Wednesday, November 15th, 2006. 6pm, on the road back to Addis Ababa from Nazareth.
“Selam – hello – I love you!” “Selam – hello – I love you!” “Selam – hello – I love you!”
And still the kids keep coming forward, crowding around me with beaming faces and skinny arms outstretched to shake hands – several faces I recognise from handshakes just a few moments earlier, coming back for more.
“Selam”, I reply, having finally learnt and remembered just one word of Amharic, and tentatively brandish my cameraphone a couple of times in the direction of the leaping, waving, squealing swarm of children.
Marcus the photographer and I certainly caused a stir as we delved through a Nazareth village market, taking photos – and making a sudden celebrity – of 67-year-old grocery kiosk-keeper Khadija Mohammed. She patiently “sold” and resold and resold one bunch of browning bananas to a ragged yet graceful pretend customer, as Marcus snapped away beneath the booth’s low counter, having crawled awkwardly through a catflap-esque entrance at the back.
The shop can have been no bigger than the homes we saw yesterday, only this had relatively “rich” pickings spilling from the shelves: Glory biscuits, Fegegta crackers, Aladdin’s Constant mystery mixture, Scissors safety matches, more familiar yet miniaturised bags of Ariel Gold Plus washing powder, and a deep barrel of bright red lentils.
A few paces ahead of her stall, a small but severe-looking boy guarded a sack of corn, underneath a billowing brown canvas and alongside an older man who would occasionally stand and flourish a long thin stick in mock anger if the surrounding swells became too boisterous. A younger, slightly smarter man was on constant walkabout with a half-brush, half-whip in his right hand, lightly slapping the legs of any curious child who wandered too close while walking home from school – albeit never with much malice or backlift.
Their clothes may have been long-worn and spare, but they range from finely-arranged shawls and gowns to freshly-faded modern sports sweatshirts – sad to say, more often than not showing off an Arsenal badge. As here in Nazareth, 100km from the capital, so seemingly across Ethiopia – Solomon confirmed the suspicion, this is Gooner territory, save for the occasional knock-off top preferring Barca (10 Ronaldinho) or Manchester United (8 Rooney).
Such familiar fashionwear contrasts smartly with the all-pervading poverty and dated, crudely painted eyesores above eye level – here in Nazareth perhaps more so than even in Addis Ababa. Here, ramble goats, back-breakingly burdened donkeys, emaciated horses with savagery in their eyes. In Addis we had seen men randomly sprawled asleep on the kerbsides – across Nazareth, diagonal canvas strips mark out barely-there excuses for “homes”, more claustrophobic and debasing than a dog’s kennel.
Children seize amusement from riling a pet goat whose back foot is thinly tethered to a tree – swiping his horned head with a couple of quickfire volleys, only sometimes provoking enough of an effort to buck and barge in vain. (If the sight reminded me of the scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and the hotel’s resentful pet goat who must inevitably escape from his ties in a fictional, factional Abyssinia-alike African nation-in-turmoil Ishmaelia, at least we were spared this goat’s eventual vengeance.)
Khadija’s small success – and may today’s attention hopefully give business a decent little boost – offers a sign of how people here can be helped to help themselves. The Nazareth Community Development Project, since its inception in June 2002, has enrolled 2,400 women into its “income-generation activities” – grassroots collective groups offering funding, business training, pooled profits and communal savings schemes for the “poorest of the poor , invariably the town’s women, engaged in such activities as embroidery, weaving, cattle-fattening, vegetable oil-mixing, sheep-rearing and engura-baking (enguar, the sour bread that is a beloved national staple, despite looking especially unappetising to us – rather resembling a Swiss roll of soggy concrete, or a furl of sloppy, paste-mired wallpaper – and tasting not a lot better. Ah, but “give us this day our daily engura”, our hosts cheerily implore – and we, equally cheerily, oblige.)
The IGA groups – split into SHGs (self-help groups) of between 15 and 20 people, and CLAs (cluster level associations) of eight to 12 SHGs – are now in the black to the tune of 487,000 Birr in savings – about £30,000. Funding for individual or group initiatives comes from members’ own contributions (20 per cent), Tearfund (ten per cent), the Kale Heywet church (ten per cent) and Dutch-based charity Dorkas Aid International.
As might be expected, especially in such a patriarchal society, many men were initially suspicious of such a women-led project, fearing – or, at least, dismissively claiming – the meetings would be little more than idle gossip shops. But as the money began trickling in – 100 Birr on a good day for mother-of-six Khadija, for example – so they started seeing a sunnier side. Now, one woman rejoiced: “My husband is the one who cleans the chairs every time we have a meeting here ahead.”
Although we discovered Khadija was HIV- - not too helpful, after all the photos, for our Aids-centred coverage; ah, how cynical – and the scheme is for the benefit of everyone and anyone, co-ordinator Mekonnen Kelsede explained how HIV+ women had much to gain – by participating, and empowering themselves, and also as other women boost their own livelihoods enough to contribute to communal care. Meanwhile, spin-off schemes involve building much-needed new homes, clothing children, improving – or, indeed, introducing – literacy and numeracy.
It could even seem a throwback to – or long-awaited implementation of – pure Communist principles. That is, had it not been for the over-indulgent sprinklings of business jargon – “capacity-building”, “targeted beneficiaries”, “economic stability”, I ask you...
All of which would no doubt be lost, for the foreseeable anyway, on the little kids now extending their palms for a different purpose, as we clamber into our van after taking our farewells.
“Money! Money!”, the understandably ask of the rich white men all of a sudden in their midst, potentially wielding power or patronage over them. But before we can even awkwardly, properly respond, our driver is spearing into second gear, Solomon shooing the last hordes away with barely a glance, and we’re literally lost in a cloud of dust.
What can you do?
But then again, what could they do? “Money!” “Money!” Well, why not...?