By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, October 7, 2011 (Ezega.com) – With living expenses increasing at an alarming rate, it is reasonable to wonder how so many people survive on everyday basis with unbelievably low income. Today, regardless of the numbers indicating our country is growing with a double digits, the cost of living in the capital Addis Ababa and the regions is surprisingly high. Food, clothing, transportation and anything one might think essential for the survival as a human being seems unaffordable to the millions of ‘ordinary’ citizens.
Women who sell vegetables on the street markets, young men who beg you to buy gum or candy, girls who display earrings and cosmetics on the sidewalk, hoping you would pay them attention, or boys who shine shoes, sell peanut or boiled eggs at night, etc. All of these force you to raise a question. The question is: how do these people afford three meals a day and the cost for transportation, school and so many other necessities? The reason I raise this question is because the things they sell and the amount of money they receive for their services hardly compare to the price of the commodities in the market. For example, I asked one woman who sells a small amount of vegetables on the sidewalk how much her business is worth in general. She was selling some onions and tomatoes and even if she sells all of it, she will only get around 100 birr per day. Imagine this woman is a mother of two and her entire business is worth an amount that hardly covers transportation cost for a week. In addition, remember that she cannot use the whole money since she needs another tomato and onion to sell for tomorrow.
Another woman I talked to, Semeret, sells candy, gums and peanut on the street. I asked her how much her business was worth. She estimated 200 birr. She is also a caregiver for her elderly mother who is unable to move because of nerve related illness.
The question that pops into my mind is what does this person eat? Semeret told me that, on a regular basis, she and her mother eat bread made of wheat. “We can’t afford to buy Teff any more. When we want Enjera we buy one or two,” she said. Semeret gets the wheat from the Kebele when the government decides to sell it at lower reasonable price. “I had some money and I bought as much as I could. If that wasn’t the case, I think we would have been in trouble by now,” she added.
One of the things that make Semeret sad in all of this is the fact that she cannot afford coffee for her mother any more. “My mom doesn’t really care that much for food. However, she loves drinking coffee. However, at its current price, I cannot afford to buy it for her. Coffee ceremony was something we do everyday with my mother. I miss that now,” she says.
Dereje shines shoes around Piazza. Now that winter time is off, he says he gets around 20 birr per day. “Honestly I eat twice a day. I get my breakfast and lunch together and I eat an early dinner. Usually my breakfast is Ambasha (traditional bread made of wheat) and tea. That also serves as launch. I usually try to get Enjira for a dinner depending on my daily income. If it is a good day, I go to mother house and eat Enjera with 12 birr. If not I eat my Ambasha again. I believe life for shoeshine boys was a lot better before because we have so many successful business people who started as shoeshine boys. However, today most of us worry about what we eat than what the future should be. Saving is becoming harder every day,” he said.
As Ethiopians, we all know there are foods we think we cannot survive with out them. One of these is Enjera. This traditional bread made of Teff is one of the things that make us unique from any other society. Enjera is more than just a food. It is, at least for many of us, an addiction. I am sure most of us know people who say they do not feel like they ate if they do not get Enjira. However, from many of the people I have talked to, this has become a luxury item now.
Genet is a cleaner for a private business in Addis Ababa. They pay her 500 birr per month. Her husband Hagos is a daily laborer who gets around 30 birr per day. The two of them together get around 1000 birr in a month. They have three children and that money, according to Genet, is hardly enough for the family of five. “It has been more than a year since I bought Teff and baked Enjera like other people. Now I even put my Mesob (Traditional plate Ethiopians use to put Enjera) away because it reminds me of what I can’t do any more,” she said. Some people suggest that the famine in Ethiopia is reaching the homes of millions even in the capital cities. “I believe my children are not feed well. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night wondering if they can survive flu with this kind of nutrition.”
“If it wasn’t for the uniforms, I don’t think I could cloth my children properly,” Genet admitted. “Now I tell them not to play with their uniforms on because if something happens to it I can’t afford to buy another one”
The fact that the cost of life double and tripled itself with no significant income increase and inflation of money worries the people to death. Enatnesh lives around Kotebe in Addis Ababa and works around Tor Hayloche. She said the cost of transportation is very high that she sometimes calls sick just to save the money. “I can’t afford to go to work five times a week and I can’t afford to quit my job. So sometimes I do not go to work, I blame it on my health, my family’s health, and I even kill some of my relatives just to avoid going to work,” she said.”
