Marty Nathan: Interviews reveal struggles of destitute in growing Ethiopian cityTuesday, August 14, 2012
Early one morning I was riding my bike to work at the Referral Hospital in Hawassa, Ethiopia. My husband, Elliot Fratkin, and I had lived in the city for six months, sent on federal Fulbright grants to teach students at the University of Hawassa. He taught undergraduates at the main campus and I lectured and oversaw medical students and interns in the internal medicine department at the hospital.
As I pedaled down a broad boulevard in this, the fastest-growing city in Ethiopia and a tourist center due to its location on a beautiful Rift Valley lake, I noticed two gaunt 6- or 7-year-old boys in tattered clothes and bare feet rising from under a gutter culvert. They stretched and climbed onto the street.
No adults were to be seen. I stopped and stared.
When my husband and I first came to Hawassa, we had been moved by the plight of the hundreds of street kids and beggars found throughout this burgeoning Springfield-sized city about 100 miles south of the capital of Addis-Ababa. But soon the sheer numbers of beggars overwhelmed our compassion, and suspicion and irritation replaced empathy as our internal defense against the onslaught of need.
We rationed our giving and excused our parsimony by blaming the beggars: Children were widely said to be fronting for criminal adults; men were "known" to be alcohol- or drug-addicted; women "borrowed" others' infants in order to augment their begging.
But that morning bike ride caught me up short. Here was a real crime, not the petty chicanery ascribed to the street people. Small children were sleeping directly on the filthy, cold concrete gutter. No adults defended them, fed them or guided them. They were homeless and alone on the streets of Hawassa. The image haunted me.
Within a few days I brought my camera downtown and started taking pictures of beggars. But as I snapped pictures of a woman and her baby sitting on the sidewalk, I was confronted by an angry medical student who demanded to know why I was photographing these people.
He implied that I was supporting the embarrassing and somewhat racist stereotype of an impoverished, squalid Ethiopia, not his country of professionals and businessmen and the much-vaunted 9 percent yearly economic growth.
I was offending the dignity of middle-class Ethiopians, whose independence throughout the history of the European colonization of Africa had created a world-class pride. He made it clear to me that if I was to investigate Ethiopia's street poor I would need to contextualize it in the country's rich history and fierce struggle for development.
Though mindful of his reproach, I continued to walk the streets with a university student named Dagim, inviting street kids to join us at nearby cafes where they told their stories over eggs or Ethiopian beef and the flatbread enjera.
The first three little boys we met were fishing for bugs in the gutter on a street near the university. Biruk thought he was 5, Ashenafi 6 and Ganda 7.
None was sure. None had eaten that day; all were too ravenous to be able to share a plate without a fight breaking out.
All had lost a parent, very likely to the HIV/TB epidemic that has killed millions of Ethiopian parents. Biruk's and Ashenafi's mothers were beggars in front of the large Ethiopian Orthodox Church in downtown Hawassa. They could not support their boys, so the two lived with a group of homeless youths on the cement sidewalk under a shop awning. Ganda and his father slept in a makeshift plastic- and burlap-covered shelter on the street next to the town dump. All three begged for bread to eat, peed by the roadside and bathed in the town lake.
They were threatened and beaten by "big boys" who "lived in houses" and stole their food and money. Ashenafi whispered with obvious sorrow that he had gone briefly to school until his shoes were stolen, a loss for which his mother beat him. He never went back.
In all we interviewed 27 girls and boys, aged 5 to 17. Some were literally born on the street. More were part of a flood of migrants from the countryside where low agricultural prices and decreasing farm size destroyed their parents' ability to feed, clothe or educate them. Though free public education has expanded rapidly over the last several decades, few of the children we interviewed had been able to afford the notebooks, pencils and shoes necessary to attend school.
At a cafe in another section of town, we interviewed three preteen boys near the bus station. All had come on their own or with a friend or sib from failing farms in the countryside. They came searching for jobs and all were sleeping on the sidewalk and scrambling to carry loads for bus passengers.
One child had been sent back to his village by the police, but had returned hungry and rejected by a family that could not maintain him. We discovered three others selling toothbrush sticks (raw pieces of wood cut from local trees, widely used to clean teeth) on the street by the lake. They had journeyed from farther away, one just two weeks before. He was particularly lonely, frightened and homesick, but had no options since his parents had sent him to find work.
Rural Ethiopian children as young as 8 are being directed or allowed to leave for the city to support themselves and, hopefully, their families - selling small items on the street, shining shoes, carrying burdens or washing cars - because there is not enough food at home.
But on the city streets their hunger is not appeased. Almost all we interviewed said they were "always" or "usually" hungry. Frequently they eat no more than one meal of bread a day, and almost all I saw were underweight and stunted. Further, they face the violence, fear, loneliness, cold and discomfort of homelessness.
Many of the children we met displayed a tough front, but for most profound anxiety and grief lurked below.
One boy who had come from far-off Wolayta two years before was so malnourished that, at age 12, he could not get work carrying baggage at the bus station. He collapsed in tears as he remembered his family. Ten-year-old Abatu, who still went to school and lived at home but begged and carried loads on the streets to pay for school supplies, silently wept when talking of his widowed mother's hopelessness in the face of their poverty.
The teenage son of a beggar with AIDS dedicated his life to supporting and protecting his mother, working long hours on the street so that she and his two younger sisters could survive.
The girls we met made us dizzy with their courage and vulnerability. Meskerem was the 13-year-old daughter of a widow who had been forced to beg after the death of her first husband. Meskerem herself had been begging since she was 7, had learned to fight for her own "turf" in front of the Orthodox Church on the town square, and had become the protector for her 8-year-old half-sister Tsehai. (Tsehai's father had been an abusive alcoholic and had left the family, which now lived in permanent "beggars' shelter" near the church.) When men in cars offered money to "sleep" with Meskerem (a euphemistic translation from the Amharic), she told them to go "sleep" with their money.
Some had been on the street for nearly a decade; most had arrived within the last three years. It was interesting to note that the youngest usually retained the most ambitious dreams. Ashenafi and Biruk smiled as they said they wanted to be doctors. Ganda pantomimed a flying jet and energetically brrrroooomed an appropriate sound effect when he told us he was going to be a jet pilot.
But a 15-year-old's dreams had shrunk to simply hoping "to get out of this life and to get a job." The exception to this rule was a 5-year-old girl born on the street who just wanted "to grow up."
It is cities like Hawassa that are facing the consequences of the countrywide problem of profound impoverishment of the rural areas. The clamor to rid the streets of these young "eyesores" that impede tourism and hinder development has led to quick-fix schemes in Hawassa no less than in the metropolises of Addis Ababa, Harare and Nairobi.
But our findings indicate that local fixes can't work. The problem is systemic and the desperate poor always return because they must.
The growing numbers of these children in cities across Africa are a rebuke to development policy that focuses all attention on support for business growth at the expense of economic justice and human survival. They bear witness to its failure for millions, and beg for re-examination of the developed world's approach to aid to the global South.
Marty Nathan, M.D., of Northampton was a 2011 Fulbright specialist grantee at the Hawassa University Referral Hospital School of Medicine in Hawassa, Ethiopia. She is an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and a family practitioner at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield.