You! Gimme Pen!!

The “Cradle of Civilisation”; the “land of the burnt-faced men”, Abyssinia: home of the powerful Aksumite empire from the 2nd to 7th century A.D. – These are just some of the descriptions that have been granted upon Ethiopia through the centuries. Sounds majestic, does it not? Before I even go into this, let me first stress that Ethiopia’s history is just that … majestic! There is more than enough to be proud of for its nearly 80 million population (a rough estimate made at the end of 2008), and to top it all off, it was also one of the only African countries never to succumb to colonialism during the European land-grab of the 19th and 20th centuries. Italy tried their damnedest … twice … and failed miserably as the strong-spirited Ethiopians proved too crafty to enslave (though the Italian influence, mainly in the form of the carving of roads through impossible landscape and the donation of pasta-based cuisine, has had its positive effects). Even communism could not seem to retain a lengthy foothold, only lasting approx. 17 years. Little would you expect then that one of the most innocent of ideas could rip asunder such a proud people in such a short space of time. In a span of just over five years, Ethiopian children have been stripped of their dignity and have become a plague upon the nation with their hands outstretched and palms open. The cries of “You! You! Gimmee money! Gimmee pen! Highland*! Highland!” can be heard nearly everywhere following after the faces of those less pigmented. Even the famines of the 1980s (most Westerners sole knowledge of Ethiopia due to the Live Aid concerts) was a minor toothache compared to the root canal that is needed now. Do not blame the parents of these persistently begging youth! Do not blame the government (there is so much else to blame them for) for the lack of school facilities! Do not blame their economic situation (though they are rated as the 3rd poorest nation in the world) or the hardship of their lives! Do not even blame tourism, which brings an influx of much-needed income into the country and broadens the world’s limited knowledge of this fascinating place and its wonderful people! Blame the tourists! Blame the photographers! Blame the magazines and journalists! Thanks to that first batch of individuals coming in under the moniker of mass tourism, a majority of the children have been converted into obnoxious little scabs.

Why do I put the blame upon the above-mentioned? You see, many years ago, after the fall of the Derg (the heavy-handed communist rule of the mid-70s to early 90s) and the pointless conflict with Eritrea, adventure tourists and magazines like NG could get back into the country and photo the average citizen, not just the scores of dead that had piled up from the conflicts and famines that they had a few glimpses of previously. Here were a race of people after many years of hardships and with little previous contact with the outside world that were curious to see other people. From all accounts (since I was not there at the time), the staring at foreign visitors was due to genuine curiosity and true interest. Then some twat thought to himself: “Hey, I remember seeing pictures of people here on Live Aid a few decades or so ago. Aren’t they all supposed to be emaciated and on the verge of starvation and death? Well, they look pretty fit now … probably from all that wonderful aid we have sent them .. so maybe I will give them a pen for posing so nicely in a photo for me. That pen should help them all learn to read and write. And since they must also be dying of dysentery, I’ll give them my bottle of water. And what the hell … a few Ethiopian birr** could do no harm! Maybe help them make ends meet!” OK, let us go through the wrongs here:

1) Yes, there was a horrible famine during the early to mid-80s which saw nearly one million people die, but what you may not realise is that the communist government of the time exasperated this exponentially by taking the food that was being produced back to Addis Ababa to feed themselves. The two worst areas affected (the Tigray and Oromo regions) were further pushed into hell by being major regions opposed to the government of the time. Let’s put this in a bit more different perspective, though. Around 8 million people affected by the famine … a conservative guess of population at the time would be around 50 million inhabitants. In other words, the population was tightening its belt overall, but that does not mean they were all the walking skeletons as seen on TV. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to belittle the situation at all! It was horrible … but this is not what should define the country!
2) Western aid, my arse! The US government barely lifted a finger (on the grand scale of things) when it came to feeding those affected by the famines, which is why Bob Geldof tried to do what he could with Live Aid. You have to remember, though, there really isn’t much the US wants from Ethiopia. No oil! Well, there is coffee … but Starbucks wasn’t the world power in the 80s as it is now. As for all that money from Live Aid, well, Mengistu (the communist leader of the Derg and murderer of Haile Sellasie) and his cronies made sure it got dispersed evenly … among themselves!
3) In a country with a literacy rate of approx. 43%, this is a country that doesn’t need pens! It needs teachers and schools! If you want to help, don’t give a kid a pen (What are they going to write on? They don’t have paper either!) … find a school or educational organisation; donate books or other educational material (to the schools, not the individuals)! If you prefer to give money, then donate to an official cause or community project. When you give individual kids gifts of pens, money or books, you never know how they are actually going to use it. A big scam from children is to get you to buy them a dictionary or something from the local shop (at slightly inflated prices), then after you are out of sight, they just sell it back to the shop for a cut in the profit. That dictionary you just proudly purchased has probably been “donated” to the kid 7 or 8 times already!
4) “Highland” was the first bottled water available in Ethiopia, and children will chase you down the road for miles screaming this word at you. Good, clean drinking water is needed everywhere in the world, but handouts don’t really teach people anything. There is water in the country (though much less in the dry season), but teaching people irrigation techniques and helping communities get hold of filtration pumps (which a few private companies have started donating or selling at reasonable rates to locals) helps people be self-sufficient and retain their pride. Also, these one litre plastic drinking bottles are not the most durable items in the world. After they are worn out, do you think they get thrown into a rubbish bin or recycled?
5) Unfortunately, most people are just people. Money is needed, and human nature makes us all opportunistic at times. When the first photographers came into Ethiopia en mass, they gave each photographed individual a donation of a few birr** for their time. Now we have taught them that since there is not much money in tending your own fields, herding your own cattle, leading your traditional lives, the best way to make money is to ignore everything else, screw education and prostitute yourselves for a camera. Children are no longer learning long-term ways of how to be useful members of their tribe. They stand around for tourists (actually, they don’t just stand around … they follow you everywhere you go, constantly pestering you to take a photo and give them 2 birr**). There are quite a few adults from the tribes in the south of Ethiopia that do this too (the Mursi and Arbore tribes being the worse). Besides their appearance (and even that is changing), there is little you can see of their traditions during a visit. They just stand about doing bugger all except waiting for the next carload of tourists to arrive. Actually, the adults do a bit of something … they buy cheap alcohol from town and get pissed. Since they are too “busy” waiting for photographers and easy money to do anything productive, like farming or hunting … or getting an education, passing the time with booze has become a thing to do. There are some associations trying to get people to continue their lives as they usually would in front of foreigners by getting the tribe to accept a flat fee from a tour group, the funds of which would benefit the entire tribe and not just the individual, but this will be a long time in the making. And many individuals are too spoilt now to lose out on their own personal gain.

As you can see, we did this and have only ourselves to blame for the discomfort now felt when kids come chasing after cars like dogs or the unease felt when stopping for a pee break and being swarmed by these same kids with outstretched palms unknowingly behaving like ravenous vultures over carrion.
I really don’t mean to sound so negative … I just hope we haven’t caused permanent harm by wiping away any good opportunities that are on offer for the children. The country and a majority of the people are something to behold, and it is definitely an experience that should not be missed. We just need to stop teaching them that easy handouts are the way to the future. We need to stop ripping away their proud past. We need to stop treating them as inferiors that cannot manage their way out of a wet paper bag and could not survive without the aid of the wealthier Westerner. This country was once a major empire and has had the blood of King Solomon running through its leaders’ veins for centuries. It had and still has so much to hold its head up high for. And these heads deserve more than to be pitied and looked down upon.

* Highland was one of the first brands of bottled water in the country
** Ethiopian currency