A SHOE-shine girl on the muddy, crowded streets of Addis Ababa cannot hide her pride when she shows off her two little polishing brushes, held in a wooden box and carried around in a blue tin bucket.
They earn Genet Ejigi just €2-€3 a day but she clings onto them as her symbol of her new life, her promise for the future and most importantly, her independence.
“I just ran away, I just went away,” she says about how she escaped her marriage to a much older man that took place soon after both her parents died when she was just eight years old.
“I was orphaned and didn’t have any family so I had nowhere to go. I was forced to marry a man who brought me to the city. He told me that he had given me everything except a child and that he had to give me that, so that is how I got HIV. I was losing a lot of weight and I did not feel well. I just ran away.”
Genet swapped her childhood in a house with a man she feared to one of living ragged, hungry and barefooted on the streets. Now, at 17, she is helped by an Irish-funded drop-in centre, which has provided her with some clothes, food, a place to wash, HIV drugs and her prized shoe-shine kit so she can start to make a living.
Although Ethiopia is not the place of perpetual famine and skeletal children that most Irish people think it is, infant mortality is still high. At least one in 10 children never makes his or her fifth birthday and more than a third of children still are underweight because of lack of food and poor health.
The under-nourishment is obvious on the tiny bodies of those who live on the street in the capital AddisAbaba and call to the drop-in centre for help.
Little Esubalew Yonnes is 18 and has a “big job” in a shoe factory. But he still looks like a 12 year old and has not grown much bigger than a primary school pupil in Ireland.
“I used to live with my parents and we were very, very poor. But when I was 10, they both died. I didn’t have anyone to look after me,” he said.
After living on the streets during most of his teenage years, at 15 he came to the drop-in centre which is run with the help of Irish Aid money and by the aid agency GOAL. They housed him, fed him and clothed him for three years, and provided him with training in leather craft.
“Now I work in a shoe factory,” he says.
The centre aims at helping children find ways of supporting themselves in cases whey are not reunited with their family, reintegrated back into their old community, or in some cases, referred to appropriate care providers.
Esubalew and the other boys hang out around the dart-board and the football table provided at the centre, which helps build social skills and friendship tools among the often very troubled children and teenagers. They enjoyed a game with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, when he visited the project on a five-day trip to Ethiopia and Uganda last week.
The centre also gives them a place to wash and has a nurse to deal with respiratory and skin diseases and help them with their medical treatment, often for HIV.
Worke Yeanye is a 17-year-old street girl and rape victim and is waiting to see if she and her infant have been infected with the HIV virus. “I didn’t have a mother when I was a child and I used to live with my father and he passed away so I had nowhere to live. I was raped and this is how I had my baby,” she said holding up little Bezwit in her hands. She was pregnant and gave birth living on the streets, until another street girl told her about the centre. “Before I came here, I was filthy and dirty but they gave me a bath and I became aware of many things like cleaning,” she says shyly.
“At first, I was very angry with my baby for the way she was born, but now she makes me very happy,” she said.
Irish people still have an image of Ethiopia as a place of hunger, cracked earth, AIDS and people without food, clothing, medication or food.
Locals in Addis Ababa complain that while Live Aid and Bob Geldof did so much for the country ravished by famine back in the 1980s, it has left a permanent, iconic image of a destitute down-and-out people. The image has even led to a reluctance to accept aid so as to try and build pride and shake their stereotype as the begging hands of the world.
A group of Irish business people now travels regularly to Addis Ababa to mentor locals in a scheme called Connect Ethiopia.
“If you can help an Ethiopian business to do more business through mentoring, training, trading and investment, then he will be capable of creating his own wealth and creating wealth here,” says Brody Sweeney of O’Briens sandwich bars, who runs the group.
“We don’t do aid, we are not interested in saving the planet and we are not in hospitals helping babies. This is about trying to help business to do better to create jobs and create wealth and help build the economy,” he said.
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