By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, October 15, 2012 (Ezega.com) - Child labor has always been a challenge for Ethiopian children. With an extreme poverty, illiteracy and wicked tradition and attitude towards children, the price one pays for growing up in Ethiopia is a lot unjust than most places in the world. In addition to physical and emotional abuse (which is considered ‘normal’ in the society), children are challenged with the worst form of child labor abuse and exploitation. Including child prostitution and physical labor incompatible with the capacity of the child, children are sold, abducted, and used for some of the harsh realities of the country. Using children for begging is part of this tradition.
What will happen to these children at the end of the day? What kind of citizens will they be? How they see themselves, their environment and the country are questions no one seems to be trying to address.
I had an opportunity last week to meet four extraordinary street children, who literally raised themselves begging on the street. They never had a parent or a guardian who cared and looked out for their interests. Nobody bothered to make sure they have eaten or slept well. In their entire childhood, the only adult supervision they ever knew was from those who force them to beg and report back with the money they made.
Ganawe does not know where he was born. He knows that he found himself with a guy named Gashe. He is now in his late teen and he already has 17 policy records for several pity offences. He lived his entire life on the streets and he never knew his real parents or any relatives by blood.
“I asked Gashe several times to tell me about my real parents. I don’t think he ever knew them. He was never able to give me a straightforward answer. I remember when I was very little and someone I don’t recall now was talking to Gashe and telling him to look after me. I assume that person knew my parents and may be he is the one who took me away from them,” he says. Ganawe and his four other friends grew up on the streets begging, stealing and making up stories to survive the day. They are now both at the age when they think things are much better than the old days. “The hardest age to live on the streets is when you are a child,” they told me. “Everyone will beat you down, mistreats you and takes your things and your money. Since you can’t defend yourself verbally or physically, the only option left is to take all of it and blame god and your parents who put you in these situations.”
All of them smoke a lot of cigarette and chew chat on daily bases. In fact, for them these two substances have been a family and a friend than any other human being. “I can always count on cigarette to keep me worm and awake,” said Ganawe who has been smoking as far as he remembers.
Bilal was only five years old when his parents died of HIV AIDS. At the time a local orphanage offered to take him in. His aunt refused saying her niece will not live in orphanage while she is alive. Everyone believed her emotions and Bilal was given to her. Once the mourning season for his dead parents was over, the little boy found himself in a house where he is treated as a slave. “I was expected to do everything” he said. “She sent me to school but expected me to come home before any of the children and go to school late. She didn’t give me enough food and I was tired and sick all the time,” he said.
He left home at the age of seven and has been living on the streets since then. “Yes, there are people who make us beg and they take the money. But sometimes it is good to be with them because they protect us from others. They give us food and teach us what to do and say to get the money. So I say it’s better with them than without them,” he said.
Though exploiting children for begging is a common story on the streets, there is hardly a legal case established based on it. Since street children are neglected by the society and the government, those who abuse and use them go unpunished all the time. Kalkidan, a social worker at a federal court says cases of this sort are common. “We deal with many cases related to children. However, we have never had a case against those who use children for begging. Obviously, it is a criminal act. The problem is who should investigate it? The children do not really know they have a right to be protected from this sort of treatment. Even if you tell them, their loyalty is mostly for the people who are committing this crime on them. That is because they see them as a family and a guardian. Society does not pay enough attention to it and does not report when they encounter things like this.” he said.
Ganawe and his friends had so many adults who supervised their begging in the past. Esubalew, who came to Addis at the age of five from Ambo town by a relative who promised school and a better life, says he was sold to strangers. “The day my relative brought me to Addis, he took me to a place around Merkato. I still have a vague memory of the place and the people. He told me to play and started talking with two strangers. I saw them giving him money. After that he told me to stay with them for a while. It’s after a long time that I understood he sold me for them,” he says.
“There was once a woman named Ambashe who used to live around Arat Kilo,” said Fiker, a seventeen year old boy who appears to be smiling all the time. “She had a house and she takes as many children as she could. The children beg for money and give it to her. In return she provides some food and a place to sleep. I was ten years old when she took me in. What she does is she wakes us up early in the morning and tells us where to go. She comes and checks if we are there and she mostly knows how much money we would get from the area she assigns us. It is hard to cheat her so she takes all of it most of the time,” he says. “She died three years ago and to be honest I was sad. That is not because she was kind to me. But she was the only family figure in my head,” Fiker said losing his smile.
Fiker is a name his friends gave him on the street. “I have another name but my friends call me Fiker. I think it is because I am peaceful mostly. I don’t like to fight and if I am around I don’t let my friends get in trouble. As a result even the police are kind to me and I don’t get arrested as much,” he said smiling.
All of the boys have an experience of a school but was never able to go through with it. I had to ask if they have a plan for a life away from the streets. “How?” asked back Ganawe. “I don’t know what we would do outside the streets. One of my friends found his parents after a long time. They took him to their house and get him to school. He couldn’t handle it and he came back to us. We begged him to stay with them but he was unable to live in peace and they had let him go” he said. “That is why we have to focus on the children on the streets now. Especially the little once has a chance to know a life different from what they have now. Once grown, it is difficult to be a different person,” he added.
They have never had a claim on the society or the government for their situation. If they have to blame, they blame their own parents or God. “What can a government do for us?” asked Bilal. “Parents are responsible for their children. We were their problem and they gave up on us. I also believe that God writes a horrible destiny for some people. I think that is what happened for me and my friends on the streets,” he said.
Their response might sound reasonable from their point of view. However, should we leave the society and the government off the hook from these heartbreaking stories of Ethiopian street children?
To be continued.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.