Saturday, August 18, 2007


One of the things I've noticed that a lot of people in the United States accept as true is that a homeless person - a truly poor person, living in the street, that is - can make some huge amount of money begging in a major city. I've heard numbers as high as $50,000 quoted at me. I can't say that I think that's an actual fact - it's a little too outrageous. But I do suspect that a person begging in the street in, say, New York City, will probably make at least enough money each day to feed themselves. Not well, maybe, but they can probably get at least one or two food-like meals from Burger King for ten bucks or so. I've been wanting to talk about poverty in Ethiopia for a while, but trying to describe what I see, and what I think it means, will almost certainly make me look foolish. I can honestly say I don't really understand world politics, or world monetary systems, and so I'm forced to talk about the people I met in Ethiopia who so very clearly had little or nothing to their name, and how they made my heart hurt sometimes, and how I still couldn't do anything. On a basic level, Ethiopian currency is the Birr. A one-birr note is worth about ten cents in United States currency. One dime. Two birr will buy you a small cup of VERY strong coffee in Ethiopia. Can you imagine going into Starbucks, handing the person behind the country twenty cents and getting anything? I suspect that if you tipped twenty cents you might get a dirty look. Another thing to consider is this: In the southern region of Ethiopia, most of the families could really use a goat (to what ends, I don't know - I do know that food is one of them, but they have other value as well). A goat costs - well, take a second and guess. Okay: 600 birr. About sixty bucks. Now, here in the States, if I take my wife, my friend, and his girlfriend out to dinner for someone's birthday, I'll probably drop sixty dollars, easily. But in the southern region, people tend to live on - again, take a guess. Okay: $120 a year. The person who told me this fact noted summed this idea up by saying: Think about what you're wearing. Now, add it up. It probably comes (easily) to more than $120. Now, as numbers, these seem oddly outlandish. In fact, I don't know that the average American can picture someone living on $120 a year. It seems so odd that your brain kind of rejects it. But the poverty leads to an odd climate in the streets of Ethiopia. Driving along the roads to the southern region, we'd often see kids standing by the side of the road, holding a finger in a the air. I didn't know the meaning of this until someone pointed it out to me - they were asking for one birr. In the city, we met and took a picture of a woman and her baby. She asked for money before we did it, in much the same way. Several of the folks who were with us did the same, and we all gave her (and the guy who was standing behind her, apparently hoping for some money himself) a few birr each. Later, at the airport, we were told not to give anyone money, because there are literally dozens of people trying to make (or beg for) money there - some ask for it, some offer to help with your bags, and yeah, there are probably a few pickpockets there as well. By the time we went back to the airport on our last day, we were out of money - we had spent it all. And here came a woman, with a baby on her back, who spoke some English. This is what she said: "Help me. Help me. My baby has no father. We sleep in the streets." Now, like I said, I had no money. It was spent, gone, and the twenty dollar bill in my wallet was there to pay a fee to get me out of the country. And even if I gave it to her, I don't know that she could have taken it to a bank and changed it for something useful. So what do you say? To something like that? To someone like that? And what would I have done if I had money at the time? Do I give it to her, and risk being mobbed? Potentially create an unsafe place for everyone else who was there? I don't know. And as sad as all that is, I think Ethiopia has bigger problems. Much (well, really all) of the country has unclean drinking water. In some of the more remote areas, people walk long distances just to bring back dirty water to drink and wash their clothing in. In the area of numbers that may or may not be true, I once read that all of Africa could have clean water for about 6 billion dollars. Now, that might sound like a lot, but consider: The cost of the current Iraq war is, roughly, 2 billion dollars per week. Of course, like I said, I don't really understand politics. Of the many pictures that I took in Ethiopia, there's one that always stands out to me. I took it on a corner two "blocks" from the guest house where we were all staying. In the foreground, people are selling live goats. And also, a pile of goat heads. In the background, a ten-story building is being assembled by workers who are probably making roughly ten birr a day. (That's a dollar.) People have told me that my daughter won life's lottery when I brought her to the States, but really, I'm just an American dad like any other - capable of being right and wrong and trying to take care of our little one the very best I can. But on some level, our child will always be Ethiopian, and when I get older, I feel I'm going to have to answer somewhat as to why my country, who can afford to spend 2 billion dollars a week in Iraq, can't scrape together 6 billion dollars and save thousands, and perhaps millions, of lives on her home continent.


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