Friday, April 13, 2012

A walk on Good Friday: Suffer the Little Children

Mother and Child

Greetings from Hawassa!

Marty's Good Friday walk downtown: Suffer the Little Children

Ever since I came upon children rising from their sleep in a culvert under a driveway next to a thoroughfare, I have wanted to know more about the street people, mainly the children and mothers, of Hawassa. When we firenjis (Europeans) walk or bike downtown we are accosted and our consciences assaulted by beggars of all ages in torn clothing and no shoes asking for birr. At first I tried to eliminate them from my sphere of responsibility by labeling the children as urchins set up by adults for their own purposes. But the picture of those very small children waking alone from their hole under the road belied that fiction. They may be preyed on by adults, true, but they are essentially alone and vulnerable and have the right to assault the conscience of us lucky adults. 

Tough customer (or not!)

Tough customer with serious friend.
I had wanted to try to do some interviews, hiring a U. Hawassa student to help. However, the students have been gone on anthropological trips to the rest of Ethiopia, and this is a long weekend – today is Good Friday as Sunday is Easter by Ethiopian calendar – and I decided to do it in a much less formal way. I took my camera, my backpack and 200 birr and went for a walk to downtown Hawassa. To those who asked for money, I gave, and then asked if it was ok to take a picture. Always the answer was yes. 

Mother and Child

However, the process itself was not without its ethical burden. Despite their very public presence and open request for money, I still felt like a voyeur towards the adults. I felt like I was commoditizing the children. I did my best to make things more human – showed them the pictures, asked their names and thanked them – but still know that I was paying them for the only thing they have – their visages.

Disabled young man.
Disabled elderly man

The last four kids I photographed followed me home where I asked friend Beza to translate. Three were brothers, Woleyta ethnicity from Hawassa, whose parents had died and who were living in town with their aunt who sent them out on the street to collect cardboard, presumably to sell. The oldest appeared to be about 11 years old, his brothers probably 6 and 4. They all may be older – I think they were stunted. I gave them the bananas I had bought for Ell and they begged for shoes. I said I didn't have the money but hope that I can do it in the future. The fourth was a Sidama child, also 11 or so, living on the street with an older friend who had traveled with him from a nearby village after his mother was unable to care for him. His father had died.
Three brothers who accompanied me on my way home.
As we walked down the street, a group of students was walking towards us. One broke off from the crowd and came up to the oldest brother and deliberately shoved him. I stepped in and glared, then asked the child if he faces violence frequently. He said yes. Our conversation was limited to my total of about 50 Amharic words and his similar English capacity. A lot of sign language. As always, thank God for Beza and Walelign.

Also included is a picture from the store where I buy eggs – colorful and friendly.
Shouk for eggs.
Happy Easter and Good Pesach!

Mother and Child

Another sunset from our bedroom window.


  1. Marty,
    Thank you for posting on your walk in downtown Hawassa. It's devastating to see so many (this is probably a fraction)young, beautiful faces and not-so-young too, living on the streets. You laid out well the assaults on all of our consciences.. are seeing the suffering up close and repeatedly. How should each one of us face the magnitude of suffering. . .except by the luxury of looking away?
    thank you for reminding us not to look away.

  2. Really liked this entry, mom. Sweet, simple, and reflective.

  3. Great photos, and a great post, Marty. I had wanted to do something similar while there, but never quite got up the courage and/or grappled with the moral dilemmas of such a project that you expressed in your post. I think that the honesty and compassion with which you approached each of individuals in your photos helps to reduce the voyeuristic quality. I am sure that each of them appreciated the positive interaction.
    Missing you and Elliot and all of our Hawassa friends...I wish we could sneak into Barry's suitcase in May!

    1. Your departure left a big hole for us, Emilia. We so miss your honesty, enthusiasm, youth and courage to explore. And we miss those darn card games by candlelight.
      One thing that helped to break down the cultural gaps in the interactions was my decision to sit down on the sidewalk when I took the pictures. That willingness plus my obvious difficulty getting up (!) let most folks know that I was vulnerable, too.
      Had dinner with Rhobot last night. She misses you, too.

    2. The same desperation is here at home, where the social climate also depersonalizes the poor.

    3. I agree. At least there is SOME safety net in the US, unlike here. Being here makes me certain that we must fight to maintain and expand things like Medicaid, Welfare, housing, foodstamps, none of which exist here.