Saturday, April 21, 2012

Women and Children Living on the Streets

Greetings from Hawassa!

From Marty:

Today our friend/assistant/anthrology student/translator Dagim and I launched the project that grew out of last week's sojourn to Hawassa's streets to take photographs of women beggars and street children. I talked to him about my desire to know more about the circumstances that led to their situation and how they were able to survive. I told him that I had no desire to embarrass Ethiopians, who are in my experience immoderately compassionate and moral and very proud. I feel though, that this is a crime inflicted by the international community, for which my country is culpable as well, since so much of its resources are spent on war and the military, and so little on support of the women and children of the world. [Elliot takes issue with this see the end]

Agreed, we began to walk down the street towards town. It was fairly early on Saturday morning and Dagim said that we might not be able to find many kids, since they seem to show up at Hawassa University gates around noon to beg for food and money. Students say that if they get on campus they steal the shoes that students leave on their window sills and porches. Thus the guards do not let them on campus, or try not to.
Little boys "fishing" in the gutter

But within a quarter of a mile we were drawn to three little boys hunkered down in the deep (about four feet) gutters between the street and sidewalk. It has been raining daily, sometimes heavily and the gutters have water in them. We asked the boys what they were doing and they told us they were “fishing” and showed us a dirty plastic bottle filled with water and some unidentifiable small creatures (USC's) – bugs, tadpoles, who knows. Later we asked them what they were going to do with the USC's and they told us they would take them to Lake Hawassa and liberate them, dump them in. 

We asked them if they had had breakfast and they hadn't though by then it was about 10 am, so we took them to a nearby cafe, where the waitress at first looked askance, but then warmed up. We ordered them eggs, at first only two portions for three kids, but soon realized our mistake. They ate ravenously and were jealous of their food and one was afraid of sharing. To prevent threatened violence, we ordered a third portion and things settled down.

Boy, age 7?
Boy, age 6?

Boy, age 5?
None of them was truly sure of his age, but they decided on 5, 6 and 7. All three were truly delightful: bouncy, polite (except about the food) and talkative. All were born in Hawassa, and two had lost their fathers and their mothers were living (and probably begging) at the large central Orthodox church, St. Gabriel's, about a mile away from where we found them. They didn't stay with their mothers, but slept on the street together with other street children under an awning across from the bus station. They said the children “cared for each other”, were often chased away from where they tried to sleep, but were actually protected and watched out for by the local police. Both of them had been to school for a little while, but one left because he couldn't pay for his school supplies and the children “acted badly” toward him. The other left because his shoes were stolen at school and his mother beat him because of that. He said she beat him often. He was the quietest and most reserved of the three.

The third child had both parents and he slept with them in a cardboard and plastic structure built by the father next to the Hawassa dump in Korem (sp?). He had never been to school, though he thought he was the oldest.

How did they get food? They begged in front of the University, house to house and from restaurants from which they received leftovers. Were they hungry? Always. They begged food from Ethiopians but money from Ferenjis (foreigners). What did they spend money on? Biscuits, bread and candy. Did anyone every try to hurt or beat them? This was interesting, as by now a crowd of older boys, young adolescents, had gathered around where we were sitting in an outdoor cafe until they were forcefully chased away by cafe management. The three told us that these and other boys with homes and families beat them and stole their money. However, each of the three after finishing his breakfast, cheerfully took leftover bread and gave it to an older boy, without appearing to respond to force or threats. It seemed this was a more complicated relationship than we would be able to understand.

Did adults hurt them? Sometimes, but they had more trouble with the “big boys”. Was there any support from organizations or the adult community for them? None that they could name except for the informal network of restaurants and individual Hawassans that fed them.

Their clothes were given to them and they didn't remember ever having any immunizations. They sometimes picked up discarded pills off the street. (We had a doctor-patient chat about that one.)

Dagim and the guys.
Finally we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Two wanted to be pilots and one of them illustrated by brrrrm, brrrrming with arms spread around the cafe. The third wanted to be a doctor.

