With Christmas approaching, the mind of the young vendor that Fortune met around Stadium was preoccupied with the possibility of making more money than usual by working longer hours.
Just seven, his eyes twinkled with excitement as he thought of Christmas and Timket (Epiphany) following soon after. Those times double his income, which could total 80 Br to 100 Br, a day he estimates.
“On the eve and on holidays, I work 24 hours,” he said.
Addis Abeba’s streets are full of children trying to sell chewing gum and tissue paper, called “soft”. Their “livelihood” is a mix of begging and working on the street selling small items.
“I feel a guilty conscience when these kids approach me asking and begging me to buy something. I usually do, even if I do not want anything,” said Fikerete Seyoum, 27.
A 2014 Master’s thesis by Etsubdink Sibhat, titled “Cause and Effect of Informal Sector: the case of Street vendors in Addis Ababa”, found that 11pc of street vendors are under the age of 19, only 41pc of whom have reached Grade Six at school. The Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples’ State (SNNPS) has contributed 44pc of these child street vendors, according to this paper.
Fourteen year old twins (a boy and a girl) Fortune found on the morning of December 26 near the stadium eating boiled potatoes, came from Gidole, near Arba Minch in the SNNPS, 437.9Km from Addis Abeba. They were sharing potatoes they bought for two Birr from the elderly lady nearby, who makes a living from this business. Unlike the twins, her home is nearby in the Kirkos District.
The twins were only 10 when they arrived in Addis Abeba. Their parents had died, and their elder sister, who was married, was not able to support them. She sold their parents’ wedding band and paid 400 Br to get them to Addis Abeba. They dropped out of Grade Two then.
The boy shines shoes and sells the regular vendors’ fare, including mobile phone cards on the side. His sister changes coins for taxis. They are optimistic about their business.
“We are only waiting until our saving reaches to a certain amount,” the brother said.
If they faced life in Addis Abeba at 10, the seven year old boy was only six when he arrived from Hosaena, also in the South. His brother brought him to Addis Abeba and showed him where he could buy small items from Merkato. He then gave him 50 Br and told him to fend for himself. It has now been six months since he last saw his brother.
“I was excited when I started making money,” he reminisced. “I was counting my coins every now and then.”
That got him marked out by bigger boys who snatched his money.
“I am not tough like them, so I cannot fight back. I hide my money here,” he said, showing a secret pocket he made himself around his waist.
Of the 400 Br their sister gave them, the twins were left with only 72 Br.
They spent a week just looking around. Then an older boy from the same region gave the boy an old shoe shine box and got him started on business, the brother explained as his sister nodded in agreement.
For these three young people, approaching holidays bring more business as Ethiopians in the Diaspora come home. The brother said he knows they came from abroad when they give him 100 Br and do not take change.
They go to Bole area where they expect these foreign Ethiopians to abound.
Come holiday time, the girl suspends her usual coin changing activity and begins selling boiled potatoes and eggs. During those times she can make 130 to 150 Br a day.
A regular day’s earnings for the sister amounts to 20 to 30 Br for the sister and 35 to 40 Br for the brother. They pay 200 Br each for sleeping quarters at a house around Cherkos. They eat breakfast and dinner around Lideta, at a “canteen” where street children usually eat. Some times the older people renting them the sleeping places perform some sort of parental or guardian roles.
Hirut Motbaynor, who shelters the seven year old and others like him for a daily charge of five Birr per head in a corrugated iron sheet room, is the one some of the kids give their money to for safe keeping. The seven year old gives her all his money on a daily basis, she says.
The twins were saving together. However, last Easter they had to spend 1,800 Br of their savings to pay the medical bills for the girl who had fallen ill.
Their services come in handy for many people.
“Where would I get a mobile card in this area?” says Aschalew Fitsum, pointing at the stadium road. “You might not get shop nearby, especially when you need it.”
He often buys mobile cards and chewing gum from these children.
It is not clear if the Addis Abeba City Administration does anything for the kinds of children working and living like the twins and the seven year old child do. At the Addis Abeba Women & Children Affairs Bureau, there is some institutional set up to make interventions, according to Woynshet Beyene the public relations official. This includes Kibebe Tsehay, which cares for children until the age of seven; as well as Kechene Girls’ Aid Center, Kolfe Boys Aid Centre and Juvenile Delinquents Rehabilitation Center. She did not say where the children Fortune talked to fit in this arrangement, although the Bureau had referred some children to these facilities last year.
For the next six months, the office plans to collect more children and identify those who have no parents and those who have. For those with parents, the bureau will communicate with their respective weredas to arrange their return home. Those without parents will be referred to one of the four institutions as found fit.
That may not necessarily be what the kids have in mind as their best interest
“I want to work and grow,” said one boy Fortune talked to. “I have come so far and I know I will do it.”
Another boy once saw the authorities collecting the kids from the streets.
“I hid under one building under construction. I do not want to go. They better take those kids who are begging or those they find working late at night.”
These are no ordinary kids, according to Emebet Mulugeta, lecturer at the School of Social Work and eight years of experience with children working and living in the streets.
“The children do not want to join the institutions or to go back to their childhood homes, because they are already robbed of their childhood innocence,” she says. “It is difficult to treat them as a child, since they no more have a child psychology. The institutional interventions are doomed to fail.”
In Addis Abeba NGOs working on street children uniformly follow the same pattern of institutionalization and family reunion models indiscriminately, despite the experts’ criticism of such blanket treatments, she argues.
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