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Ethiopia: Glue addicts on streets beg to survive

Some 89,000 people live on streets in major cities like capital Addis Ababa, says Labor and Social Affairs Ministry official

Addis Getachew Tadesse   | 29.10.2018
Ethiopia: Glue addicts on streets beg to survive

By Addis Getachew


He gazes into empty space, oblivious to the tumultuous traffic in Lagar in the capital Addis Ababa. His social world is limited to the dozen or so boys standing or sitting by the curbstone separating busy roads at a traffic light.

Whenever cars stop at the red light, he walks to a driver’s window, seemingly at random, and moves from one car to another before the traffic start to move again. He spends most of his day begging for money, addressing every driver as “Babaye” – a name all the street boys commonly give to any outsider who comes into their radar.

Sporting a greasy gray khaki coat with sleeves too long, he frequently pulls the sleeves up to reveal a small plastic bottle cut in half. Whenever the traffic is on the move, he inhales a greyish substance inside the container, holding it tightly.

It is a glue that he, like all the peers around him, is sniffing to get spaced-out in a place filled by people indifferent to him, who only appear interested in what he is doing – if he manages to attract any attention from anyone at all. That is the moment when he tries his luck. Every time someone extends a generous hand towards him he moves quickly away. But lucky or not, he moves around, showing little sign of glee or gloom.

“I came as a baby to this area with my mom,” said Abushu, yielding to much enticing by this writer for him to open up. He declined to give his given or full name. He goes by Abushu, a nickname his peers call him by. 

He said he does not know his father or where he came from, but revealed only that his mom is not far away selling tissues, chewing gum, and other “things” on the street.

Abushu, 14, is only one of the thousands of teenagers braving all weather in the streets of Addis Ababa, a bustling city where the number of street dwellers is shockingly on the rise.

It is common to come upon young women cradling babies in their arms, teen boys sniffing glue, senior citizens strolling and begging for money, able-bodied young men sleeping under long concrete flyovers with light rail trains speeding over them, and baby girls selling chewing gum and tissue at traffic lights.

Nationwide challenge

“It is a city we identify as being a hotspot for street life,” Feleke Jember, social welfare development director with the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, said of the capital city, which is also host to the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and many other international and regional organizations. It is a city where high-rise buildings provide expanding business and plush-rich neighborhoods keep mushrooming.

Admitting it was a conservative estimate, Jember put the number of street dwellers in the major cities of Addis Ababa, Mekele, Dire Dawa, Hawassa, Bahir Dar, and Adama, among others, to nearly 89,000 people of all age groups, male and female.

“Add to this the number of homeless people living in the streets of small towns, and the figure is daunting,” he said, adding that nearly 1,000 cities and towns exist across Ethiopia.

“The problem,” he said, “calls for an integrated and coordinated approach and the setting up of a social security fund dedicated to ameliorating the situation.”


Jember said young girls living on the streets of major cities across the country are most vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse of all sorts.

He said his office recently conducted a survey and found that many young women who gave birth in the streets could not identify the father of their babies.

Such conditions push up the population of people living on the streets.

Young boys living on the streets show troubling tendencies of being violent, said Jember. 

“They are seen physically assaulting, intimidating passers-by and drivers and scratching the bodies of the vehicles whose drivers refuse to give them alms.”

“This may create a serious security challenge to healthy and peaceful social living,” he warned.

Help fund

Recently, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power this April, recognized this social ill and called for a Diaspora Trust Fund, which was established in July to collect financial contributions from Ethiopians and foreigners of Ethiopian origin living abroad.

More than three million Ethiopians live in foreign lands, including a million in the United States.

Jember said he hopes that some of the fund’s proceeds go to programs to rehabilitate and provide orderly living to people living on the streets and to give them roofs over their heads, shelter, food and -- most importantly -- opportunities for brighter future through education.

Until then, Abushu and others like him, totally oblivious to the world at large, will continue to get stoned from toxins and seek alms from innocent passers-by.

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