Permit me to introduce you to Dawit Shanko. He was born in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, in 1968, and spent his early teenage years working as a shoe-shiner. It was through this that he supported his education. He was awarded a scholarship to go to East Germany to study surveying in 1985. Anyone who knows a bit about the history of the Cold War would be familiar with Ethiopia’s brand of communism, and her dalliance with the communist east bloc. It was through that relationship with East Germany that Dawit got his scholarship to study in communist East Germany.
But Dawit did not stay long in East Germany, for in the summer of the same year, he made a trip to West Berlin, where he proceeded to study architecture. You should hear him talk about the experience of growing up a shoe-shiner in Ethiopia, the necessity of it, but also difficult job that it was. For him there could not have been anything to do if not to become a shoe-shiner.
In 2003, he started an organization to support children who were working on the streets of Addis Ababa as shoe-shiners, trying to make a living, just like he did when he was a teenager. Listros e.V., the organization he founded, is a not-for-profit organization that is based in Berlin, and whose aim it is to partner with artists, doctors, architects lawyers, development workers and policy makers, experts in the media, and politicians, to make life easier for the children who work as shoe-shiners. Listros means shoe-shiner in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. They sometimes sell artworks donated by artists who support them, to raise money for their projects.
One major thing that I find laudable in the agenda of the organization is that, although they realise its imperative, they do not attempt to immediately take the teenage shoe-shiners off the streets. I mentioned this to Dawit when we met at the gallery out of which he runs the organization a couple of weeks ago. One thing that often stops people from embarking on any form of assistance is the thought of how huge the step between the current situation and the ideal one is. For Dawit, that is not a discouragement. He agrees that the ideal situation is to get the kids off the streets and in classrooms instead, and after school, to have them home with their parents, or in some sport arena with friends. In addition to this, he agrees that the thought of how much it would take to achieve the ideal is almost enough to stop anyone from trying.
To complicate things further, consider the fact that many of the children who are shoe-shiners are also bread-winners of their family, even if only in part. Stop them from working and you stop the family from having a contribution to their livelihood. Again, this is not the way things should be. In an ideal situation children would not need to work to support their family. The parents would provide enough for them etc. etc. Once these issues go through one’s mind, the desire to achieve the ideal becomes like a far-away dream, a dream that needs a bridge of sound public policy to arrive at.
But if those public policies do not exist, if the state has failed to provide for its citizens, and if parents do not have jobs to take care of their kids and the state does not support them, what does one do? Well, Dawit has taken a middle standpoint, and has thought about how to improve the existing condition, namely making the lives of the children who work as shoe-shiners easier, and making sure that they get an education, even while they are working as shoe-shiners. Not the ideal situation, but a step in the right direction. For instance, his organization recently installed some pavilions in Addis Ababa, where the shoe-shiners can sit and attend to their customers.
One situation that particularly touched me is the case of female teenagers he is trying to work with. He describes them as normally the most lively and most engaging ones. Until they are about seventeen; then you can almost see the light in their eyes dim gradually before finally going out. Schooling stops, dreaming stops. Dawit Shanko says he is really disturbed by this, and that he has made understanding why this is the case a priority.