On Tuesday I became another victim of the Addis Ababa cell phone black market. I was walking past Bole Bridge when I was approached by two boys between the ages of 6 and 8. This is nothing out of the ordinary, children approach me all the time, wanting to say hello, sell me some gum or tissue, or just ask for money. And although I am quite wary when it comes to beggars/street sellers coming up to me, I don’t usually feel that way around small children. Anyways, one boy grabbed my arm and began hitting his head with his other hand (which was extremely odd) and the other boy shoved a box of tissues against my other side. I walked away quickly, and about 10 minutes later realized that my phone was no longer in my pocket. The irony is that I kept my cell phone in my pocket because I felt it was safer there than in my backpack where someone could unzip it without me knowing. Surely I would notice if someone reached into my coat!
All in all, it’s no big deal. While it was an iphone, it was old, a leftover from when my parents upgraded. It had been nice to have a smart phone that I could keep all my appointments and notes in and that was able to connect to the 3G network if the Ethiopian Telecommunications Cellular Network was down/unreachable for some reason (which happens). If nothing else, these two little boys will have made a couple hundred Birr for duping another foreigner. I’m not even inconvenienced that much. My guest house manager leant me a dinosaur phone and a temporary SIM card to use for the next few days until I can get a replicate SIM card with the same phone number as the one that was stolen. Most of the phone numbers of my contacts here were given through email or business cards, so I really only lost 2 numbers, which I know that I can get back.
This has made me much more wary of children on the street though, which feels really odd and bad. Some of these kids are just playing around, asking money from a foreigner because they can. Some are employed by their parents/relatives in selling items on the street to make some extra money. Some are genuine “street children” who have no family or whose families are homeless and their only source of income is begging. And some are thieves. It’s impossible to tell one from the other most of the time, and so I have to be careful about who I address, ignore, and give money to. I learned (the hard way) that children with boxes full of gum and tissues are using it as a cover to pick people’s pockets, so I know to not let them get to close and (now) to not carry anything of value in my pockets or outside zippers of bags. But do I rush by all the children asking for money? What about the children who seem to just want to say hello?
Street children, like the ones who took my phone, are some of the most vulnerable people here in Addis Ababa, and most of them are engaged in some kind of illicit work because they really have no other choice. They come from the rural areas of Ethiopia for many different reasons, but almost always because they (or their families) believe that life will be better here in the city. Many families give money to traffickers who promise that their children will have jobs and an education in Addis, and then leave the children to fend for themselves in the city. Some children leave home on their own accord because of family issues or because their family cannot materially support them. Addis provides no solace and no opportunities. Many of these children experience abuse, assault, and exploitation on the streets, and they have either no means or inclination to go back home.
The Ethiopian government realizes that these street children are a “problem” and so has implemented a roundup program. Every few months, the police go out to the streets and apprehend as many street children as they can, then drop them off at the two government children’s care institutions: Colfe home for boys and Kechene home for girls. Unlike many private, well-funded care institutions, Colfe and Kechene are overpopulated and understaffed. Life inside these institutions is not much better than life on the street, and many apprehended street children end up “escaping” these places after a very short time and returning to street life. The longer children live on the street, the harder it is to reintegrate them into their families and/or communities. They are also notoriously difficult to approach and enroll in service programs because their experience with adults is dominated by exploitative, abusive, authoritarian figures. Street children outreach, empowerment, and advocacy is one of the most needed services here in the city, especially for anyone interested in preventing and intervening in trafficking.
The bottom line is, the children who took my phone did so because it was a way to get money, which they might need more than I need a smartphone. And they don’t need my pity, but I can give them some respect for pulling one over on me and for their resourcefulness in developing a pretty good scheme.
If you’d like to read more about street children and some great advocacy/outreach work in Addis, visit Retrak.org