By Bernard Wainaina
Aida Sarah works with me in my current Sustainability,Women and Poverty Project in Addis Ababa,Ethiopia.
Like many of Ethiopian women,Aida is extremely beautiful in relation to my Kenyan standards that when I looked at her the first time in the office,it hurt my eyes.
But there is a heady mix of this beauty and poverty that confronts the Ethiopia women and forms a very sad story of their lives.
When Aida first narrated this story to me as a baseline of my project in Value addition and Agribusiness in rural Ethiopia,my raw emotions took hold of me and moistened my eyes for these beautiful women.
To understand the challenges facing women in rural Ethiopia,Aida decides to conduct me in a tour of Ethiopian Capital,Addis Ababa,and see where the rural Ethiopian girls end up after running away from rural poverty.
Our first stop is a darkish tavern tucked off the main artery road to Bole International Airport,next to Jupiter International Hotel, which Aida
tells me is a popular haunt for ladies of the night.
The weather in Addis Ababa, it’s 75F, blue skies and sunny 9 months out of the year.
In the morning and evening it’s cool and
breezy, and then maybe in the middle of
the day, it could be 85F degrees as a high.
Absolutely perfect weather.
The streets of Addis Ababa are
deceptively languid by day, the slow pace of life probably a manifestation of
Ethiopia’s socialism and the attendant
intolerance of capitalistic “rot”.
But come nightfall and the veneer rapidly
peels off as avenues and alleyways spring to life, giving raucous life to the motley rows of pubs and taverns.
Music by emerging Ethiopian reggae artiste Eyob Mekonen accosts us at the entrance to the tiny drinkery, blending rather cozily with the clouds of smoke wafting to the ceiling.
The place is packed with Indians, Chinese, Whites, and less so, Blacks
The women are, however, the main attraction.
Clad in seductive outfits, they leave nothing to imagination. Aida advises me to grab a beer and sit alone to avoid drawing attention as she is a woman and sitting next to her will drive away my quarry.
A swig or two calms me down
enough to approach a sultry beauty perched almost regally on a waist-high stool.
My efforts at small talk in English are not too successful; my knowledge of Amharic, the main language spoken here, is non-existent.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “Alem,” she purrs almost demurely, after sizing me up with her impossibly long eye-lashes and probably deciding all foreigners,black or white are worth a punt.
I buy her a drink and decide to get straight to the point.
For 600 Birr (about Sh3,000) we will be in
She has two young girls who she is struggling to feed and educate, I learn.
I buy her yet another drink and excuse myself, promising to be back.
At the entrance to the washrooms is another ravishing seductress preening herself in front of a huge mirror.
She tells me her name is Ayana, but in a coy manner that suggests this is her trade name.
She wants 1,000 Birr (Sh5,000) for the night.
My stock question about her intentions in addition to a drink easily coaxes details out of her.
Ayana tells me that she comes from a large family and her mother has been sickly for a long time,making it a struggle to feed her and her family.
“This strange disease, we don’t understand. It no go away,” she says in shaky English.
For Estuva, a happy, lively and energetic girl, the struggle for school fees is the main reason for her presence here this night.
But she has a genuine demeanour that creates a rapport between us that
lasts well over an hour.
Oiled by a constant supply of her favourite St. George beer, her tale is one of difficulties, childhood abuse and non-existent opportunities as she grew up.
My time over, I tell her I have to take my friend home, upon which she confusedly asks if we can drop him off together.
I concoct a story and promise to come back for her, even taking down
her number to look more convincing.
She reluctantly lets me go, promising to be there when I am back.
It is a similar tale at another pub across the street, with tales of poverty and hardship the recurrent theme.
I discover these girls are of the more
expensive variety; out in the streets the hordes of comely twilight ladies quote ridiculously low prices, some going as low as $2.
Some of them look barely a day over 15, but are as up front and bold as their older colleagues.
Prostitution is the oft understated story of Ethiopia’s poor.
Extreme poverty, early pregnancy and few employment opportunities are the pull factors in this country of 85 million, where over half of the population is illiterate and 85 per cent depends on
Sex work per se is not illegal in Ethiopia although soliciting and underage
But the omnipresent authorities often turn a blind eye to these activities, ensuring a roaring trade.
Next day,after a hefty breakfast of delicious Injera(pankakes) at Aida’s place,we head of to rural area near Aida’s birthplace,Debark village.
Aida choses to drive our SUV as I’m a bit nervous driving on Ethiopian roads.
Much the world over, vehicles take first
priority on the roads.
Not so in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s roads are often in a state
between disorder,anarchy and total mayhem.
From village lanes to full-fledged highways, the Ethiopian road is ruled by a
fog of people, animals (sheep, goats,
cows, donkeys, camels), lean-tos,
funerals, weddings and more.
Cars and buses get out of the way of what was happening on the street, not the other way around.
If you remember the video game Frogger, this is the live version.
result of this state of roads: road carnage.
Heaps of tarp-draped remains of horrifying wrecks stand testament to a country coming to grips with the old ways of doing things converging with the unappreciated power of new vehicles on paved roads.
Market Days are Social Days
“Markets are not just for buying and
selling. They perform an important social
function. Most Ethiopians work in the
fields, so market day is when people have a chance to meet, share news, and even find the person they will marry,” Aida, explained.
Spices, roots and families rule at the Debark village market.
You can always tell market days in rural
For kilometers on end, roads are
clogged even more so than usual with
people from all neighboring villages
carrying their goods to market – sheep,
goats, wares, foodstuffs.
It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have to sell: any and all are clearly welcome.
And they’re coming throughout the day,clogging the roads all the more.
Ethiopian traditional markets are
sprawling affairs with goods arranged
accordingly: all the peppers here, all the
green coffee beans there, homeopathic
treatment for the cows somewhere in an
open field in the distance.
Beyond the sale, these markets bind this
primarily agrarian society.
They provide an essential social focal point — not just for the trade of goods, but for the trade in life.
And in Ethiopia, there’s certainly no
shortage of that.
But amidst all this beehive of activity is extreme rural poverty amongst extremely beautiful women in the land of delicious Injera and legends like Haile Sellasie,Queen Sheba and world class athletes.
It is a heady mix that’s gets me giddy trying to unravel mystery and paradox of our beautiful Africa!
Bernard Wainaina is an Independent Agribusiness Advisor and CEO at Profarms Consultants®,Nairobi,Kenya.