I wrote a story a few months ago about street children in Addis Ababa who live underground, in sewage runoffs, in old, unused construction holes, and anywhere else they can find. The story was written for a local magazine that may or may not come out due to license issues. I will post it soon.
Last week a British journalist was in town, and he was referred to me by a mutual acquaintance. He was doing a piece on overpopulation and its many side effects for a prominent UK newspaper. One of the side effects he was interested in was homelessness and street children. The colleague who had worked with me on the original story agreed to come along and introduce him to some of the kids we had met.
We met him at – of course – the Hilton Hotel, one of two hotels that white people stay in upon arrival in Addis. He was accompanied by a British photographer who had two hulking cameras dangling from his neck. I hesitated for a minute and thought that this might be more complicated than I had originally planned. It was.
My colleague and I had taken great pains to approach the street kids sensitively and subtly. We spent several weeks with them, getting to know them and their spots. These two British men were leaving the next day and wanted to get enough material in just a few short hours.
We headed to one of the areas where we knew some kids would be. As soon as we arrived the British journalist started handing out candy. This was not wise. Immediately we were surrounded by at least 30 children. Subtly was no longer an option.
The kids obligingly took us to one of the more dismal locations where they find shelter, in a drainage ditch in the center of the city. The photographer started snapping photos, and the flash attracted even more attention. Now adults as well as children gathered around the area. Some were just curious, others were angry that white people were taking photos of these kids and getting something out of it while the focus of the pictures, the children, were getting nothing. I didn’t disagree. I spoke with a middle-aged woman for some time, and I could not refute many of the claims she made. It was going all wrong.
The main reason I did not want to attract attention is because the Federal Police are notorious for treating street kids inhumanely, and I did not want them to find these kids’ shelter. They would no doubt run them off, and the boys would be in an even worse position.
Then the journalist’s wallet was stolen. He had it in his coat pocket, loose and visible. I did not feel sorry for him. He later told me that he had often worked with street children in Johannesburg and Nairobi and he was very experienced. His actions led me to believe otherwise.
A few minutes later, the Federal Police did in fact show up. I quickly told all the children, especially the ones who actually lived there, to scatter. My colleague was brilliant. He soothed the officers’ tempers and somehow convinced them to leave.
By this point, I had had enough. I told the visiting newspaperman that I was through, that I didn’t feel comfortable with the way things were going. We rode with them back to the hotel, and left as soon as we could.
As an aspiring journalist, I am conflicted about what I saw that night. An ‘accomplished’ writer, with over 15 years of work in Africa, made a circus out of an already sensitive and touchy subject. Is this what I wanted to become? Swoop in to get a story, take a few photos of impoverished children, then escape to the security and whiteness of a four-star hotel?