Sir Peter’s Blog ‘from the streets’ Day 3

EVENT: Retrak’s CEO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Day 3 | AUTHOR: Sir Peter Fahy

Two visits to the streets today. The first was at lunchtime around the main bus station in Addis which is near the Retrak centre for street boys. Fekadu who has worked for Retrak in Ethiopia for the last ten years and now runs the centre. He was a police officer for fifteen years but his passion, like mine, is trying to rescue street children. The area we walked through was teeming with activity, people, traffic and some sad looking animals moving in all directions and hawkers, beggars and just lookers-on filling the pavements. There were lots of children around; some selling, others looking for work as porters, others just lying around. Many knew Fekadu and called out a greeting. The new elevated light railway crosses here and boys were congregating in the shelter below.

On the pavement ahead of us I saw what I believed was a bundle of rags but was that a foot shape protruding from one end out into the road ? As we got closer I could see it was a young lad, perhaps eight years, old sleeping or perhaps unconscious on the ground. Everyone passed by and there was a policeman standing in the road a few yards away apparently oblivious.

Earlier I had to talked to three boys now at our centre who had been living on the street. One was nine the other two twelve. They came from rural areas attracted by talk of a better life in Addis trying to escape poverty and in two cases family break up. They had found that life on the street was not as they had expected. It gets cold in Addis at night and is very wet in the rainy season and it can be hard to find shelter. They had to scavenge all day: on the other hand they had not found it too difficult to get leftover food or to earn a little money through cleaning or carrying luggage. It was clear that one of the boys had been offered some shelter in houses and had then been sexually abused. One said he had some friends who were on the street and wanted to come to Retrak but the centre is full at the moment and he asked could we find a bigger centre so that more boys could come in.

Later in the evening we took a drive around central Addis and saw that a different community had now taken over from the one we had seen during the day. There were a lot of young people about selling things on the pavement (which they are not allowed to do during the day) others gathered around in small groups, some with fires in the middle. You could see some families preparing to settle down for a night sleeping on the pavement sometimes outside a church or a mosque. Boys in particular find empty white maize sacks to sleep in and on some streets these were visible in groups as the boys huddled together for safety. Around the vegetable market were big groups of boys and a couple had turned a rubbish bin over and were going through rotting vegetables for food.

Then there were the girls standing at what seemed fixed intervals along the pavement in some streets, most wearing traditional dress but clearly there to sell themselves. Some congregated outside bars waiting for men to come out, others for cars to draw up. These are girls who have been attracted by talk of a better life in Addis or who have been trafficked or have escaped from abuse as domestic servants; they almost have to choose between physical abuse or sexual abuse.

It is hard to take all this in given the sheer number of girls, families and boys sleeping on the street. It felt like a separate community which had emerged in these night hours with a lifestyle and a way of mixing, socialising, making money of its own.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed but, earlier in the day, I had seen more of the work of Retrak with up to 50 children in our centres at any one time finding shelter and protection and now on the journey back to families. I saw some of the counselling work and the catch-up lessons and some of the risks our staff take going out on the street or going into remote areas to take children back to their communities.

Now I am off to one of those more rural areas to see the work of Retrak in another town and in particular the work to try and stem this tide of girls and boys tricked into thinking that a life on the street of a big city offers a better future. For Sir Peter’s Day 5 blog click here.