World AIDS Day Spotlight: ChildFund's Work in an Ethiopian Slum

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By Joan Ng’ang’a and Christine Ennulat
Posted on 11/16/2011

Since 1988, the first day of December has been marked worldwide as World AIDS Day. More than 25 million people died from the virus between 1981 and 2007, and an estimated 33.3 million people live with it today. Most of them are in developing countries, suffering not only the disease’s physical effects but also the stigma and impacts on their families.

Young man smiling.
Benyam, a 22-year-old HIV/AIDS Ambassador in Addis Ababa.

As an organization that works to improve the lives of children, ChildFund recognizes that the orphans and family members affected by HIV/AIDS are among the most vulnerable of all the people we serve. We also recognize that children and youth are the key to stopping the spread of the disease. Our work in Ethiopia offers a snapshot of the varied ways we approach this task.

“I want to see change in my community,” says 22-year-old Benyam, who lives in a slum of Addis Ababa. His little village has succumbed to the influence of city life. The street is noisy with taxis, food vendors and shops. A narrow alley leads to Benyam’s family’s small, one-room home. Benyam lives here with his parents and three siblings. A cat is snuggled on the seat. It’s a rainy day and there are little puddles of dirty water all the way into the house.

Benyam is a fourth-year student studying social development. His studies along with training he has received from ChildFund have equipped him with information that he now shares out in his role as a facilitator in the HIV/AIDS club at the university and often in conversations with his peers, family and neighbors. His peers may not find the topic as captivating as discussing football — in fact, sometimes they laugh at him — but they never tire of listening to him.

Most of our customers accept our ideas because we are talking about life.

— Sisay, car wash manager

The HIV/AIDS rates in Ethiopia stand at 2.8 percent, but these rates soar to 9.3 percent in the country’s urban areas. ChildFund’s affiliate in Benyam’s community, the Semen Ber Area Project, holds regular meetings on health education, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention. The project also reached out-of-school youth through a 2007-2008 program that combined small-business development training with a reproductive health curriculum. Those young people now use their businesses as an opportunity to spread the word about HIV/AIDS prevention to their clientele.

One of those enterprises can be found high on one of the hills overlooking Addis Ababa. The car wash that ChildFund helped a handful of youth launch in 2005 bustles along in a muddy lot dotted with bright yellow buckets. Several young men scrub a white minivan inside and out, a service for which they’ll be paid less than $1. But, with a staff of 20 servicing 40 to 50 vehicles coming through each day (including some buses that will bring almost $4 each) the business breaks even — barely.

Man scrubbing the rear doorframe of a minivan.
Sisay applies some elbow grease in washing a customer's van.

Part of the staff’s reward comes with the knowledge that they are making a difference in their community by sharing information about safe choices that will protect young people from the deadly HIV/AIDS virus. “Most of our customers accept our ideas because we are talking about life,” says Sisay, the car wash’s manager and one of several formerly sponsored children who work there. “If I help myself and my family also, I get a good response from the community. I help the community that way.”

For families who have already lost loved ones to AIDS, ChildFund has programs that improve the lives of those left behind. Tigist, a 35-year-old, HIV-positive mother of five, lost her husband to the disease seven years ago. Through ChildFund, Tigist received entrepreneurship training, some start-up funds and a sewing machine. Now, her machine placed in the light of the front window of her two-room home, she sews traditional Ethiopian dresses to sell for a small profit in the local market. The 10 dresses she makes each day bring in barely enough for basic needs, but Tigist says the family is “all-around OK.”

Woman working at sewing machine.
Tigist sews traditional dresses at her sewing machine provided by ChildFund.

Her youngest, 11-year-old Fasika, a sponsored child, helps by tying tiny cowrie shells onto the garments’ fringe. Because of her family situation, ChildFund also provides Fasika a monthly stipend to help cover school materials and medical expenses. In her free time, Fasika likes to jump rope. She can jump to 100.

“She is a good girl,” Tigist says, feeding bright red fabric through her machine and glancing at her daughter with a little smile.

“I want to see people solving this problem,” says Benyam, “that they empower themselves.” ChildFund has taught him how to help make that happen. Walking out of his home, Benyam beams with excitement and greets his friends who stand around outside the nearby shops. One of them shouts out to him, and he waves in response. The young men have some questions to discuss, so Benyam walks toward the group and greets each of them with a firm handshake. He pats one on the back and begins talking.