Sunday, November 19, 2006


Tuesday, November 14th, 2006. 5pm, Hotel Desalegn, Addis Ababa.

Smart, pristine pink new apartment blocks are rising from the rubble in the Tele Bulgaria sub-city, a rare display of modern-day development and optimism – and pretty much misleading.

Every apartment so far stands empty– save for a tottering stepladder glimpsed through one darkened window. And getting anyone able to afford to move in might be a momentous challenge – it looks tricky enough to simply remain in one of the squalid rusty shacks that make for “accommodation” (a generous term indeed) down below, next-door and across the capital.

One of these useless blocks stands as a cruel backdrop to a jumble ofunsafe rocks, low-flying clothes-lines and patter of traipsing children andmice-sized kittens leading into the unhappy home of bed-ridden Aids patient Mikre Mesele – dank dwellings in which she may have just four more days,with the prospect of worse uncertainty ahead.

I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget the first moment of stooping, stepping in. Even by all expectations of Ethiopian poverty and squalor, this is something else. The shack is in darkness as we struggle in, barely room for Mikre’s bed upon which she can barely be seen, and even then looking moredead than even barely-alive. Another bed lies at a right angle, astonishingly sub-rented out by Mikre to raise a little desperately-needed cash – while the merest scrap of hard flooring is all that serves as a painful resting-space for daughters Betamariam Selshie, nine, and five-year-old Alemayhu.

A crackling lightbulb, dangling across the room on a rickety wire, gives a flicker of vision, as Mikre’s frail frame arches an inch or two up from herpillow, croakily sharing with us how her landlord has given her four days to leave this hovel for which she pays 80 Birr per month (about $10 – and a rip-off at a tenth of the price). He apparently wants to renovate the place– but this is surely his second attempt to evict Mikre purely for her HIV status, after only an indignant neighbours’ revolt forced him to back down shortly after Mikre’s diagnosis six months ago.

She could never afford the higher charges he is proposing – as things stand at the moment anyway, the rent leaves her with just 20 Birr per month from the grant handed over by the capital’s – and the church’s – Medan Acts programme.

Agonisingly raising her head against the old-newspapers-matted tin wall, an improbable “London-New York-Paris”-sloganned sports bag perched somehow above her, Mikre can only frown as school-uniformed Alemayhu bounds blithely inside, before just as instantly chasing a kitten back out again.

“Even before I became ill, everything was very difficult and complex,” Mikre explains. “Sometimes there were days when we had to go without any food at all. WhenI could get hold of something, we’d eat – if not, we couldn’t.”

Life was made more arduous when Aids claimed the life of her husband three years ago. Like many of the people we meet, Mikre appears to have left most of her family behind in distant countryside, migrating to Addis in search of work, in desperate expectation of a better life somehow. Twelve years after travelling 650km from Gondar, now 25-year-old Mikre can only depend on the daily calls of home carer Sisaoibeyene, one of a dwindling band of tireless, unpaid volunteers. The Medan intervention at least means fewer days of starvation, as Sisaoibeyene bakes a daily disc of loaf, while the children have also been kitted out with school uniforms and packed off to their lessons.

Mikre was married for eight years before her husband’s death – suggesting she was just 14 when they wed. He was the main bread-winner – or‘bread-owner’, as Solomon translates it, a transitory moment of mild amusement – making his plunge into bed-ridden torpor an even more crushing setback. Yet again, like many we encounter, Mikre appears incredibly philosophical and unself-centred about her plight.

“I was extremely saddened by the situation – not so much because I was afraid for myself, that I would be infected, but that the kids would go even more without – about our whole poverty and style of life, more than my husband having the virus.”

After realising she too was positive, Mikre now spends her days lying helpless, unable to stir enough even to boil a rusty kettle or cover over the cat-mess-mired plates scattered aside.

“At first when I fell ill, I was really very upset – I lost all hope, Ididn’t have the energy to go out and get something for the children to eat. But after the project started helping me, my hope renewed a bit. I just can’t lose all hope. There were times I felt so bleak – I just didn’t know what to do. But I’m not personally worried about my own situation, about myself – I just heavily regret I can’t really do something good for my children. I’m worried about their future. People in foreign lands need to really focus on our children.”

The past seems to be something to be forgotten without fuss – from the bloody repression of the 17-year Communist era, to the loss of individual loved ones – to the signing of your own HIV death warrant

Two impassive portraits hang lop-sided above Tariku Leta’s bed – the faces of the parents who died within a month of each other this summer.

But ask 15-year-old Tariku or 12-year-old brother Girma about their recent losses, and their steady-eyed replies are all about how they are coping with the present – and preparing for the future. The pair have had to grow up quickly, momentously, during the past year, now living alone together in one cabin while partitioning and hiring out their parents’ old room next-door to raise a little rent.

Girma still goes to school – though he has returned now for lunch after an unusually-inactive morning. Tariku has dropped out, and juggled such jobs as shoeshine boy, carpenter’s assistant and sheet metal worker to pay the family’s way. And while Girma still looks a baby-faced boy, Tariku has the fixed gaze and severe voice of someone many years more mature than his actual age.

“Because of trying to make ends meet, we haven’t really had time to play and enjoy things with the rest of the community kids round here,” he shrugs sombrely. “We didn’t get to enjoy childhood like we should have done, like others do.” Do they have any pleasures or distractions at all? “No, none. We’re leading a serious life of older people.”

