The Ministry of Finance
Many people had told us that our future must be through a grant-in-aid from the Ethiopian government. Relying on foreign aid was neither realistic nor admirable - the Ethiopian people and State should look after their own social casualties. The president of our Association’s board, the Archbishop Habte Mariani Workeneh, felt strongly about this and had been manoeuvring to get state funding for the Association for some time but had not shared these ideas with me - perhaps with others, but not with me. To my great surprise, therefore, shortly before I left Ethiopia in 1969, I was gathered up by the Archbishop in his priestly garments and taken to the Ministry of Finance, where a government functionary was instructed to give me a whole pile of money. This was no bank transaction, just a pile of money shoved into a bag. The Archbishop had finally persuaded the government to pay for something, but I’m afraid it was a one-time donation, not sustainable or annual grant-in-aid.
What did I learn from the coalface?
Keep your eyes on the prize: this inspiring slogan from civil rights work in the USA must be your motivation. If you have decided that you are doing good work, and you can persuade others you are doing good work, then think of all the ways you can be financially self-reliant to allow your good work to continue.
Start from where you are, and your own experience, but be very open to opportunities that may arrive. Have a good time, but be conscious of expanding and building your reputation and your fame so that opportunities are presented to you.
Stick to your mission — and is it ver)' easy to be seduced away from it by ideas that are attractive but too complex for you to handle. Find and take good advice, if you can possibly find it. Be aware that you may be a maverick who does not fit established patterns.
Donor agencies, by and large, only understand giving funds: planning for financial sustainability' involves expertise in running enterprises, and few donor agencies can be helpful to you there. There is another part of the aid trade called small business development, but it is ver)' rare for this expertise to cross into other sectors, like street children. A singular lacuna in the aid trade.
What happened to it all?
Three years after I left Ethiopia there was a revolution, usually called the Derg. It included a terrible period called the Red Terror, in which many people were caught in the crossfire of street shooting. And these included many of our boys. In the Communist period, all non-state institutions were closed down, including the ECFWA.
Mabrahtu was a Tigre and became very involved in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which took over the country in 1991. After helping the new government get established, he became a private lawyer but kept in touch with and was very supportive of the hostel kids who survived, as were members of the board. One of the most famous of the alumni is Tadesse Mesfin, a renowned artist in contemporary Ethiopia.
Ezra married his English teacher and emigrated to the UK, working there as a gardener, and often revisiting Ethiopia.
Kesh-Kesh was sold to a bakery and no longer markets crisps by that name.
Street children still abound in Addis Ababa, but, as far as I can see, they are now more professional and committed to their chosen trade - they are not so ready to leave that life to try to attend school.
On a more personal note, against the background of this work I was able to enjoy astonishing opportunities for exploration and travelling in Ethiopia.
I was able to walk from Tendaho cotton plantation in the Danakil area to the lake that is the end of the Awash River as it reaches Djibouti. The slogan of the Awash Bank in Ethiopia’s is “Our money stays in Ethiopia, just like the water of the Awash River”. I started this journey on camel back, but soon found that riding a camel was ver)' painful on the testicles as you rocked back and forth, and so got oft', put the luggage on the camel, and walked beside it.
In the Simyen mountains, I tried to climb Ras Dashen, the highest mountain in Ethiopia — the Italians claimed that it was over 15,000 feet for their colonial pride, but this was disputed. I never made it to the top, becoming overpowered with altitude sickness - and also losing my way — and sleeping out on the mountain. I was rescued by the indomitable Irish adventurer Dervla Murphy, who was coming through the same mountain range as part of her journey written up as In Ethiopia with a Mule — see Chapter 4 in that book.2
Most of Ethiopia is a high tableland, but where that tableland comes close to South Sudan, it drops down quite dramatically - from Dembi-dolo to Gambela. While expiating a broken love affair, I walked for two days down to the Sudan, losing height dramatically, passing colobus monkeys in the trees, looking like jockeys in their black and white silks, and meeting increasingly black people as the Amhara gave way to Anuak. Once down on the Sudanese plain, I borrowed a bicycle to explore, only to find that the renowned tough Chinese bicycle started to break up, and I walked back to Gambela with it over my shoulder.
