Less than one month ago I sat alone in a side conference room of the New School library close to to 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Facing a disarrayed spread of graded assignments, class notes, and textbooks, I wondered if the school stress would eventually pay off. Who was I to think that passing an Econometrics exam would lead to positive change for 80% of the world living in poverty? Maybe I should have gone to trade school, learned to fix bicycles and support myself as a mechanic. Wouldn’t I be happy that way, if not self-sufficient?
These questions were quelled this past Monday on my first day interning with Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC). Some time after 9 a.m. at the WHFC offices, I sat down with two New School colleagues and Atsede, a late-twenties Ethiopian social worker with a soft, gap-toothed smile. Atsede explained the organization’s “Economic Empowerment Program” which provides monthly stipends of 350 birr (about $17) to poor, mostly single mothers. The stipends are invested in micro-businesses, such as yarn to weave baskets or teff grain to cook injera for local restaurants. Once the business proves profitable for a number of years, the client qualifies for a grant ranging between 5,000 and 20,000 birr ($250 to $1,000). The lump sum pays for improved technology or additional materials allowing the recipient to become financially independent and “graduate” from the program.
After running through the details and sharing a buna (Ethiopian coffee), Atsede took us interns to the homes of three women in the Economic Empowerment Program. First we met Birhane, who sells plastic jewelry and hair accessories to her neighbors in an Addis slum. Birhane was widowed 15 years ago while pregnant with her first child. Without any family support, she nearly gave birth on the street until a stranger brought her to a hospital. Birhane later moved into the dirt-floored hovel smaller than my college dorm room where we heard her story. Equipped with one light bulb and no running water, these spaces were originally provided by the government as places of business but eventually became homes for Addis’s poor. Birhane reluctantly remarried in order to ward off men from entering her home and harassing her every night. She bore two more children with her second husband who occasionally brings by a few dollars of child support.
As Birhane recounted her life since entering motherhood, her expression shifted between sadness, gratitude, distress, humor and fear. I often heard her say “exabiermeskin” meaning “thank god” in Amharic. At one point she waved her hand across the narrow room and laughed, “This is how we live.”
Birhane told us that as a young girl she was eager to learn, but her family could not afford good schools. For that reason Birhane’s first priority is her children’s health and education. She saves money from her unstable income to send her eldest child, 14 year-old Dhine, to after-school tutoring. Dhine is the top student in her district, loves biology and physics, and is determined to win a scholarship so she may attend a private high school and university.
After leaving Birhane we drove a few minutes to the home of Sayie, who lives in a slightly larger shack with her sister and daughter. Sayie sells handwoven baskets and potholders to her contacts at the Swedish Embassy. Before meeting WHFC, Sayie made string by ripping plastic bags into thin strips. She uses her stipend to buy colored thread and hopes to one day purchase a sewing machine.
Finally we met Aster, a 39 year-old grandmother who, for the past 18 years, has washed her neighbors’ clothes in plastic buckets. Transporting water by hand in 2 to 3 gallon containers, Aster built a reputation as the neighborhood laundress. She saved 3,000 birr supplemented by a 7,000 birr grant to purchase a washing machine. The investment will increase Aster’s electricity bill by 200 birr per month, but she expects the advanced technology to improve her market share and efficiency. Aster supports 5 family members who live in her small, tin-roofed home. She hopes to begin saving enough money to qualify for public housing, which the government promises to build in the next three years. Aster has lived with HIV for 13 years, and has been taking ARD for the past seven.
So, will the pressures of final exams, thesis deadlines, and student loans pay off after two years at the New School? Upon remembering how fortunate I am to ask these questions, it seems they already have.