The extended family lives 125km away, placing the burden of their parents’ care formidably onto the meagre shoulders of the two boys – and increasing the isolation as they mourned.

“When we lost our parents, we lost all hope. Our lives were completely shattered,” recalls Tariku, who takes his name from the father who died aged 47. Mother Ananetch was 35 when she died in May.

“In the past, we never really cared about anything – we never worried about where breakfast, lunch or supper came from. Now we have to cook forourselves – and earn enough money to buy food in the first place. Life has completely changed, and things are really getting more expensive,especially as we grow.

“I feel responsible for my little brother – I have to make sure he goes to school, for the sake of his future. But for now, only one of us can earn. Iwork in a metal shop but some days, like today, there’s no work for me to do – and no pay.”

A smattering of stationery sits in the corner, supplied to studious Girma by the people at Medan. Tariku has also been promised some wheat, and hopes soon to sign up to an income-generation scheme – typically, involving a $100 grant to start selling a little home produce, whether agricultural or arty-and-crafty.

He and Girma also have higher aspirations – both want one day to become doctors, a legacy of seeing their parents suffer so: “We want to be doctors because we want to participate in the kind of ordeal our parents went through. We want to make sure these things don’t happen to other people.”

Tariku quickly checks himself, loath to dwell too long on those dying days: “The past is gone. Our parents are no more with us. It’s pointless for us to think about them. We’d rather choose to concentrate on our current situation. We don’t really spend any time thinking about the past.”

Yet there are clearly some moments when bleaker memories can steal upon them unawares, often under cover of treacherous sleep. Yes, there are bad dreams – bad, because they seem good, softly-spoken Tariku allows: “Sometimes I find myself in some kind of nostalgia about our past lives, when both our parents were alive. And we get upset, reminded of the good lives we used to lead.

“That’s why we try not to think of it at all.” Men sadly forced into maturing ahead of schedule – and yet sometimes still, boys will, and must, be boys again.

Senait Dender’s home is no larger, nor any more luxurious, than a toilet cubicle – in fact, that’s what it was before a relative made the merest of alterations to allow her and baby son Yonas to move in. A sunken bed, a stiff sky-blue shawl on the wall and – well, that’s about it, a grubby baby’s bottle in the corner aside.

Before coming here eight months ago, the pair were sleeping in the streets under a flimsy blanket, having being thrown out of her uncle’s home by a mistrustful aunt and a vindictive landlord’s ultimatum: either the HIV girl goes, or the whole family.

The sight of huddled-up Senait, 22, dripping tears over Yonas in their mudbank-set settlement is sad enough – but her back-story is even bleaker: raped at 14 by the head of a household where she worked as a babysitter; forced to give up the resulting child, now nine, to a faraway aunt; infected with HIV at the age 18 by a here-today-gone-tomorrow boyfriend; then later deserted by her husband, the father of Yonas, after being laid low by HIV and opportunistic diseases such as TB.

Her husband, a soldier, initially assured Senait he was being transferred to serve in another part of the country, only for her later to discover him living elsewhere in Addis Ababa still, wanting nothing to do now with his wife and then-six-month-old child.

Yonas keeps crawling, calling for a scrap of notepaper, happily banging a stray pen against our pads, occasionally squealing, on the verge of tears and a tantrum that don’t quite come. His mother taps her fingers on his head in admonition, jabs the filthy-teated bottle into his mouth and awkwardly adjusts her rheumatism-riddled legs folded underneath her – too weak to take a walk outside, to show off her son down the scruffy-kiosked pathway.

Yet she insists she is through the worst of her sickness, having responded encouragingly to TB treatment and now a month into her course of anti-retroviral drugs: “I hope and pray that God might give me my full health back, so I can work and raise my baby myself. I have very strong hope and faith because a couple of years ago I was so ill, people were expecting me every day to die– I was virtually paralysed. If I’ve passed through those difficult days, even now I have hope of being fully healed. I’ve been ten times worse than this.”

But still, but still… “The worst days are at holiday times, like New Year or Christmas, when I see people enjoying themselves, rejoicing, visiting each other – and I find myself closeted in my room, with no one coming to visit me. Or at any time if I see or hear someone laughing or having a good time, I remember the good days I had in the past. When I could work. When I could earn my own living. When I had my dignity. Those days come back to me, and it’s very difficult. Even when people bring me food, it doesn’t taste good because of the state I’m in.”

Ah, but at least she smiled for the first time as we handed over a couple of rolls left over from (an inevitably guilty-feeling) lunch – having first checked with helpful Dr Henok whether to offer would be appropriate. (“Appropriate”? What an awkward and stupid sense of complacent Western“propriety” – hand them over, and let her and baby tuck in, for goodness’sake Aidan… He didn’t say that, of course…)

We left Yonas happily munching his surprise “treat”, and bump back to the hotel – through Confusion Square, the oh-so-aptly-nicknamed expanse of traffic chaos that makes Piccadilly Circus look like a deserted country highway; past the Medan Acts base where this morning factory worker Daniel Mekonin was a shivering bundle of nerves as he faced an HIV test, only to stride away relieved and thumbs up to us 20 minutes later, one of the lucky ones; past the “James Bond tailors” and the “Snow White laundry”, the traffic lights where a frantic wanderer raps on our windows and apparently angrily accuses me of being a Chinese billionaire exploiting his Ethiopian slaves (“Every country has its madmen”, Solomon sighs) – back to the all-the-roomier-now hotel room, to ponder, touched, on life’s shocking lottery.

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