Monday, June 11, 2012

Responsibility and Friendship

 Greetings from Hawassa!
We didn't expect to blog so soon, but the emotional impact of events impels the fingers to tap the keys.
Marty just returned from interviews that she enjoyed tremendously because of the existential force and humor of the women involved, but also infuriated and saddened by the tales of perfidy, violence and grinding poverty that she recorded.
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She had met all three women weeks before. To one she had given amoxicillin to cure a bronchitis, but the young woman had developed a horrible rash for which Marty had felt guilty, but which disappeared with a short course of prednisone. All three were young, unclear of their ages because none had ever been able to go to school, but all thought they were about 20. They had become friends at Qircho (Marty finally has the spelling right, maybe.) the Beggars Village and sat down to encholal en siga en enjera (eggs, meat and Ethiopian bread) at the Ledet Cafe joking while babies slept in two of their sets of arms.
Though all had come from different parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (Ethiopia's southern state, with Hawassa its capital) each had fallen in love with a man who abandoned her. The first whom we will call “Yelena”, was orphaned as a young child in the town of Dilla, and was forced to work as a servant in others' houses until she was 14. Then a seemingly kind woman told her that she would give her a good job in her house in Zoay. But it turned out that the “house” was actually a bar and she was expected to work as a prostitute. She escaped to work in a tea house where she fell in love with and lived with the owner, who was unfaithful to her and she left him. Soon she began to feel ill and was diagnosed with HIV. She came to Hawassa for treatment at the Holy Waters at the Orthodox Church five years ago (still probably only 15 years old but having seen a full lifetime of troubles). Two years later she again fell in love and was brave enough to disclose her status. He accepted it and Yelena UNTIL she became pregnant, at which point he denied he was the father and left her. The beautiful baby was born, and Yelena has loved and cared for her diligently, but she wants to find another home and family for her, so that she does not have a life like her mother's.
The second, “Ana”, was the child of an extremely poor farming family outside of Hawassa. She met a young man who promised to save her from poverty and took her to the town of Shashomene, where they both worked and lived together. One night she told him that she was pregnant. The next morning she awoke to find him gone, having taken all the money they had saved, and leaving her with a rent due that she could not possibly pay. A friend who was begging in Shashomene was able to sell her own goods so that Ana could pay that 200 birr and thus ransom from the landlord her few remaining possessions. The two moved to the streets of Hawassa where they lived in “street shelters” and begged to feed themselves. Young men threatened to rape her after she delivered, which she ultimately did, on the pavement in the street shelter.
The third, “Terry”, was born to poor parents who divorced soon after her birth. Her mother struggled to survive breaking rocks for cobblestones and carrying loads for people. Terry stayed home to help her mother. A man proposed to her and, against the wishes of her mother and brother, she left home with him. She became pregnant, but, in the seemingly endless refrain of poor young women, he ran out on her. Her mother was unable to support her, though Terry did live with her for a while, so she began begging. Her baby was stillborn. She has met another man, another beggar, who is alcoholic and constantly abusive. When Marty asked her why she does not leave, she asked in return what she could do, where she could go? Excellent questions.
All three live in Qircho, the Beggars Village, with up to ten people in a room. They beg on the street, none making as much as a dollar a day, Terry making only $.35 since she has no children. The two who have children are insulted on the street by passersby who tell them the only reason that they got pregnant was so that they could use their children to beg, and that they should give the children up to an NGO so that they can work.
Their lives and potential futures were put into perspective by the stories of two other, elderly women whom Marty and Dagim had interviewed just two days before. Both were in their seventies, and one, “Frances” had been thrown onto the streets by the revolution 38 years ago against Haile Selassie, when her husband disappeared into the forest. She has never been able to recover and now lives in Qircho with her youngest daughter, who also supports herself by begging. She usually is able to eat only one meal a day – bread and coffee – and describes her situation as like that of a “wild animal”, no better. Her friend “Tina” was orphaned many years ago and lost her husband after one of the Derg's involuntary resettlements to distant Gambela. She has worked her whole life, when she could, cooking for and serving others. Both are asked why they don't a) “get a job” breaking rocks on one hand or b) return to their homes on the other. Frances responds to the latter that she can't eat her bamboo walls.
