I’m just back from Ethiopia where I went with Age UK and their partner HelpAge International to see their work there. In 2007 Age UK invited me to south east India to see how they were helping the elderly recover from the Tsunami and become self-sufficient again. Since then I’ve been a great admirer of their work, so I was thrilled to go with them to Ethiopia.
Here’s how it was:
First impression of Addis Ababa: dazzling sunshine and a chaotic kaleidoscope of colour. Ethiopian women love to wear bright, strong, clashing shades of blue, green, shocking pink, gold, orange, purple. This, and their smiling faces, make it difficult to remember we’re in the poorest country in Africa.
Before we left home, friends said, ‘you’ll find the poverty distressing.’ But somehow I don’t. Yes, there is dire poverty, and grandparents go hungry so their grandchildren can eat, and so they can go to school (school is free, but the uniform, the exercise books and school dinners are not). We came to Ethiopia to see projects funded by AgeUK and Help Age International – projects planned specifically to help grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren. The dignity and fortitude of the grandmothers in overcoming their problems are heart-warming and inspiring. They manage to make a little help go a long way.
“It’s our duty to care for our grandchildren,” one Granny told us. Then her face lit up; “but it also makes us happy, because we love them so much.”
More grannies than ever before are looking after grandchildren full time, in many cases because the children’s parents have been lost to HIV AIDS, and sometimes because their mothers, single parents, have emigrated to work as maids abroad, in countries where they are only too often dreadfully exploited, and the hoped-for wages never reach home.
The projects we visited are small-scale but they are rooted in local communities and make a big difference. The Eneredada Centre is an oasis in the busy centre of Addis – a courtyard surrounded by simple buildings to provide shelter, workshops, a kitchen and sanitation. Some 30 [?check] elderly women come there daily to spin cotton. Sitting in the courtyard, spinning and gossiping, sometimes giggling like schoolgirls, they gave us the warmest welcome. The spindles are the simplest of gadgets: a wooden disc on a thin stick. It’s harder than it looks. When I had a go, my thread kept breaking, causing much merry mirth. The men who attend the centre then weave the soft cotton thread on traditional wooden looms, making all-enveloping shawls, or gabis. You see them everywhere, worn by both men and women.
The cotton gabis, scarves and shawls, and rugs and baskets made from recycled materials are sold to help fund the Centre, giving the elderly men and women a sense of purpose. The Centre provides each family with a weekly [or is it monthly] ration of flour, oil and soap, and the more able-bodied and energetic ‘elders’ take food to others who are house-bound, wash them, cut their hair perhaps, and generally care for them.
The Centre gives the elders a meal, perhaps the only one they will have that day, and ensures that those who need medical attention, get it. All were happy to tell us their life stories. One 84-year-old former tree surgeon told us gleefully that he still climbed trees whenever he got the chance. Four women and one man gave a lively and energetic demonstration of traditional dancing, the women shimmying, the many shaking a walking stick instead of a spear. Their companions kept them on the beat. Singing, clapping and swaying.
HelpAge’s employees and volunteers looked on, beaming. They are practical, hard-working and dedicated people, doing a difficult and sometimes heart-rending job, but, like the people they help, always smiling, always cheerful. So, no, the experience was far from distressing. On the contrary, it filled me with optimism.