.
The whole experience was very entertaining, especially since I had come out ahead. Hanging out with suspicious con men is like visiting a casino. You expect to lose money and you justify it as entertainment, but this time I hadn’t lost. I was only out $20 for the whole day and it had been chock-full of great places and fun times with my grifter friends. They had bought lunch, paid for transport, shown me the sights and that was worth something!
I gave them $60 for their time and true confessions and paid for our dinner. It was a good day for me and although it wasn’t quite they’d been hoping for, we bonded in spite of it all—no one here really lost out. And that’s as happy an ending as you can expect in Ethiopia.