Rapid policy changes and the escalating cost of living have plunged Addis Ababa residents into an unrelenting struggle, including single mother Melkam Desalegn as she navigates the depths of adversity in Ethiopia’s capital city.
Melkam’s story began two decades ago at age 10, when she arrived in Addis Ababa filled with hope guided by her aunt’s promise to support her education. However, that promise was broken and she found herself forced into housemaid work.
For nearly a decade, Melkam toiled as a live-in housemaid, her childhood slipping away as she catered to others’ needs. But she harbored dreams of independence, forging her own path. When she finally left domestic work, she ventured into an uncertain world.
However, fate intervened and Melkam found herself pregnant, alone and faced with raising a child.
Undaunted, she persevered, juggling odd cleaning jobs to make ends meet. In those early years, she carried her newborn on her back, finding comfort in his warmth and presence despite struggling to provide for them both.
Three years ago, a ray of hope emerged. Her neighbor informed her of a government initiative empowering women to start small businesses. Addis Ababa residents with proper identification could legally register for a market plot to sell their products.
Eager to seize this chance, Melkam enthusiastically enrolled in the initiative. With determination and resourcefulness, she started a business selling a variety of goods from household items to fruits and vegetables sourced from the bustling Merkato market. Though her profits were modest due to limited initial investment, she relished the independence and hope that her small business brought.
However, fortune turned against Melkam yet again.
This year, the government introduced a new policy that demolished her dreams of stability. A ban on informal markets and tent vendors throughout the city left Melkam and countless others devastated.
“They decided they didn’t want to see tents in this city anymore,” Melkam explained, frustration and disbelief evident in her voice. Faced with a heart-wrenching choice, she had to either dismantle her business herself or watch it be abruptly destroyed under cover of night.
With the ban, Melkam lost not only her livelihood but also the fragile protection her business once provided.
Melkam’s humble abode stands in stark contrast to the multimillion-dollar apartment complexes surrounding it in bustling Jemo area.
She currently resides in a one-room tin shack, with a single curtain separating the living area from the sleeping space. Her dwelling, like others nearby, is slated for demolition to make way for another building complex.
Though small houses have been temporarily built and rented out, Melkam faces the disheartening reality of having to vacate her home in September when construction begins. Yet, she has no idea where she will go next.
Melkam currently shares her dwelling with her son, brother Tilaye – an engineer struggling to find steady work – and her sister. Paying a monthly rent of 1500 birr, Melkam knows finding a new place at a similar price is unlikely, leaving her anxiously awaiting an uncertain future.
With unfinished walls plastered with plastic sheets, furnishings are minimal: a couch, counter and table. Daylight streams through the open doorway, the sole entrance.
There are no windows; a single lightbulb illuminates the room. Melkam owns all the furniture and acquired the TV to entertain her restless son. A gentle snore from behind the curtain can be heard where her sister is recovering from malaria contracted at university.
Melkam candidly shared how her circumstances have deteriorated in recent years. She expressed gratitude for being able to eat at least one meal daily as food scarcity and soaring prices have made it nightmarish raising her child and supporting her siblings.
Currently, she juggles cleaning jobs while still selling items on the streets. However, without legal protection, she’s forced into a cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement who seize merchandise if caught selling on the streets. The only way to sell is to quickly set up her goods and flee if law enforcement appears. She dreads the possibility of having her items seized, losing her meager investments, and being unable to afford food for her child.
Melkam humorously remarked that at least she “didn’t have much to run with” since her inventory was limited, but is worried about finding a suitable home for her family.
Her story is just one among many in Addis Ababa where residents living in poverty feel forgotten and helpless, with few protective policies in place. Even the smallest opportunities can be snatched away without compensation, trapping individuals in a cycle where hard work offers no escape from poverty.
Melkam’s resilience and determination in the face of immense adversity are inspiring. Yet without systemic changes that provide legal protections, fair wages and affordable housing, many more stories like hers will continue in Addis Ababa. Policymakers must urgently address the needs of citizens struggling in poverty if Ethiopia hopes to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger within a generation as promised under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, in dignity and empowering all its residents, not just a fortunate few.
Contributed by Lisa Hailu