Bezawit, a mother of a four-year-old girl, lives under Gotera bridge, one of the largest complex highways in Addis Ababa.
She has taken a corner under the bridge and built make-shift walls with pieces of wood. Bezawit has tried to cover the cracks with packaging cartons, doing all she can do to make it comfortable for her daughter.
“As I am a mother of a child, other street dwellers bring me temelash, leftovers from eaten dishes in restaurants. We live under the bridge as it is much more comfortable to take shelter, especially at night,” she told Addis Zeybe.
Bezawit said she spent all the nights of the current winter season under the Gotera bridge. “I don’t know where I will be next winter,” she added thoughtfully.
A 2020 qualitative study on homeless women in Addis Ababa indicates that there’s an estimated number of 50,000 homeless people in the city.
These are street dwellers, locally named godana adari. They don’t have a place they call theirs; the streets and bridges do the deed for them.
Under the bridges of Addis Ababa, there are hundreds of lives being lived out of sight of the hustle and bustle of the city.
The offices of Addis Zeybe overlook the Bole bridge and Gotera ring road, two of the longest bridges in the capital. We have conducted interviews with street dwellers about their lives though they were not willing to have their pictures taken nor tell us about their biography.
A passerby can observe red flames of charcoal from stoves under the bridges. It means the street dwellers are about to cook simple food or make tea. They also use charcoal flames to keep their temporary shelters warm.
Mothers sleeping with their babies snuggled beside them and youngsters chatting around the fires are common scenes of the early morning hours.
Abinet is among the street kids who spend nights under the Gotera bridge. His friends call him Melke for his handsome face, luscious long hair, and tall, lean body that looks like a model’s. Melke means beautiful (my face).
Abinet didn’t want to recall the incident that made him start living on the streets. However, he told us he lives there because he has no other option. “Under the bridges, no one chases us away. We can sleep in peace. It’s also a great shelter during the winter. It’s like home to us,” he said.
The people who live on the streets spend their days collecting used and thrown plastic bottles and pieces of metals. They sell them per kilo and make money for food.
“A street dweller doesn’t sleep during the daytime. We should make money by doing any work we can find,” says Abinet, mentioning that what the money they make usually buys them leftovers from restaurants.
This food from restaurants is usually given for free to street dwellers. But there are some restaurants that charge as much as 10 ETB (about 0.25 USD) for one small plastic bag full of leftovers. Some restaurants don’t even give out anything.
At night, Abinet and his friends must find a place to sleep. And during the winters, the bridges come in handy, as he told Addis Zeybe.
The street dwellers say the first thing they learn while living outside is accustoming themselves to eat anything edible they can find. Pieces of low-quality meat from butcheries and bread are the affordables.
They cook food with any ingredient they manage to find. Everything they get is either for free or at a small price. They use cans as pots and pieces of tin as knives.
“Under the bridges, we don’t fight for spots to sleep. We are all the same so the only choice we have is to share the space. Only a few of us manage to find leftovers. We share that too,” said a 17-year-old boy living under another bridge in the Bole area.
The biggest challenge for the people who live on the streets, they say, is unexpected heavy rain and frost, especially at night.
Bezawit told us that the heavy rains wake them up at night. “The waters reach our beddings sometimes when it rains heavily. We have to get up when that happens,” she said.
Sometimes, when the street life becomes unbearable – rain, hunger, and cold recurring consistently – the street dwellers violate the law on purpose to get arrested. That way they get a few nights of decent sleep, by comparison, at the police stations.
This story is repeated again and again when the rainy season comes.
Translated and Edited by Hiwot Walelign, senior Content Editor at Addis Zeybe