In the face of the hunger, filth and degradation of spirit, two counteracting forces emerged in the interviews. One was the women's friendships that were displayed in their ability often to answer for each other or to express opinions in one collective voice. The second was a self-deprecating humor about their situation, their weaknesses, their men. Some have managed to retain religious faith, for others that seemed to be less important if it existed, though Marty did not delve deeply here.
Marty leaves Ethiopia extremely troubled by what she found on the streets. She has known poverty in the general and on an American scale but never taken the time to understand its victims in this way. Her sense of disgust at her own privilege, her helplessness in affecting lives of those who are truly suffering, constitute a big punch in the nose. Women look at her with longing and touch their mouths and their stomachs in what must be a universal language of hunger. She gives, but never enough, and it never really dents her own wealth.
She and Dagim will follow up on the letter to the mayor and Dagim plans on educating students at the University.
Where the little ones eat at Hawassa Children's Center.
Ell , Marty and Dagim have visited two wonderful institutions, the Hawassa Children's Center and the Mother Teresa Home. The HCC has an orphanage for about 100 children who have lost both parents. It schools them all the way through college. It also sponsors scores of Hawassa orphans who remain with extended family, giving them money for food and education. (There are 5,000 orphans in the City.) Finally, it runs training programs in computer sciences (for women only), electrical, wood and metal work (for poor young men in their 20's) and gives them micro-loans to start businesses. It is funded by German and American philanthropy and we were impressed.
Residents doing Saturday wash at Hawassa Children's Center
The Mother Teresa Home likewise was a source of inspiration. The spunky, outspoken Austrian Sister Servita talked with anger about the treatment of the Ethiopian poor. The home takes in anyone who arrives at its door – hungry, sick, physically abused, penniless, mentally ill – and gives nursing care and feeding and shelter. Sister Servita is interested in following up on advocacy for the street people, and there is a ferocity in her approach that demands admiration.
Marty with Dr. Birrie (to her right) and hospital administrators
Ell would say, “You have picked the most depressing subject to research. But Ethiopia is not just about poor people. Think of all the friends we made and places we have seen." Right. All is by no means hopeless poverty. This week was a week of celebration of our leaving. Saturday both friends Mulye of University of Hawassa Sociology Department and Dr. Birrie of the Internal Medicine Program at Referral Hospital hosted good-by parties. Mulye's was a low-key feast of tibs (roast meat) and enjera (teff pancake bread) and spaghetti and wine and beer followed by the coffee ceremony. Yum and thank you, Mulye and Achu! Then we had supper at our favorite hotel with Dr. Birrie, Chief of Internal Medicine, and the top administrators at Referral Hospital. It was a lovely surprise and honor to be appreciated like this. They presented Marty with two bracelets, a dress, and a beautiful commendation letter saying how appreciated she was by the hospital staff and how sorry they were to see her go. (Elliot adds this because Marty is way too humble to include this).
Achu and Mulye, second and third from left.
Elliot winds up his stay with, of course, grading and hosting the defense of their senior theses by his 4 third-year anthropology advisees. Marty is grading medical students and continues her work in the emergency room STILL amazed at the incredibly ill men and women that she sees every day and that the Ethiopian medical system does its best to treat.
We are deciding to whom to leave all our stuff to (bikes, fridge, extra clothes, books, DVDs, cookware, etc. We have it pretty well figured out between students, friends, folks at Qircho, and Mulugeta's family in Addis. We'd like to leave it all if we could!
What a year! How we miss you! Will be back in a week.
Marty and Ell


  1. What really heartbreaking stories-- and yet, as you say, these women have strengths that keep them going. And as much as you can-- or cannot do-- for individual women, structural change is the only real solution and requires the political will and resources to change things. That's the story there, and here.

  2. You two ought to go visit my friend's NGO in Addis - the Selamta Family Project.