It is not uncommon to find homeless boys on the streets of Addis Abeba. A distressing problem on its own, the introduction of addictive substances is compounding the issue, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Arada, where the very heart of Addis Abeba pulses and beats, is the favourite hangout for a group of street boys who habitually show up in front of Hebeste Menacafé every morning.
Invariably, they start their morning cheerfully, haggling and good-naturedly skirmishing with each other. They merrily tussle over the smallest possession anyone of them may hold or fuss incessantly to be heard among the unending chatter that they seem to keep up among themselves.
One morning, one of the boys, a petite figure of no more than six years in age, swaggers into the café and returns dangling a plastic bag half-filled with leftover food. He flops the bag on the pavement near a fenced flowerbed where his friends are waiting and stands aloof with one hand in his pocket and the other akimbo on his hip. The other boys squat and huddle around the bag and start to eat, only to stop midway and beckon the tiny boy to join them.
The boy is, however, distracted with something nobler than eating food, and instead stands proudly watching his friends devour the content of the bag. His friends plead with him to join them as they gulp and smack their lips. But he resists the urge to eat, much like a mother quail would lead her brood to fodder but skips feeding herself.
These are not the kids that hawk cheap Chinese trinkets, nor are they the vendors of chewing gums and roasted peanuts. They are children bred in the slums and caverns of the city, weaned away from their mothers’ embrace early and set free to roam the streets.
They wander around all day, from public squares to avenues, without pestering or hassling anyone, spending their time, as all children do, playing. The roads and the boulevards are their schoolyards and playgrounds where they form their packs, acquire their skills and hone their instincts to survive.
They are the harmless ones that have escaped the schools, orphanages or other contraptions that the government and charities have contrived to corral them into. They are also the lucky ones that have not been ensnared by a poisonous addiction that has flourished in the city.
The addicted ones spend their days hooked on inhaling and sniffing fumes of solvent pastes that they call mastish. These inhalants, seemingly harmless glues, are however deadly. As with any kind of addiction, the kids inhale these substances for the stimulation or the “high” that they receive from it.
The short spans of their tender lives are measured more by their creased looks, rather than the length of time that they have lived. Their faces are sullen, long and drawn; the matted jet-black hair, perennially dusted with brown grime, pokes out from every angle of their unkempt heads; and their eyes, dilated and blood-shot, protrude out of their sockets in sad reliefs set against their sunken cheeks.
These boys live on the periphery of society, out on the outer most orbit of social norms where filial obligations, customs or traditions exert no pull on them. They are forever on the move, on the lookout for more of the substance that they abuse daily. They direct themselves to streets and roads where traffic is always snared, and they swarm the windows of stranded drivers and beg and plead for money.
The half-cut plastic bottles, filled halfway with toxic glue, are usually wrapped in tattered t-shirts or are tucked in the sleeves of hoodies that they frequent. The cutoff bottles are cradled against the chests, kept close to the mouths and noses, and are sniffed regularly with bobs and tilts of the head.
These young boys – few of them are girls – are part of a long list of social ills left to fester in our society. The tangle of problems facing the nation is too large to attempt to solve it on the run, but something needs to be done very soon.
It is unsafe for society to essentially leave a generation of youngsters to fend for themselves and stand idle as they face a murky future froth with uncertainty and hopelessness.
Without the skills, schooling and training that are needed to be productive members of society, these youths are left on their own to survive on the periphery.
Is it not the government’s role to lift the citizens out of poverty and address social predicaments?
Our society, disposed to compassion, sharing and an inexplicable proclivity to give, habitually offers what it can to these children. They are sustained by the collective understanding that dictates everyone must survive, if not thrive, because of the universal belief that better days are just around the corner for all.
There is an implicit understanding among the people here that adheres to the principle of “we are all in it together.”
No one, not even these addicts that infest the streets and roads, are treated as outcasts or nuisances. They are simply tolerated, without disparagement or censure, even when they have failed to abide by the norm.
That is why a little boy can confidently swagger into a café and walk out with enough food to feed a pack of street boys. What has failed is the government’s role in lifting the people out of poverty and delivering them onto the road of prosperity and wealth.
The benefits derived from policies of spending grandiose amounts on infrastructure and granting excessive incentives to foreign investors that pay meagre salaries to the citizen must be weighed and measured against what society has gained from these efforts.
There are far too many school-age youths out on the streets, left on their own to be nonchalant about the issue. Too many children are struggling to survive on paltry earnings by peddling everything from cheaply made Chinese trinkets to vegetables; hiring themselves as work hands to ferry bales and baggage; or by simply staying in the streets to fill the day and scrounging to feed themselves. Something needs to be done.
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