Ethiopia Blog 2012 - Tuesday - Blog Post 2
In the past three days we have visited nine families in Gondar and it is enough to break your heart. While everyone is poor – the houses are very basic and the price of food unreasonably high – there are degrees of poverty. I am sure in England, we have the same, but here the poor are far more visible, Unlike the pattern for Jews in Europe and the United States, there has been no upward mobility for this community – rather a steady decline, exacerbated by the move from the villages to Gondar town.
The typical family lives in one room, classically in a long building that opens out onto a courtyard with two, three or more families in rooms next to each other. They share a toilet and cook outside in the communal yard. The walls are made of mud and straw, the roofs of corrugated iron. There is usually a door and one opening for a window. It is very dark inside these houses. The size of the rooms vary, some have a second store room, most have electricity in the form of a single light bulb but very few compounds have running water. Mostly they have to go to the nearest water pipe and pay to fill a jerry can. The room usually holds a large bed, used to sit on in the day, a bench and a few stools. A small charcoal stove is brought into the room, for making coffee, and often there are shelves that hold cups and glasses and cooking utensils. Most other belongings are kept in plastic bags hung on nails in the walls.
But many of the people we met on this trip have not even these few luxuries. One family lived a good fifteen minutes walk from the nearest road. In a room that measures 4 metres by 3 metres lives a family of five. The parents were farmers in their village, like many of the Zera Yisrael, before they moved to Gondar town. They did not expect to stay there long before being transported to Israel, but eight years later they are still here. Though they claim to be of matrilineal descent, only one daughter has received permission to go to Israel and the rest of the family will remain. When they came to Gondar eight years ago, they chose this remote spot because the rent was only 30 birr per month (currently the rate if 27 birr to the pound.) This was a very cheap rent; the reason being that it is miles from anywhere, and that there is no electricity and no water. They have to walk fifteen minutes to the nearest water supply – a river, with all its associated health problems. Two children aged 8 and 14 are in the school currently run by the Jewish Agency – a walk of well over an hour there and back each day. The father in the family is sick and cannot work. The mother earns 90 birr. a month making injera, - flat bread – the Ethiopian staple, and her oldest son gets casual work on building sites for 12-15 birr a day, or digging drains for 5. Although there is a huge amount of building going on in Gondar at the moment, the labour pool is huge, so on average he gets work only about eight days a month. Recently the landlord raised the rent to 150 birr per month. If you do the maths, you realise there is no money left over for food.
Another family consists of a grandmother who is bringing up the three orphaned children of her son plus one of her daughter’s children who has chosen to live with her. This woman is also matrilineally Jewish and should be entitled to go to Israel, but is not on the list. Her mother died when she was two, and she was brought up by a stepmother who was not Jewish. When she applied for emigration, she automatically put down her stepmother as her mother since she was the only mother she ever knew. It was only later that she realised that this mistake cost her, her entitlement for aliyah. She wrote to the Jewish Agency to try and change her form, but got no reply. She cannot go to the Embassy in Gondar, as no one can get access without permission. This woman pays 330 birr for the rent of their 3 by 3 metres room and store-room. She spins cotton, earning between 4 and 5 birr a day.. Her son and daughter help her pay the rent and provide food, but this is difficult. The daughter’s husband has kidney problems and cannot work and she has her own children to support. The son has recently married and will be starting his own family. Moreover, he is about to lose his job and it is unclear how easily he will find another.
One man’s wife died twelve days ago after five years of illness. He too is matrilineally Jewish, but his mother, when applying for emigration put down her married name and was therefore not recognised as the daughter of her Jewish mother, who went to Israel with her husband and the rest of the family some years ago. He has three children of his own, and a step- daughter aged 18 who for the last five years has been cooking and cleaning and looking after her three brothers. She desperately wants to go to school, but has not been able to because of the demands made on her. The boys are all at the Jewish Agency school, an hour’s walk from where they live. This man is a carpenter and the economics of his trade are somewhat bizarre. He will buy four ‘trees’ at 20 birr per tree, and 15 birr’s worth of leather, from which he makes a bed. This bed, that cost him 95 birr to make, and he will sell it for 95 birr. The profit comes from the left over wood and leather, from which he will make two stools. These, he sells for 12 birr each. It takes two days to make a bed and the stools. His rent is 200 birr a month, buying food takes up the rest of his income. He has electricity, but can’t afford to use it.
And we saw worse cases. A family of 9 in a shack who were being shouted at by the landlady as they had not paid their rent for the last year. There are mental health problems in the family that mean only one son is working, digging the road for 5 birr a day - while the mother tries to sell a few vegetables on the street, or goes out and begs. The rent is 100 birr a month. For the sake of the equivalent of £4.00 a month, this family will soon be on the streets. The Jewish Agency provide the family with a kilo of beans every few days, but in a country that has no system of social care, when the Israelis leave, they will starve.
This is the problem. It will not be long now before the Jewish Agency completes its work. The Aliyah is continuing apace, and the Jews of Gondar who are acceptable to Israel are leaving at the rate of about 120-150 a month. If this continues, the school will close, for there will not be enough students going to Israel left to make it worthwhile. Those families who will stay, their children currently attend the school and get lunch there – a high protein western lunch which is probably the best or only meal they have. When the school closes, the families will have to find not only food for them, but also the uniform, books and pens that are the requirement of all school children, but that are currently provided free of charge by the Jewish Agency.
So shat will happen? In families where there is barely enough money for food, these children will stop school and move into the street kid culture of selling soft tissue, chewing gum or shining shoes. Their education will stop – and being a Jewish community this is a double tragedy because, of course, many of these children are very bright indeed. Education is their only way out of poverty. What can we do to help?