Despite the lack of good governance, low standard of living, poor infrastructure and myriad daily inconveniences that task their lives, Ethiopians still have it in them to care for the weakest among them, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(email@example.com).
A girl, not yet 10 or 12 years in age, comes up to the open door of a Qality-bound bus at Bishoftuterminal just as it is filling up with passengers. The girl’s escort, a policewoman, walks a few steps behind her quarry waving 15 Br in notes.
The passengers, the chauffeur and his assistance, already seated in the bus, eye the little urchin with a mixture of regret and suspicion while the policewoman addresses them all, “hand her over to the police in Qality. Don’t let her out anywhere else.”
The instruction repeated several times for emphasis, the policewoman gives the bank notes to the nearest passenger and marches off into the chaos of the muddy bus station.
The little girl is put automatically, without any discussions, debates or affirmations under the joint protection and responsibility of a bus full of complete strangers.
It is a uniquely Ethiopian tendency to take collective responsibility for those that are caught in deeper misfortunethan ourselves, care for those hit by hardship and to instinctively identify with the meekest in our midst.
Who has not heard an aunt or a grandmother murmur, yene bite, or “akin to me,” while reaching into a purse to dig out loose change to give alms to beggars?
The assistant examines the back of the bus and finds an empty seat where he shoves the little girl, while some of the passengers mildly scold the girl for being a runaway but make room for her to take her place. As the bus gets ready to leave, the chauffeur notices that the girl is taking up a full-fare seat.
He stops the vehicle and barks an order towards the back, “get her out of that seat and bring in another passenger.”
In one efficient movement, the assistant evicts the little girl, pushes another passenger into the seat, places an improvised stool near the window, and shoves the girl into it. As the chaos of last-minute preparations to depart takes up more time, an agitated chauffeur leads a refrain of indignation about the state of the nation, the declining condition of our society and the injustice of being forced to carry an un-paying passenger on his bus.
On that last point, the passengers disagree with him, pointing out that the policewoman has indeed handed 15 Br for the fare.
“The fare is not 15 Br, it’s 25 Br!” retorts the disgruntled chauffeur. “The tariff is 20 Br, and here you are charging us 25 Br,” rejoins a passenger.
A chorus of disapprovals greet the man swiftly. The higher cost of the trip is defended by the rest of the passengers, and the man is quickly silenced on the ground that the tariff rules are meaningless.
At the terminal in Qality, the bus stops just outside the gate, where the passengers disembark. The money from the policewoman is handed to the girl and everyone walks briskly away to their own destinations. The girl alights last and wanders off into the crowd where she soon disappears with her bundle and her money clutched tightly in her tender fists. The chauffeur and his assistant pull the bus into the station where they, too, vanish in the melee of throngs that pull, push, shove, run and pile around busses parked willy-nilly across a water-clogged field.
Seemingly against their own self-interest, why do a bus full of passengers scold a man for insisting to pay the “official” discounted tariff, and willingly pay a higher premium? Why does the life of a runaway urchin with uncertain pedigree matter so much to unacquainted travellers that they would universally disregard the instructions of a police officer?
The answer lies in that mystical and indescribable disposition of many Ethiopians to show genuine care to the weakest among them. Despite the hard and unforgiving lives of their own, the travellers have ample room to care and protect a runaway from the clutches of the police, who they believe cannot be trusted to look after the interests of a girl.
They instinctively concern themselves with the income of a bus driver and his assistant, who they know are eking out a hard living like themselves.
Many in Ethiopia seem to be endowed with inexplicable compassion and care for one another that is mostly absent in many other parts of the world. A great and mysterious affinity for one another remains dormant, veiled behind their inscrutable demeanour until something untoward happens to a fellow citizen and it springs into action.
Just last week, a man disembarks from a cross-country bus at Lamberetbus terminal, pulls himself over to the pavement, collapses and dies. Instantly, the young men who usually hassle and menace travellers with their incessant pushing and shoving to sway customers to take this bus or that, jump into action.
A group dispatches itself to summon police officers from the nearby street; another group collects plastic tarps and corrugated metal roofings to build a shelter around the corpse; and still others fetch plastic bags and run from bus to bus asking for donations to help pay in moving the body and for the dead man’s funeral.
The simple peasants, labourers, carpenters and others sitting and waiting in the buses with their oversized bundles, worn out by long delays and mayhem, kindly open their purses and pockets to take money out from their meager holdings and place it in the collection bags.
No one asks for proof, or questions the authenticity of the donation collectors, nor wonders if the money would ever reach the intended purpose. The collective responsibility is in the act of giving itself, not in questioning what happens to the gift. The rest is left to a higher divinity and remains an article of faith.
Despite a daily grind of scarcity, inconveniences, unjust officialdom and suffocating bureaucratic wrangling, a bus full of passengers will willingly pay more for a trip and ignore the officially sanctioned price for the simple reason that they understand the hardships faced by the chauffeur and his assistant.
The same passengers will reprimand a little girl for being a runaway but shield her from being delivered into the hands of the police, because they know that her life will not be improved by doing so. The shared understanding is that officials are wasting scarce resources trying to control the bus fare fromBisheftuto Qalitiand by needlessly harassing a child when there are so many other pressing matters that they should tend to.
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