British Riots: An Ethiopian Perspective
“Why do they fight in London?” a homeless man in Addis Ababa asked me this morning, after he realised I was both British and had limited understanding of the local currency’s value. His Manchester United T-shirt, trousers with chimney-sweep ends and obviously second or third hand coat clung to his body in the rain. And his features had sunk deep into his head as though to shield themselves from a life in the dirt and the cold. He smiled as I approached, held out his hand and jingled the handful of coins he had collected that morning – a ritual repeated by the thousands of homeless all over the city that serves to provide a constant, rhythmic reminder of the ‘down and out’.
“Farenji (white foreigner), Why do they fight in England?” he repeats as I struggle to comprehend the impeccability of his English and his remarkable knowledge of world news events. Shaking off my surprise, gathering a combination of laughably pigeon Amharic and horribly patronising pigeon English, I start to formulate an answer.
“Well there are cuts,” I say. “The government is giving out less money,” I explain, to a man who’s government gave (not sold) slum land to the rich and powerful in India and China and forced the incumbent dwellers, with no where to go and no where to turn, on to the streets or back to the countryside. But not before the utter humiliation of offering the poorest in the city the chance to keep their tin-roofed, tarpaulin-draped shacks, if only they would match the eight-story office construction plans of their coming displacers.
“School costs more now,” I continue in the hope that I might stumble upon a reason that doesn’t sound ridiculous while surrounded by physically crippling poverty. He didn’t seem to understand, either because formal education is one of the few luxuries Ethiopians value enough to bankrupt themselves to obtain, or maybe because he was sat in front of Bole Secondary School, an institution that has unintentionally shamed its English counter-parts. The school survives on 7 million Birr (£250,000) a year, which it receives from a combination of government and NGO grants, and with which it must educate its 3,500 students. The average class size is 56, students often share desks and out-dated textbooks and the ‘laboratory’ amounts to little more than a microscope and a periodic table of elements. But it does what it can. Bole School has received 500 Birr (£18) (a relatively huge amount considering average incomes and commodity prices in Addis) from every parent of every pupil since 1995. Together they have raised enough to build a new library, which will open next week and house hundreds of English and Amharic books. For the price of a Mars bar a week, they have built a library. In comparison, University tuition fees seem difficult to complain about, given the frivolity with which most students treat their time in higher education.
“Maybe people feel alone, no help [sic],” I conclude, trying to avoid the word disenfranchised, in a final vomit-inducing answer. He can empathies. Aside from the occasional, and often short-lived, NGO shelter or the chance to win the government’s harshly unfair ‘condominium lottery’, helplessness reigns supreme on the streets of Addis. There are, however, every hundred yards or so, children from the age of 5 shining shoes with rags and puddle water. There are, scouting between the shoe-shiners and the elderly women cooking corn on bare charcoal, younger boys selling individual sticks of gum and older ones touting telephone cards. And there are, as far as the eye can see, a mass of Ethiopians finding anyway to get by. This is because the poor and the helpless of Addis do not resign themselves to poverty and helplessness, and nor do they smash up Lidl because it might be their fault. Instead, they create the slum economy, the dirty little secret of developing cities exposed by Paul Mason in last week’s New Statesman.
They do not riot here, violent crime is at an all time low and there is a communal friendliness between the recently rich and the continuous poor that is almost tangible. I stop short of explaining the shooting of Mark Duggan. Mostly because its hard to describe any causal link between protesting police brutality and stealing value bags of Basmati rice from Tesco’s, especially with a child-like grasp on the local language.
Peaceful protest is of course necessary in any democracy, especially when its government’s answer to increased criminality is cuts to the police force. However, it would be nice if looters, who have ravaged local communities across the country over the last week, could come and explain to a homeless man in Addis how a population with so much can smash shop windows to get more.Tagged in: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, HOMELESS, london, looting, police, poverty, Riots
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