Today we meet the kids we will be working with over the next few weeks on the Hand in Hand project. The project is a christian charity that provides education and food for 218 children affected by AIDS.
Today I become a piece of climbing apparatus. Please bear in mind that on my own as an individual I bear no more resemblance to a climbing apparatus than you or anyone else. But add any number of ethiopian children to the equation and the result is a walking, talking climbing apparatus. Today I met Sadaa, Yodit, Samira and about 50 other budding climbers in the community centre of the Hand in Hand project in Lideta, one of the sub cities of Addis Ababa. Tomorrow (naga) is the first day of school and the project leaders Tesfahun and co. had arranged a ceremony of sorts to hand out the new school uniforms to each of the 218 kids. They also received textbooks (jefte) and pencils and pens.
The huge community centre hall has walls that look as if they've not been cleaned in 40 years, an enormous number of plastic chairs and a roof which is immaculate. It also contains 218 children from ages 5 - 17 and some of their parents. The wiring hangs down at various points and I am warned by several of the kids who shout "Danger!" with worried looks on their faces whenever my hair brushes one of the wires. As soon as we sit down, Amanda has Samira on her knee and we are quickly introduced to her friend Sadaa. Most of the kids seem very shy for about three seconds until you extend your hand, smile and say Salamno (peace be on you) and then it's like you're a member of the family (a long lost one at that). You're immediately introduced to all of their friends and it is then that the climbing begins.
I spend half an hour with a group of young girls, one of whom apparently has aspirations to be a boxer, and another two who are just simply super sweet and lovely. They try to teach me amharic words for things. They laugh when I get them wrong and say them over and over until I get them right. I spend another half hour with a group of boys who teach me how to roll the inner tube of a bicycle with a piece of wire along the floor. Again, I fail, but eventually manage a roll of about 4-5 metres. My achievement is met by smiles and applause and is immediately undermined by a five year old who rolls his innertube a good twenty metres before running out of space. The boys try to teach me more amharic and my brain is on the point of explosion. I'm glad I have three weeks with them, if only to learn all the words and phrases they are teaching me. They are fascinated by my glasses. Amanda teaches them all "Fat" and points at my stomach.
They are all in such high spirits and within a second of shaking a hand, out come the smiles and the endless talking, climbing and hugging. It's hard to believe that these children are all either living with AIDS are orphans or who have parents who have the disease. There is such a vitality in the room. In fact, its only in writing this now that I remember the presence of the disease in their lives. Being in that hall with them it goes completely out of your head at the first smile.
We go for lunch with Tesfahun, Sha and Geditchu and their friend, an Orthapaedic surgeon who as it turns out adores Cliff Richard. Amanda is over the moon. Enrique Iglesias "Hero" plays on the stereo in the restaurant as we talk.
In Addis, weddings are an enormous deal. They cost more than a house and everyone is invited. The boy who shines your shoes, the guy you met on the street once. Your wedding photos are also likely to bear a startling resemblance to everyone elses wedding photos. For one simple reason. They are all taken in the same place on what seems to be the same day at the same time. We are in Ghion gardens, or as I shall refer to it from now on "Wedding Central". As we walk through the gardens there must be at least 20 wedding parties being photographed, dancing, singing and being filmed. Everywhere you look there are horrendous bridesmaid's dresses, beautiful brides and proud grooms. Everytime you see a bride she is being followed by an entourage of clapping, singing, instrument playing minstrels. If this was a drinking game, you'd be wasted in seconds.
It's just one huge happy celebration and it's a fantastic thing to see. Also in Ghion gardens there is a pool. It's fairly warm outside and most of the Ethiopians are sitting in the cafe, standing under the showers or watching their children in the kiddy pool. Again, Frank tells us there is a simple reason as to why there is practically no one in the pool. No one knows how to swim.