Before I get started let me just apologize up front, I am exhausted right now and the writing in this post is going to be a disaster, but I need to write this while it is still fresh in my mind, so you will have to bear with me here.
Last night Yabi and I spent the night sleeping on the street here in Addis Ababa, we have been talking about the life that many of the kids who are going to be coming into our orphanage came from and it became clear that neither of us really fully understand what its like to live as a homeless person in this city. We felt that the only way we would be able to even begin to grasp what it is like is if we were to go and get down in the dirt with them for a night. So that is what we did yesterday.
Please understand that the descriptions in this post are not my complaining about the night I had in any way, I am grateful for this experience and how God used it to open my eyes to the reality that these people live with, but I feel its necessary to tell it like it is. Last night was a very rough night, very emotionally draining and physically hard, no way around it.
Yabi and I met just before 10PM and started the night with a tour of the parts of town where the poorest are more concentrated, for the most part we found the city was calm, a few people walked along the sidewalks and the occasional drunk person would wander into the road screaming and flailing their bodies around. I am not sure why it is, but for some reason many take all their clothes off and run through the city yelling at the top of their lungs when they are drunk or high on chat (a local drug), we carefully moved past these situations and kept on our way. Everywhere we went the streets were lined with people sleeping, it would be impossible to count, but we must have seen at least ten thousand in a few hours.
Later in the night we made our way to Merkato, which by day is the largest outdoor market in Africa, spanning several square Kilometers across the west side of town, by day it is known to be very dangerous, night however brought with it a new level of intensity. I tightened the hood around my face, hoping to avoid anyone realizing that I was a foreigner and we slowly made our way along the streets, all around us there were literally thousands of people walking, moving through the city, despite it being past midnight by this point, people were everywhere and the place felt like a bustling city in the middle of the day. We then came to a stretch of road about four blocks long near the bus station where every five to ten feet (literally) a girl stood leaning against the wall, waiting to be picked up. It was clear to me that these women were prostitutes, but I had never in my life seen anything like this, so many, so young… In our part of the city on the other side of town if you go out after dark you will always see a few scattered women standing around waving at cars in hopes that they might make some money selling their bodies, but for the most part those women all appear to be at least 20-30 years old. On this street these were not women at all, but rather young girls, not even old enough to understand what it is they are getting themselves into.
“How do they get into this?” I asked Yabi who had lived in an area near this street almost ten years ago and might understand a bit more a than I about what was happening before our eyes.
“They are just so hungry” Yabi replied, his words trailing off and an overwhelmed look came across his face. “Their families are dead, or they just did not have enough money, and so these girls end up here, doing this” He said, gesturing to a girl who looked like she might have just seen her 11th birthday and was leaning against a telephone poll gesturing to us to come closer. We ignored and kept moving.
“Do they make much money doing this?” I asked, already knowing the answer would not be something I wanted to hear.
“They charge about 10 birr” He said.
I quickly did the math in my head; Ten Birr is the equivalent of .58 Cents in Dollars. My stomach began to ache even more as we continued on and passed hundreds more girls lining both sides of the street.
“Lets go somewhere else” I said finally, unable to take any more of this.
It was clear to both of us that we were not going to be able to sleep anywhere near this place, we were looking for an experience that would help us understand what life was like, not to get ourselves killed. There was to much going on, and the people who were roaming the streets were volatile, the majority of them were drunk or high and all of it felt like it was on the verge of a massive fight.
We left in the car and worked our way towards another part of town a little closer to a police station in hopes that it might be safer, as we drove the streets were lined with body shaped tarps where underneath people were doing their best to stay warm and get some sleep.
We finally found an area close that felt safe and where many people were sleeping on both sides of the road, we had agreed that we wanted to be near other people, it just seemed safer when more people were around. We parked the car at a gas station and paid the night guard 10 Birr to watch the car for the remainder of the night.
“What are you doing?” He asked in Amharic with a puzzled look on his face, the classes that Jessie and I have been taking recently must have paid off because I understood his words. Yabi explained why we were heading out into the night, each with a sheet in our arms. The man just laughed and smiled. “Good luck” He said in English, smiling at me.
A few blocks up the road we found the only open patch of gravel sidewalk that looked both fairly smooth and level, we said a few greetings to the few people who woke up around us, laid down on our backs and stared at the stars above us. I quickly could tell that I had picked a spot that had recently been peed on, I asked Yabi to scoot over a bit to his right and slid myself close by his side away from the smell.
What are we doing? I thought to myself as my eyes scanned the scene that surrounded me, trying to take it all in, trying to grasp just where I was and why it was that I was here.
