Thank God it's Friday

29th October 2004 at 01:00
MONDAY I am driven to a meeting with a person from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with street children in Addis Ababa. At every street light we are approached by hordes of youngsters shouting "you, you, you". I smile and shout back "me, me, me". They respond with: "My sister is a dash," and: "My friend is a dash." I smile incomprehensibly.

TUESDAY Driving to yet another meeting we pass a huge advertising hoarding outside Addis Ababa University. "Get a degree not an HIV-positive certificate. Use a condom." I wonder how many of the youth of Ethiopia actually get to go to university to practise this message?

WEDNESDAY The statements about the children's sisters and brothers being "a dash" become clear when I visit an Addis Ababa primary school. After the usual enthusiastic welcome, I enter a classroom that has so little natural light I can hardly make out the children patiently sitting, crammed six to a desk. On the chalkboard is written the grammar lesson for the day: "My sister is a ______."

THURSDAY I have dinner with a group of orphanage children. They excitedly point out that we are to have "boxes" for dessert. At the end of the meal we are each given a beautifully wrapped box containing four small, exquisitely made chocolates. A patisserie chef from the UK has been working with street girls, teaching them to make these delights. They supply hotels, restaurants and homes with after-dinner boxes.

FRIDAY The optimism of desperate children never fails to impress me. A boy is cleaning officials' shoes after they have stepped into a large puddle at the building entrance - no doubt created by the shoeshine boy. No one seems to mind. Perhaps that's why I love Ethiopia so much.

Stephen Bines is a former primary school teacher who has been helping an NGO in Ethiopia to interview children about their daily lives and experiences of school

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