Beggars

Ethiopia is starting to drive me a little crazy.

Jacob and I are both agreed that, after 3 months of sub-Saharan Africa, we are ready for, as Jacob puts it, “some people who are a little more up and coming.”

The hassle is just starting to be a little much as a farenji, or white person. It’s not the danger—Addis Ababa is as safe as it gets for Africa—it’s the begging.

And it’s not the begging from the handicapped that really gets me. There are so many handicapped here. We’re told it’s because the polio vaccine is relatively new. Polio apparently until recently used to be a huge problem. So many strange skin diseases with bulbous growths all over the body, so many people without feet, so many blind mothers with babies sucking at their breasts, so many mentally handicapped walking naked through the streets, so many crutches and so many malformed bodies. Their situation is a constant reminder of how blessed I am to have access to adequate healthcare.

So many kids trying to earn their keep by shoeshining, some wearing pants with holes the size of tennis balls on the bum. Or by selling chewing gum, or by begging and making hungry motions. These kids, I can pity, even if they can be irksome in their aggressiveness.

But the hassle from grown, healthy men with jobs, asking me for money—begging shamelessly from me, a young woman—is too much. There are so many normal, grown people here who just sit around on their blankets and make begging faces.

The miracle is, they get money. They all get money.

The reason is Ethiopia’s socialist culture. If you have money, you should give to those who don’t. It’s its religion too. Ethiopian Orthodox. By giving to others, God will bless you. Sadly, this belief, though altruistic, is holding them back.

Ethiopia is in the 10 poorest countries in the world.

It’s like they’ve never asked themselves why they are so poor. Just that they are poor, and other countries are selfish for not helping them. So many of them feel helpless and they just want wealthy people to give them money. But the poor countries get that way for a reason. It’s not just fate. The ideologies that the poor countries embrace are not helping them any.

The government, like most African countries, has been in power way too long and it is merciless with its protesters. 200 people were killed and 800 injured the last time elections were protested in 2005. Some people deny those numbers and even like their president because he’s still better than the president before. I didn’t know until coming here that Ethiopia had its own genocide that ended only 15 years ago, where it is reported 500,000 people were killed. The man in power at the time was afraid of all the youth and intelligensia so he wiped out an entire generation. This is unimaginable to Americans and it makes me respect “the right to bear arms” -even though I hate guns, I respect the right for a citizen to own one.

We were told Ethiopians want Americans to come help them kick their president out of power. I don’t know how I feel about that…We won our own independence didn’t we?

That said, I don’t think I would have the courage to protest, knowing I might be shot. I’d emigrate, instead. I think the Egyptians and others who have protested are so incredibly brave.

No other country has made me so proud to have been raised American. In America, we believe that you reap what you sow. If you work hard, you’ll be successful. If you don’t, it’s your fault. Your success is up to you.

Here in Ethiopia, the helplessness is palpable. They believe their destiny is in other people’s hands—rich people’s hands, and right now it is, because they have not risen to their potential, and because experience has taught them white people are generous.

The lack of ambition in people can be so frustrating here. We even arranged for our friend to get a job through the Church. He hasn’t worked in 3 years and is being supported by his younger sister. We thought he’d jump at the chance. Instead, he made some excuse of it not being the ideal work environment. We pay for everything when we go out with him. He often can’t even afford to make a single phone call. He’s dependent on his younger sister. He asks me to have 3 birr, the equivalent of about 10 cents, for a ride home. And yet he’s turning down a job…It seems the people would rather live off of charity than take initiative. There’s no shame in getting freebies because their culture has taught them that those who have should give to them….that’s the unselfish thing to do.

The result is the poorest, most begging culture we have ever experienced.

Ethiopia has got pretty rough problems, but NGOs run by Americans I personally don’t think is the answer. More and more, Jacob and I have become disenchanted with NGOs. Often they are the excuse for the owners to live it up under the name of charity, living out of the Sheraton and paying themselves a handsome salary. There is corruption and mismanagement of funds and abuse, much more than a regular business because a service or product is not being traded for money, but a “do good deed” which can’t really be listed in the marketplace for a price. White people who have come before us have given to the beggars and made the people now even more aggressive and shameless in their overtures toward us.

More and more, we feel that business is the answer. People need to start businesses, create jobs, and provide value to the marketplace. I know that is easier said than done, but…there is so much that could be created here. Ethiopia is not the desert people imagine it is. In the highlands, where most of the people live, it’s extremely green and beautiful. We’ve been told there is enough arable land in Ethiopia to actually feed all of Africa—how ironic, its dependence on food aid.

Ethiopia has to be a democracy before it can rise above its destitute situation. Until then, the government’s control will never allow the people to get the education and confidence they need to better their lives.

And in the meantime, the internet breaks, the power goes out, the hot water runs out, elevators go in and out of service, websites are blocked, the store keepers scam you, the locals follow you, and the farenjis start dreaming of a hassle-free, technologically advanced society where people don’t expect you to give them money just because you have some, or because you look like you have some because you have white skin.

Even though we made friends easily here, we wonder here more than anywhere else if these friends aren’t hoping to benefit financially from us—if our friendship isn’t a little artificial. India’s people were just as poor—but they insisted on paying our taxis for us, in giving us gifts, in making gestures that made us unable to doubt their genuine friendship. When we go out with friends here, there’s no question who’s getting the tab. No polite offers, even, to pay for their own. I’m pretty sure they just tell the waiter in Amharic, “The farenji’s getting the bill.”

I’ve started wanting to shake the grown men and women by the shoulders and say, “You can create your own destiny! You can live a better life! Don’t ask other people for money! Have a little pride!” But it’s such a different mentality. The kind-hearted Ethiopians can’t understand the concept that giving to beggars means they will continue to beg. That if you don’t give, they’ll stop asking, and they’ll find another way to make money. It’s that simple. As long as it’s more profitable for them to beg than to work, though, you can be sure they’ll stay on the streets, tugging your sleeve, making faces, wailing, hobbling, persistently trailing behind you.

Cairo will hopefully be an improvement in this area.

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Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 366 awesome articles for us.

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