I had left everything of value at home, my watch, my wedding ring, even my cell phone, only a few bills worth about $25 USD were safely stowed in a travel wallet that I purchased before we moved here over two years ago, but had since worn only one other time. But as I sat up, looking around at the more than 50 bodies of sleeping people that were strewn underneath pieces of worn plastic sheeting across the sidewalk in our small area, I realized that mine were the only pair of shoes that I could see, every one of the feet that were visible poking out of their plastic blankets were bare and well worn.
I laid back down, pulled the sheet over my head and felt a deep hopelessness wash over me. I tried to think of these people and the life that they live, the struggle that they go through. All of it was overwhelming, and the spot I had picked in the gravel was beginning to get uncomfortable. I tried my best to scoot back and forth, looking for some place where my back would lie without being poked, but I could not find anything. After about 30 minutes of struggling to find a comfortable place I sat up, thinking that I would brush away all the big rocks and smooth out the place underneath me, I found that there were actually several large pieces of broken glass beneath me, I picked a new spot and carefully scoured the ground, picking up all the glass that I could find and throwing it off to the side.
Dear God. I thought to myself. How do they do it?
Beside me Yabi was having an easier time getting acclimated, he was already fast asleep.
Once again I laid down on my back and tried to get comfortable. This time I was able to fall asleep, thankfully I either had found a place that was good enough, or was just simply too tired by now to care. This time I slept for what felt like three hours, without my watch or phone I really could not tell how long it had been.
I was woken up by a loud rustling around my head, my eyes opened and I quickly came to, realizing where I was in an instant and shot up to look around me. None of this felt at all safe to me, and the thought of someone noticing my shoes and doing something to me so they could take them was swirling around my head in my dreams. I shook the fog from my head and looked around me to see what the noise was, during the time that I had slept several new people had moved into our little area, what was once a 8 ft circle of free space around me was now occupied by 5 more people, one of whom had laid down with his feet nearly 18 inches from my face, at the same moment I saw the feet, the overwhelming smell came blasting into my nostrils. I scooted even closer to Yabi who had been woken up by our new neighbors as well and he motioned to the man who was lying about a foot from him on the other side, the man had been coughing all night and apparently had coughed so much that he had thrown up, but had not noticed and was not still sleeping in the filth. We both slid our bodies as far down towards our feet and away from the new smells and tried to sleep once again.
This time though as soon as I lay still, as soon as I found another comfortable place for my back to rest, two new problems arose, for one I could now feel bugs crawling all around my body, tiny invisible critters were making their way across my skin, in my shoes, around my neck, and no matter how many times I tried to smack at them and get them off they always came back, they were inside my clothes. Second it was cold, really-really-cold. The thin sheets we had brought with us were doing seemingly nothing to help, we were both freezing.. I bit down hard, smacked my legs every time I felt something move and began to pray in my head.
“Lord, let this all be a lesson to me, teach me through this, teach me to care for these around me who have to sleep like this every night, teach me to be thankful for the things that you have given me, for the warm bed that I sleep in, and the kitchen that I cook my food in. God please!”
The new neighbors, the smells they brought with them, the intense cold and tiny bugs that were now crawling across our bodies was all to much for either of us to fall asleep again. We both lay there, now as close side by side as we could possibly get to one another, searching for warmth that would not come, looking at the stars and talking about how someone could night after night endure this, how someone could sleep in a place like this and ever feel rested for the next day. It was clear by the sounds emanating from those around us that many of them were battling terrible sicknesses, these people around us represented the bottom rung of poverty, unable to afford even the smallest roof over their heads, basic medical care is entirely out of reach for these people.
I wish I could say that we stayed the entire night, that in the morning we awoke with these people and bought them all a great big breakfast, but just before the sun came up, as it began its glowing approach off to the East, we both broke down, we had reached our end. We could not even make it one full night, despite having shoes,
a sheet over our heads, warm thick pants, several shirts and a sweatshirt on, we were simply too cold and this place was to hard for us. At just after 4 AM Yabi and I both decided to call it, to give up and go home to our warm beds.
On the way home we drove past the street with all the young girls once again, although many were gone and the street was much quieter than it had been, at least 100 still remained, many in tiny dresses and tank tops, revealing their bodies in an effort to attract clients, freezing cold.
After this experience I can say a few things with absolute certainty. For one I am now thankful for my bed like never before.
I am thankful that we are working towards creating a solution to at least get some of the kids who are out there, off the street and into families. I know we will not be able to help all of them, but after feeling just how hard it is out there I am that much more determined to help as many as we can.
God, come. That is all I can say. Come and use me to help.