The Washington Post recently profiled Ethiopians returning home after long stretches in the United States. One was Abezash Tamerat, a social activist from the state of Georgia, who had left Ethiopia as a baby. The 20-year-old described her initial reintroduction to the city as chaotic. “She walked out of the airport terminal’s sliding doors only to turn around and walk right back in, briefly overwhelmed by the presence of beggars and taxi drivers clamouring outside.”
Beggars are a fixture in Ethiopia. Despite the many charitable organisations in the country trying to build social safety nets for the poor, help reconstruct broken lives and eradicate extreme poverty, Addis Abeba remains a city of beggars and panhandlers. As Ethiopia makes way to foreign investments and Addis, the diplomatic capital of Africa, becomes a city of skyscrapers, boutique hotels and a popular tourist destination, it should us make all wonder why there are still too many people begging on the street. In an ideal world, the changing image of Ethiopia and the billions invested by way of aid should change the statistics on poverty. But it has not.
If begging is indeed a last resort for people to mend their short-term issues, why is it becoming a way of life for so many? Withstanding the weak, the displaced, the aged and the broken, who are forced to beg, why are there able-bodied people – men and women, young and old – choosing a dangerous way of life?
Looking at the scene in Addis, the conventional wisdom is the trickle-down economics of the country are not clearly reaching the vulnerable. But then again, there is a widespread argument that panhandling is more of an enterprise than a charity.
The intersection near Atlas Hotel is unique among most intersections in the capital. If one goes north, it takes you to Bole, the Georgetown-like area, one of the most valued and desired areas in Addis. The west side leads to one of the capital’s most notorious areas, Chechnya, nicknamed for its cheap beer, cheap sex and dark nightclubs.
Within a stone’s throw of the intersection, there are stores and cafés catering for a vast array of customers. For instance, a kilo of meat is sold at the government-owned butcheries for 80 Br, while at the private butcheries, just a block away, the same fetches 350 Br. A latte is sold for about 14 Br on average, but at a nearby café, named after the legendary entrepreneur, Mamo Kacha, it is sold for 35 Br.
A quick glance at the streets and the automobiles that are often at a standstill, you will see a hulking Hummer next to an old Lada, a bashed up Toyota next to a beautiful limousine, and a brand new Mercedes SUV next to an overcrowded minibus with women in traditional white scarves.
This is the reality of the area, where the poor collides with the average, and the average with the super-privileged. It’s where old homes are making way for new hotels against the backdrop of the poor, who are simply trying to remain visible amidst diaspora Ethiopians, who gather at restaurants like Oh Canada, as they navigate their place in an ever-expanding and ever changing metropolitan city.
Kedist, a fixture of Bole, is in her twenties, but anyone can assume she is in her thirties, perhaps even her forties. It seems that the street has stolen her youth, but she has vigour and determination left in her tiny body. With a group of beggars, she is one of the first and few to come to the traffic lights near Atlas Hotel in the early hours, replacing the prostitutes that are a fixture in the dark. She secures the area so new beggars don’t take her place.
Bole is an area like no other and has transitioned from a quiet neighborhoods to a rich business district – restaurants; even a rare strip club on one particular street. Hotels and churches occupy almost every block. It is no wonder that it attracts beggars and panhandlers until the wee hours of the night.
By 6am, Kidist sips her tea and pads her belly with bread bought from an elderly lady hawker. Tourists are bustling into the Washington Hotel, but she avoids them, fearing the guards’ wrath. The guards are in competition for tips from the tourists, who are generous with their money, and from adolescent boys swaggering home after a night of drinking.
Kidist has mastered her art of begging. The tourists are always generous; the Chinese, she avoids, while white faces are her target.
“The Chinese don’t give, they just drive off, without even looking,” she told Fortune. “They are motionless and I don’t waste my time with them.”
Clutching her snuggling, borrowed baby, she tells me where her where her story began: in Wollo. She transitioned to Saudi Arabia for work and returned after two years with little money. She used her savings while looking at her options, and when she ran out of money, she did not want to go back to Dessie empty handed. Instead, she decided to beg to survive instead of, according to her, “becoming a sex worker.”
“Nobody wants a skinny, short girl like me,” she told Fortune.
The first time she went on the street, as a shy person, she made less than 100 Br after 12 hours. Gradually, she started earning more. Her colleagues suggested that she “borrow” (pay for) a child from a friend and look for sympathy in order to earn more. She did and she saw her income increase. In a city where a servant earns about 1,000 Br a month on average, she was able to make this in a matter of days.
“I make more than a pilot or a teacher,” she said, half-jokingly.
It is just after 9am and there is a flow of traffic at the red light. She slides towards the outstretched generous hands of foreigner, who hands her an orange bill of 50 Br. It seems that the borrowed child, who is perhaps hungry or cold and is crying non-stop, has brought sympathy to her cause.
In the other side of Addis, by Lancha, not far from the public condominium area is where Wude, sits and begs all day. Sometimes, all night on weekends, the native of Adama, tells me. It helps she looks undernourished and much younger than most. On average, she is lucky to make 50 Br a day, but that is the life she has known for most of her life. Often times, if she manages to collect enough coins, she exchanges them to a taxi minibus for a small profit. Some insult her, many pass her by, but for the fultime beggar and occasional businesswoman, her daily determination is to overcome all the obstacles and hurt and make enough to pay her rent and feed her tiny belly.
Not far from her, are a group of women, with a slew of children, eating left over food while begging for funds. To grab attention, the children often follow passers-by, nagging them until they give in. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not.
But that is life.
The kids morose and haggard faces turn youthful at the sight of money. It seems that this is their way of defending their way of life, their enterprise. Though perhaps self-explanatory, illustrating why it’s financially better to beg than work in their adopted city. It seems they have earned their place in the ever-competitive, dangerous, but financially lucrative, world of panhandling, while proving to all why it may be better to beg for some, than work.