I was returning from a graduation ceremony that took place in the morning and planned to meet a friend later in the afternoon so needed to get my boots polished. The rainy season is upon Addis, which means peak business for shoe shine boys. And so i assumed i would find one in my neighbourhood. Instead i met Betty – my first encounter with a shoe shine girl.
She asked me to take a seat in a spacious two-seater bamboo chair she had arranged. Shielding from the rain and sun is a makeshift plastic cover she has propped up suspended between two sticks. We get chatting. We’re in sync already.
I tell her this is the first time i’ve encountered a shoe shine girl. Well really a woman, to be exact. She gives me a half smile, which i read to mean “girl, you haven’t been around.” We continue chatting as she meticulously wipes away the dust that my boots have accumulated. She grants me permission to snap pictures of her as i tell her i want to share a bit of her and her picture online.
I don’t necessarily ask Betty the questions we’ve posed to our other story sharers on choice. Rather, she shares that she is a third year university student from Debre Birhan when I ask her if she goes to school. I’m startled at first. “And so?” I ask her. She continues to share that she didn’t make it into 4th year due to lagging grades. A construction engineering student she was. “I like the practical aspect. I’m not quite good at the theoretical” she shares with me. “So they don’t make you repeat a class or something?” I ask her bewildered that after three years her climb has been cut short. “No” she says. She’s applying cream to my boots at this point, her finger gingerly scooping and spreading.
With her answer I am reminded about the systemic bottlenecks to women’s leadership we discussed a day earlier in the “Dearth of Women in Leadership in Ethiopia” seminar series. The dots are connecting. For one reason or another, the education system is not enabling young women like Betty to make it through and join the formal work force.
I ask her if she has tried finding other work. She shares that she has tried working in the formal sector out of her field of study but the income is too meagre. Not enough to even survive beyond paying for rent. Perhaps this is one of the difficult choices Betty has been confronted with. Forgoing a career trajectory (in-spite of lack of a degree) for the informal sector to make ends meet. She shows me the source of her income: her shoe shining gear; her box filled with gum, sweets, napkins and other accessories for sale; and to my right sprawled a blue plastic sheeting where different coloured socks and other accessories are also up for sale. She assures me this guarantees a decent income. I can tell she’s very assertive, spirited and has a plan and purpose in mind.
She introduces me to her friend who is also a shoe shine girl. The friend has a two-year old Betty calls “boo boo.” He giggles as Betty makes cooing sounds and calls Boo Boo. Betty knocks the brush on the side of the shoe-shining board to indicate she’s done and we exchange a smile as I make my payment and head away.
Love & Light
This piece was captured by Billene Seyoum.