Ethiopia is full of children. The average Ethiopian woman gives birth to 6.1children; 46 percent
of the population is under fifteen. In some ways these children seem familiar to me - they play
with each other; they yell, jump, and point when someone unusual walks by (me). They sing and
run spontaneously. You can often spot them making a game out of anything, like pushing dirt
around in different piles or trying to roll particularly round stones. But in many ways, Ethiopian
children are very different from Canadian children.
On the average bus ride to Addis, a six hour trip generally in stifling heat on uncomfortable
seats, there are five or six kids under the age of ten. I have never heard one cry. There are no
baby bags, no toys, books, or distractions. These children, from two months to five years sit
patiently, quietly on their motherís knee and look out the window. After two years, this
does not cease to amaze me.
Much more than Canadian children, Ethiopian kids are little adults. Society in general does
not make accommodations for their size or specific capabilities. Apart from a few
programmes on ETV (you may recall Keithís relationship with Cherry the puppet cow), there are
no special services for children - no public playground equipment, no childrenís libraries,
no toy stores. I have only seen one stroller here, and that was being pushed by a Ferenji. Even
middle class children have very few toys or books. Their time seems to be taken up largely
watching adults go about their daily lives and helping in small tasks.
There are two children who live in our compound - a girl, Meeta, who is 3 Ĺ, and her brother,
Gideon, who is 1 Ĺ. Meeta is a precious little one - learning her ABCs, and numbers. Both
her parents are teachers. So far, so familiar. But the strange thing to us is, Meeta never
leaves the house compound. Her life seems to be contained within its walls. No trips to the
lake, to the park. There doesnít seem to be the sense that her world needs to be filled and
expanded, that her brain needs to be enriched and stimulated.
As with all things in Ethiopia, there are huge class differences among Ethiopian children. Working
class children in Ethiopia generally are very independent. It is quite common to see toddlers
out in the side streets playing supervised only by their five or six year old sisters. Sometimes
little girls are carrying around their siblings who canít yet walk. Only the wealthy wear diapers
(Iíve seen them for sale in stores, but Iíve never seen a kid wearing one). Most toddlers wear
only shirts and just "go" wherever they happen to be when nature calls.
Child labour, in the sense familiar from Dickensí novels, is alive and well here. Boys as young
as six or seven work as shoeshine boys, wheelbarrow pushers, or at selling things in the market. Girls
carry water and wood on their backs. Sometimes you will see a family of women, the mother
carrying the heaviest load, then three successively younger girls carrying progressively smaller
loads. They carry goods to the market, usually wrapped in large enset leaves
(like banana leaves).
Many Ethiopians believe that children are a gift from God and both major religions
here - Islam and Ethiopian Orthodox teach that birth control is unnatural. There is a saying
that someone can be poor but rich in children. Many of my students have told me that they
donít want to have too many children - only five or six. This seems to be changing, again,
dependent on class. Most of my colleagues, who are part of the educated elite, have only two or
Of course my childless state causes a great fuss. Many women have asked me why I donít have a
baby while in Ethiopia. ("Lori, why donít you born here?") Usually I try to explain that I
have come here to work and so I am busy. To this I am told, "Well, you can just get a
seretenya (servant) to look after the baby. Chigger yellem." This is the norm for middle
class women. Someone else, often a distant, poorer family member lives with the family
and looks after the children. One mother of six explained to me that it was easy to
have children in Ethiopia because second hand clothes were cheap, government schools
were free and all children really were required were a few exercises books each per year.
At this point, I am very curious, and a little anxious to see how I react to Canadian
children again with all their individual demands and need for attention.