Our HERStories series explore the lives and document the experiences of various women from all walks of life. In this piece, our volunteer Yabi Deres from Addis Ababa strikes up a conversation with Habtamua in the city of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.
It was a bright Wednesday morning in the vibrant city of Bahirdar. I woke up early to visit the largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana. I was the first among my friends to finish getting ready so I got out from my hotel room to have my shoe shined. I found one in close proximity, which I approached and was asked to take a seat by a young boy on one of the four lined up bamboo chairs. Beside him was Habtamua – a shoe shine girl that was full of life, attending to a customer.
The boy began to shine my shoes as Habtamua sends off her customer with a smile. I ask her how it is, being a female in her line of work. She shies away and doubts the reasons of my inquisition. I show her a previous article on HERStory of a shoe shine girl named Betty in Addis Ababa, to convey that my intentions were positive. She sees Betty’s picture and I translate some parts of the article to her. She was amazed to see a shoe shine girl working in Addis Ababa, praising and appreciating Betty for her courage. At this point, Habtamua is sitting next to me and is warming up. I take my chances, and ask her what the best and worst thing is about being a female in her line of work. She chuckles and thinks of the right things to say. I encourage her to feel free with what she says. She then tells me the best thing is that she gets good tips and that there is nothing to complain about her job. Astonished with her response I ask her how men react about her job. Habtamua gives me a look, which I decipher to be “well, obviously the usual”. She says some men tell her that this is not a job a woman should be involved in; that a woman should be a waitress or work in the kitchen. Feeling offended on her behalf I ask her how she replies to them. She looks at me and says “I just smile and do my job”. I admired her strength and self-assurance.
Habtamua has a customer now so she gets back to her seat. I see a young girl around the age of ten beside Habtamua and ask her who she is. She tells me that’s her little sister who she brought so that the little one can learn how to be a shoe shine girl. The man having his shoe shined tells her that the little sister should be learning and not working at such a young age. Habtamua replies, while applying cream to his shoes with such a puzzled expression, saying everyone nowadays works while learning and age is not even a factor. She tells him more about her little sister, Hiwot; about how she has such an interest to learn and wants to work along Habtamua and her friends. She knocks on her shoe box and signals to the man that she is done.
My left shoe is being cleaned at this point now. I strike up a conversation about how women’s roles have changed these past few years. I ask Habtamua if that was for the better or for worse. She explains to me that it is absolutely for the better, because besides the very few men who condemn women working as shoe-shine girls, the bigger crowd encourages and supports women working on whatever job they please. The boy shining my shoes says, “In fact, 70% of shoe-shine people in Bahirdar are women”. Which I later find out for myself as I go around the city.
I was now done with having my shoes cleaned but I remained in my seat as I was really engrossed in the conversation we were having. I ask Habtamua how her childhood was, who she lived with, and what she did for fun as a child. She tells me her journey from the beginning. She was born and raised in Debretabor and lived with her parents. She used to walk long distances to fetch water; herd cattle, help her mother around the house, and therefore didn’t play around much as a child. In 2002 E.C. she failed her eighth grade exams as she had a lot of responsibilities at home and couldn’t keep up with her studies. So she ran away from home to go to Addis Ababa and work as a house maid. She tells me she worked at the same house for four years and the house was filled with love and humble people.
In 2006 E.C. she went back to Debretabor to visit her family but her aunt had insisted on opening up a mini-café for Habtamua so she could remain in Debretabor. Habtamua decided to run away again and headed to Bahirdar. She now says she lives a happy life with her husband and her little sister. Amazed by her spirit and appreciation for her life, I ask to take a picture of her and her little sister. I then make my payment, wish them all well and make my way back to my hotel room.
We’re grateful to Habtamua for giving us consent to share HERStory and images.
This HERStory #ስለሷ has been captured by Yabsera Deres, a recent graduate in Civil Engineering from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She is a women’s rights advocate and feminist who has served as Women’s Affairs Department Head in Ethiopian Civil Engineering Students’ Association (ECESA). She also served as the Event Organization Department Director in Youth Negotiation on Climate Change Convention (YNCCC). Yabsera is interested in diplomacy, gender issues and climate change and aspires to be an influential woman who goes beyond the state of comfort in order to grow.