We left, both shaken by the combination of their sweet, childish exuberance and the mammoth adult tasks they undertook each day for survival.

We made our way to Dagim's Orthodox church where impoverished people camp out at the street entrance. As we approached, two women were talking as one washed her clothes in a plastic basin and the other combed her young daughter's hair. We asked if we could talk to them and sat down on the street. A third woman joined our conversation after a while and several men gathered around to listen.
Washing her clothes on he street.
The youngest woman, probably very early twenties, had come from an Oromia village four years ago after a fight with her family. As the conversation went on, it turned out she had been raped as a girl in her village and had become infected with HIV. She left for Hawassa because she was told by another woman that she could give her a job, but when she arrived, she could find neither the woman nor the job. She met a man and married him, but he left her. She came to the church entrance where she has lived now for several years, finding and settling in with a neighbor from her village who is also living there. She sleeps on the ground with no protection from the rain.
Mother and two children
Homeless woman with friend;s child

That neighbor and friend is the mother who was combing her four-year-old's hair. She also has a one-year-old boy and they live in a cardboard and plastic structure on the street. Because she has children, the officials at the SNNPR** finance office that owns the wall they lean and sleep against allowed her to build her little house. She came to Hawassa because her first husband was the victim of sorcery and was crazy. She brought him, with his hands tied, to the church to receive holy water for a cure. However, he ran away from her and, since she had a child and no home, she could not work and was forced to stay on the street.
Homeless woman.
The third woman was from a town in SNNPR several hundred kilometers away. She found out she was HIV-infected eight years ago and came to Hawassa to find work. She also married here and lives with her husband in another cardboard and plastic structure. She has no children.

The women said that they get their food from the church or from the parishioners on their way to the church, particularly in holiday season like Easter, just passed. They also beg, though the mother ruefully admitted her shame at begging. They are helped with food and perhaps other things by SOS Children, an NGO whose office we have seen in town. They are allowed to use the sanitary facilities at the church.

The two women with HIV said they receive medicines from the clinic at Referral Hospital, which gave me some satisfaction. However, one woman says that she frequently misses meds because she has no food and taking the pills on an empty stomach makes her ill. All women said they are frequently hungry.

Do they feel safe where they are? This received a complicated answer. They said that the men who lived on the street frequently stole or tried to steal from them and they – the men, including their husbands – would get drunk and then try to pick fights with the women. Interestingly enough, the women stood up to the men and also called upon the security guards at the office next door, who protected them. We were not in a private enough situation that either one of us felt comfortable about asking about sexual violence.

What about the children? Mama said that her children had never been vaccinated, but she had, with the support of parishioners, taken them to the doctor when sick. In fact, her baby was recovering from malaria for which she had received medicine at the clinic. She nursed him and he fell asleep as we talked. The little girl, who sat next to me throughout our conversation, goes to preschool at the church where her fees are paid by Orthodox deacons in Addis Ababa. (Dagim smiled at this. He is a deacon.)

Woman in house she shares with her husband.
What are their and dreams? Unanimous: A house and a job. No more, no less.
We thanked them profusely, gave them what money we had, took pictures and left. Afterward we spoke together of our wonder at the honesty and strength of those we had encountered, amazed at our good fortune at meeting such people in a world that is harsh and pretty unforgiving.

Stay well, appreciate your neighbors and we miss you.

Marty and Ell
Elliot takes issue with what I said in the beginning and I respect his thoughts. He does not agree that that the international community is responsible for Ethiopia's poverty - they have their long hard history of feudal rule culminating with Haile Selassie as the basis of poverty and exploitation. He also does not think that the international donor community or humanitarian organizations can solve the poverty here, that countries like Ethiopia can and must solve internal poverty themselves, and are the only forces that can. This would include regulating the foreign businesses that do business here, giving peasants title to their farms but restricting small holder farm size to 100 hectares or less, and other measures. To be continued!

** SNNPR – Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region, the large province that Hawassa is in.

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