Readers may remember the extraordinary airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, at the end of the Derg period. These folk were called
Falasha, and were a distinct group in Ethiopia who were given the chance to be taken to Israel. On a subsequent visit to Ethiopia, 1 enquired about the history and whereabouts of the kids and the staff of the hostels. Mama Etenesh, who used to be the cook and housemother in one of the hostels, had, I was told, gone to Israel in the airlift. “But she wasn’t a Falasha,” I protested. “You knew that, and we knew that,” they said, “but the Israelis didn’t.”
Working with street kids and publicising their situation was slightly tricky in Ethiopia in the late Sixties. Proud Ethiopians might think that your chief reason was to do down the reputation of the country. We managed a large photo documentary of kids sleeping on the streets, begging, etc., but handled it through a large and famous secondary school that took on the project as civic education for their students and the parents of their students.
Many people know of the Rastafarians from Jamaica. I had a strange link to them. It is common knowledge that the Emperor Haile Selassie’s title was Ras Tafari, and this was picked up by “Back to Africa” Rastafarians in Jamaica. Haile Selassie had given land to some Rastas in a town called Shashamane, and I came across them in a bizarre circumstance. British eccentric General Orde Wingate helped Haile Selassie reoccupy Ethiopia from the Italians, and a school was started in his name outside Addis Ababa called the Wingate School and modelled on a British public school. In this school, they instituted cricket (how eccentric can you get?!). Once a year there was a public cricket day and all the folks from the Commonwealth who knew about cricket charged in — Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Australians, West Indians, Brits. I joined as well and was approached by a young black lad who, not surprisingly, I thought was Ethiopian. “Please can I play too?” he said. “I know cricket.” It turned out that he was the child of a Jamaican Rasta immigrant who had heard there was some cricket going and could not keep away. He was brilliant at bowling, batting, catching — and this was my first exposure to the unique accent of Jamaica.
I also had an occasion once to go horse riding with the daughter of the Minister of Finance. She was a very international woman whose brother, Dereje, had given us the Kesh-Kesh factor)', and she had access to horses. She was as beautiful as most Ethiopian women and ran a clothing boutique in downtown Addis Ababa. My intentions were entirely honourable. As we rode along I noticed a man on a very active horse consistently riding with us, but about 100 yards away. “Is that man following us?” I asked. “He is a bodyguard my father has sent to protect me,” she replied. I gripped my horse more firmly.
What were we thinking at the time?
As I am sure is obvious from the contents of this chapter, I was winging it in Addis Ababa, responding to opportunities as they arose. I do not remember any research on street kids in Addis Ababa, but I was aware of the work of the Starehe Boys Centre in Nairobi, which I visited and learned from.
As I have noted, street kids are still a large problem in Addis Ababa. In this period, street kids — e.g. shoe shine boys — saw their work as something they had to do while they tried to get into school, but now shoe shine boys are older and more established — they are, if you like, more professional.
If you want to learn more about the contemporary situation, please see:
Mengesha, Mekonnen. 2012. Street Children in Addis Ababa: Exploring the policy framework for interventions. LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrücken, Gennany.
Roberts, Angela Raven. 1991. Notes from the Field — Strategies for Street Children in Addis Ababa: Defining the issues. Michigan University Press, Ann Arbor MI, USA.
If it were undertaken these days, the Kesh-Kesh adventure would be called a social enterprise. Back in the Sixties it was pure opportunism, and I was ignorant of how to run a business, although I had some help from the Peace Corps. Someone thinking of the same kind of intervention these days would be advised to look at:
Caldwell, Amy Ann. 2014. What is a social enterprise? A simple definition and 3 examples. The Good Trade, Los Angeles CA, USA. Available at www.thegoodtrade.com/features/what-is-a-social-enterprise.
Ethiopia hosted a world conference on social enterprises in 2019, and Social Enterprise World Forums (SEWF) showcases many of the Ethiopian examples (www.sewf2019.org).
- 1 The sending organisation, the United Nations Association, working through the British Council, asked for preferred countries. I replied that I wanted a country that had not been part of the British Empire and I was offered Ethiopia.
- 2 Murphy, Dervla. 2003. In Ethiopia with a Mule. John Murray Publishers, London, UK.