The stories are endless. Some even believe it is a miracle they survive this far. Many people I found on the street selling different things admit they spend most hours of the day worrying about the next meal they may or may not have. The confidence of people is very low and most believe things are only going to get worse. “I am done hoping,” said Aman who works as assistant on a taxi. “We get money and we spend it all just on food. Sometimes it is not even enough. Things are not going to get any better. I just don’t know what the solution will be.”
The problem is the government does not seem to pay enough attention to all of this. The public media, probably the only means of communication between the people and the government, instead of showing concern and presenting what the government is doing to solve the problems, are focusing on other matters and may even be trying to divert attention from it. “This isn’t something that one can divert attention from,” said Solomon a guard in one of the residencies in Addis. “It is in our homes and pockets. I do not think anything can make me forget how much money I have in my pocket and what I can afford.”
Of course, the problem seems to be international also. ETV was busy for the last couple of week’s talking about inflation, high unemployment rate and the rising price of basic commodities in the USA, Europe and some other countries. May be the channel is trying to tell us that what is happening to us is also happening even for those who are rich and developed. On the other hand, may be it is trying to convince the people that while the developed world is going down, Ethiopia is growing at a high rate of growth, mentioning the recent news that Ethiopia grew at 10.1 percent in 2010. This news was treated as breaking news by the public media, considering that most developed nations are in recession.
It is true that, for reasons associated with demand for natural resources, especially from China and India, African countries as a whole have grown at good rates in the last decade or so, Ethiopia included. This is also partly due to what appears to be competition from these countries to have a solid footing in this continent to take advantage of the future ‘consumer’ base in Africa. And this may also explain the free money or loan that they seem to be throwing at us from time to time these days.
However, the point here is, this does not seem to give hope to anyone who is not part of it. Instead, the slowing economies in developed countries, for the majority who do not understand how the global economy works, the worst may be yet to come. For the last few years, the government has been proudly mentioning that the country has been growing better than any other country in the same situation. Regardless of the merit of such assertion, the question many people cannot answer is what is economic growth really?
For the people who own businesses that are worth probably one decent meal and have their whole life depend on it, and for the people who are calling sick from work because they cannot afford transportation, the word ‘economic growth’ is probably something of an abstract that only the news people understand.
I have asked Samuel who works as a driver for a government if he understands and believes Ethiopia is actually growing. Few years back with a salary a lot lesser than what he is earning today, he was a proud family provider who could afford new cloths for his children every holiday. “I have never had to worry about feeding or clothing my children. I am not saying I was a rich man. There were things I could not afford. However, today I feel like I am thrown from the hills of the mountain. I do not understand an economic growth which is not felt by the majority of the people. It’s just an empty number to me,” he says.
For the surprise of many, government suggests that life is unaffordable because the country is growing. Many of the things that are confusing for today’s customers, according to the public media are the signs of development. Even if that is the actual case, people do not seem to figure out why they are going to bed with empty stomachs in the face of economic growth that is being talked about.
One thing I found in common in all the people I have talked to is that they seem to take a serious notice on the fact that there are individuals in the country getting wealthier by the minute. “May be the numbers apply only to them,” said Getachew, a waiter. “May be those few are Ethiopia is talking about.”
The sense out there is, maybe we do not need growth if we are not benefiting the majority. Actually, some economists argue that growth does not necessarily mean a good thing in an economy. As some commentators suggest, it might even be bad news for a country with a limited yet unbalancedresources. It means the country is using its finite resource to the maximum, while the majority is not getting anything out of it. This will create the huge gap between the few ‘haves’ and the majorities ‘have nots’ that we are witnessing today. And, as history teaches us, this may lead to failure in societies.
For many Ethiopians who are not sure about today’s dinner, all the fuss surrounding the economy simply means no one will have a solution sooner for their endless worries. Sadly, they are the great majorities.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.