Addis Ababa is dominated by Chinese companies that win tenders for new investments. The city is ambitious, wants to develop fast and put up higher and higher buildings. The locals say buildings are erected fast, and tons of Chinese flood the country. There are so many of them that street kids call me like every ‘forenchi’ (foreigner) – China.
Every street, district, and corner of Addis is filled with disease, disability and exclusion. In the rich part of Bole, the gangrene lurks around at stylish bags of the popular brand ‘made in Italy’. In the redhot, concrete capital of Ethiopia, two worlds exist next to each other.
Of the sick and the healthy.
Just like in the whole world, these two existences are interdependent but will never meet. They will never let the others in. People go past the sick fast, a lot of them throw a coin to feel better – they have helped, done their duty, they are afraid to look the disease in the eyes so they never look back. Talking with a sick person or holding their hand is no good anyway. It is better to give alms to the poor, at least they may buy something to eat.
When I see the situation on the streets, I know that healthcare, and orthopaedics in particular, is rather poor here. Rheumatology does not exist. I learned that when I went to the hospital. The largest hospital is located in the district of Mexico. I spend half a day there, looking for the rheumatology ward. Nurses and doctors do not know where it is. The place is in chaos; sights on each of the floors hit me hard and deep but, at the same time, they shape and heal me. I feel a strange bond and fear which I cannot control. The staff often send me to the rehabilitation building. Has nobody heard of rheumatology before? Finally, I get a call from a doctor from the ward.
I make an appointment for the same day. He is a young, passionate doctor. I meet him on the top floor of the building, in his small office, full of eagerness in this unfair, solitary fight for the well-being of the sick.
He is very glad to see me. He calls his friends to tell them that a Polish activist has come and is asking about the situation in their country. I do not need to be a doctor to know that what I saw means that rheumatism is not treated here. I saw people eaten by the disease. In Ethiopia, there are no biological drugs, which are so popular in the West. The prize for helping the suffering is very high. Those who are lucky, have money, and can go to a doctor, are treated with Methotrexate at most. The undiagnosed, who look for help on the street, unaware of what is happening to them, are the plague. The unavailability of doctors and modern treatment and the lack of awareness are like a sentence for a lot of people.
A lot of those whom I have met on the street.
That was my only meeting with the doctor. I did not need more. I return to the street, every photograph and sight of corridors is still in my head.
I walk to the sound of ‘yena bita’ music – a few simple but terrifying sounds. I hear them in the worst situations, and they make me afraid. A man is lying on the street, and a small radio informs that everyone is equal, everyone deserves respect, and there are no superior and inferior people. Such a person usually does not respond or is lying covered with a blanket, hiding their disability.
The road from the airport leads through the district of Bole, where a lot of homeless people look for a job. This is also the road chosen by the decision-makers, politicians from Africa and the West. They come to Addis to take part in political summits, debating how to fix and speed up the development of the country. When they arrive, Bole changes out of all recognition: there are plenty of soldiers, the traffic is suspended, roads are clean, the place is silent. All the sick are taken away from the streets. Today, one can take a walk, there are more Western tourists, no drastic pictures. None of the politicians will look from behind their tinted windows at the uncomfortable picture, even for a moment.
Politicians safely get to their hotels. I am stuck in traffic for an hour. The road is closed for the time of the passage of black cars with people who have come here to fix this country. We are sitting in a taxi. There are seven seats and eighteen of us, if I have counted correctly.
Behind us, there are several more taxis, we are all waiting, the temperature is above thirty degrees, but nobody says anything, the poor, the low-grade have no voice, it was taken away from them at birth and that will not change.
Another day, this time the district of Gerji, where I am staying. One look made me stop for a long while. These eyes were calm and curious.
The eyes of a woman in an old wheelchair. I bought a phone card from her to get closer. A little girl in a white, dirty dress was running around. She was practically climbing me, which made her mother angry. I established the first contact.
Other attempts to approach her met with a mixed response. Taxi drivers and shop assistants were just waiting for me to take out the camera to eat me. They all knew and cared about Belnashe, because that was the name of the 27-year-old woman whose feet were twisted and began several centimetres under her knees. After some quarrelling, I found an interpreter.
Belnashe did not develop right as a child. She could not walk. She raises her daughter alone but she does not make a display of her sorrow; she is quite cheerful. She does not need money from forenchi.
An electric wheelchair would make her life much easier. She has to move around a lot, using her hands, to get to her trading spots, with a little girl beside her.
I decided to write about her and to photograph her. I have five minutes to do it, because the crowd is getting anxious. They are afraid that just like other visiting reporters, I would get heartbreaking photographs, pack up and fly home, sipping a drink during the flight.
After a few days, 500 kilometres away from that place, I receive a message that some woman from Poland wants to help Belnashe after she read my text. I get on the first bus to Addis and on the following day; I am wondering how to transport a lot of money from Poland. I have only four days left. Then, there is another problem – the wheelchair.
There are no such wheelchairs in Addis – the only electric wheelchairs are those which Ethiopians receive from foreign humanitarian aid. The interpreter and my local friend, Dawit, are helping me. We are riding around Addis for three days. Thanks to our street contacts, we find a used wheelchair. The owner, who is also in the wheelchair, gives us an exorbitant price; I do not have so much money, and he does not want to go any lower on it.
The owner of the bar where I dine tells us about a shop with wheelchairs. Everything starts to make sense, every contact, every friendship. Everything falls into place, forming a chain which leads me to Belnashe. I find the shop. Wheelchairs are fuel-powered three-wheeled motorcycles. They are large and heavy and may be difficult for her to mount.
Besides, they exceed my budget by three thousand zlotys. The shop owner lowers the price to thank me for what I am doing for the locals; I get the remaining amount in two days in a Facebook fundraiser.
Belnashe is happy. She will learn to ride, and her tenacity will help her overcome the limitations and mount the machine herself. I get the money, and we buy the motorcycle.
We go to fetch Belnashe. She is wearing make-up and looks like a new version of herself. She is filled with joy. The locals are smiling at me, thanking me. The girl has two-week riding training. Her life, thanks to the photograph, the reportage, and wonderful people from Poland changes.
On the following day, I get on the plane. Would you like anything to drink? Wine, please. One year later, I set up a Foundation and name it Belnashe after my heroine. She helped me, inspired me and opened my eyes; she taught me that photography, so popular and unproductive nowadays, still can change the world and make a difference. The written word can make a difference, too. The foundation will support the rehabilitation of young people.
What I saw on the streets and in the hospital was the best medicine for me.
Addis has healed me; I cannot think otherwise.