The People of Ethiopia – Niamh O Riordan

It was a cold, wet day and I felt like a walk. I grabbed my notebook and camera and set off in the direction of Merkato. All about me were street children and beggars and touts and gentlemen in suits. These are the stories of the people I met that day on the streets of Addis Ababa.


Tisret is six years old. She has lost her sight in one eye and can see shadows through the other. She wears ragged clothes and plastic shoes and is led about by her older brother, who cannot himself be more than ten years of age. I first met Tisret in one of the poorer parts of town having come from the Merkato. That day she followed us about with a host of other children but stood out from all the others. After that, I would see her about town. I bought her a pair of boots one day. They cost less than three euro. As I knelt down to check the fit, she threw her arms about me and kissed me. But the memory is bitter-sweet. What sort of life lies ahead for a poor, blind girl like Tisret in Ethiopia, the world’s third poorest country? What difference will a single pair of shoes really make to her life?


On every street corner and beneath every tree are the shoe-shine boys of Addis. Everywhere we go, they call to us, offering to polish to our ragged sandals. Mubarak is sixteen years old. He sits on the pavement, his tools on the ground before him. For the past two months he has worked the streets shining shoes. Today, he will be lucky if he takes home 5 birr (50 cent). He will enter the seventh grade in the autumn. His favourite subject is maths and one day, he hopes to be a doctor.


Mesefen is twenty-four years old. He spent twelve years in school and a further four years training as a mechanic. When he qualified, he filled out application after application but to no avail. Four years later, he has yet to find a proper job and must make do with casual work when he can get it. “Unless you know someone in the industry, forget it!”, he says.


Ally was sitting under a blue plastic canopy on the side of the road enjoying a cup of tea when I first met him. “You!” he yelled, across the street, a friendly smile spread across his face. The greeting sounds abrupt, even rude, but the locals greet each other in this way too. He invited me to share a tea with him, which I did. Shamseeyah served a glass of delicious cinnamon tea and we chatted. He too is a fully qualified mechanic but sadly unemployed.


Tirunesh was a girl with spirit. Her eyes were full of fire and on her left hand was a faded tattoo, a cross. She spoke no English but insisted that those around us translate. We stood next to a large building site surrounded by eight foot tall, silver, corrugated iron. She used to own a spare parts shop in the site, she said, until the government decided to put up a new building. Now she has had to move her stock to her house and tries to sell her products from there. “Meles bad!”, she said, a very common sentiment in Ethiopia.


I first thought that Nasaru was homeless: he was dressed very badly and was missing most of his teeth. But he did not want my money. Then I thought he was a hawker: he showed me old Ethiopian coins and a beautiful copper bangle. But he did not want to make a sale. Then I thought he was a thief: I saw him speaking to a very artful dodger who’d had his eye on me and my pockets. But he did not want to rob me. Nasaru was a gentleman and all he wanted was to say hello. He showed me pictures of his wife and family. He gave me the beautiful, copper bangle as a gift. When I slipped and fell on the muddy streets, he picked me up, quick as lightning. He took my bag, which contained the camera he had just seen, wiped it down and handed it back to me. He then escorted me to the side of the street and waved down a minibus to take me back to Piazza. As we travel, we can trust no-one – there are dodgy people about. But every once in a while, you meet a beacon of light like Nasaru that breaks the mold.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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