Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Three weeks, joy and sadness

Greetings from Hawassa!

12-year-old street boy
Few emotional states are simple, but ours in approaching the end of our stay here are bordering on chaos. Especially in the last month we have both found ourselves longing for home and missing kids, friends, house, and even the cats. Yet now both of us are feeling sadness about leaving a place where our ties have deepened and we have felt needed and in return feel a true responsibility. It is not a “Hello-Goodby” relationship to the people of Hawassa and the culture of Ethiopia. Our contact has permanently touched our lives.

Saturday Marty and Dagim interviewed four 10- and 11-year-old street boys over eggs and enjera. Marty had looked forward to the interview because, in her mind, little boys are “easy”: fairly simple emotionally and with short, uncomplicated lives. Right.

It broke down when one little boy began crying talking about his widowed mother who works so hard selling enjera house-to-house to maintain a home for him and his little sister. Yet she cannot afford to buy him clothes and school supplies, forcing him to go to work and beg on the streets to stay in school. His worry was about her and her desperation, a burden (along with the financial one) that children should not have to bear.
12-year-old too small to carry on street

Then tears flowed from his friend, a tiny malnourished 11-year-old who says no-one will allow him to carry things on the street (that is one of the jobs, along with shoe-shining and car-cleaning, that street boys do in Hawassa) because he looks too weak. He described leaving his far-away Wolayta town two years ago to escape poverty and violence in his home as well as threats from “gangsters” who killed his two older brothers. He sleeps on the pavement and begs in the day and has never again had contact with his parents.

In turn, our lovely young friend Dagim took each boy and held him in his lap and kissed his cheek and dried his tears, reminding him that he had friends here in a spontaneous display of Ethiopian kindness that Marty relies on for her own sustenance. We have no answers for these young children who still have dreams of being doctors and teachers and who protect each other from the older, more hardened boys who sometimes threaten them and try to steal their money.

Barely had we breathed out when we went to our next appointment with three women who live in the place that Marty had dubbed “Beggars Village” but is really named Qerchu. She has started in the last week diagnosing and treating the sick there, after having a couple of disastrous experiences trying to get them seen and treated at the clinic at her hospital. The patients were simply lost in the system, which, though it is the public medical center, required money at every turn – registration, labs, x-rays, and prescriptions. Money that beggars simply don't have. She brought an older woman whom she suspected had cancer to the Medical Outpatient Clinic for evaluation. A couple of hours later she left her own work at the Emergency Department to find the woman lying on the floor in front of the Surgical Outpatient office. The patient had been ignored there by the nurses and providers as they wrapped up to go to lunch. Anger usually doesn't help, but Marty was pissed and demanded evaluation, which led to..... expensive tests that the woman couldn't pay for. The woman does have metastatic cancer that cannot be treated in Ethiopia and Dagim and Marty took her to the local Mother Theresa Center for care for the sick and dying on Monday.
Children of street mothers
Back to Qerchu. One of the women there has had numerous somatic complaints that Marty ultimately believes are due to hunger and depression. Marty and Dagim decided to try to help at least the hunger by making the woman part of our “study” and thereby giving her a meal and a small amount of money, while at the same time revealing the life story that led to her emotional pain. She was accompanied by two Sidama (the predominant ethnic group in Hawassa) women and their total of five youngest children, including two nursing babies. Not exactly serene, but oftentimes fun.

Two of the three women were themselves orphans at a young age, very possibly from the AIDS epidemic, though they didn't know. They had faced the fate that most orphans in this country encounter: working as servants for neighbors or extended family. All three married abusive, alcoholic husbands whom they left to try to find work, but found nothing and ended up begging with their children in Hawassa.
Street mother
The contrast among the three in their ability to face the challenges of being a mother on the street was huge. One woman, the Sidama interpreter (the other two didn't know much Amharic and Dagim knows no Sidama. We usually go through three languages, so may lose quite a bit.) was spunky and hopeful and humorous and often angry. The other two were quieter and my “patient” displayed true defeat, as did her 4-yo son.
Street mother and 14-mo-old
Marty found herself deep in homesick valley earlier this week, and finally realized that it was provoked in part by a visit to Qerchu where fights broke out among the women and Dagim was yelled at (thank God for language barriers – she had no idea what was happening) for not doing something that would have been very difficult for him to have done. The anger and hopelessness of hunger and destitution coupled with impossibly close living quarters – up to eleven people in one room separated by bamboo partitions that conceal nothing from one another – lead to much internal jealousy and bickering as displacement. Marty spent the next couple of days feeling alienated from Hawassa and pretty darn hopeless herself. When with some trepidation she and Dagim returned, they were greeted hospitably and the woman who yelled at Dagim apologized, And many of their “patients” had improved. We all respond to our environment.

Street mother and 7-mo-old
Marty has written a report (just posted at which she hopes to give to the Mayor of Hawassa early on June 4. She has no idea what will happen with it, if anything, but she hopes to impress upon the city the humanity and vulnerability of those on the streets.

In the meantime she is searching for support for these folks and is finding that, though everybody these days claims that they are interested and doing things for street children, you could never tell it by talking to the kids themselves. The only agency that ever seems to help them is the local Orthodox Church, that hands out food and clothes, usually on holidays. One group of kids said that they had had their pictures taken by people from an organization that said it was going to help them, but they never heard from these folks again.
Industrious, articulate 15-year-old
Marty is impressed by the energetic and generous nuns of Mother Theresa, who take in anyone who ends up at their gates. They have hundreds of folks of all ages – malnourished children, the mentally and physically ill. Austrian Sister Servita at the Center is interested in the Street People findings and wants to talk more.

All is not suffering and homelessness. We have thoroughly enjoyed visits by anthropologists Barry and Bonnie Hewlett and Rob Quinlan and their graduate students. They are setting up a longterm relationship between Hawassa University Anthropology Department and Washington State University that sounds excitingly fruitful.

And last night we were honored to be invited to Doctor Walelign's family homecoming celebration, he having just returned yesterday from receiving his PhD in India. It was very moving: we sat around a bonfire eating roast goat and his parents blessed him and spoke of the riches of having children. There are many riches in friendship as well.
Meskano,Walelign's mother and father, Wobeyed and Marty at celebration bonfire

It is exactly three weeks till we are home. Our appreciation of our contact with you and your concern and friendship is constant. We will see many of you soon. Others of you whom we are leaving here, we will miss more than you can know.

Marty and Elliot


  1. As eloquently as you have both described your experiences,I still find it hard to imagine what you must be feeling right now. All I can say is that we've missed you, too, and will be glad to have you back among us.