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Earlier this summer in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, I heard a complaint from many professionals that they could no longer find cheap house cleaners and nannies.
The apparently endless supply of girls and young women from the countryside who would work for peanuts just for a chance to move to the capital was drying up. It turns out more and more of them are finding work on one of the city's many construction sites.
Unlike her male coworkers, Mekedes Getachew does not wear a hard hat, but instead sports a bright purple headscarf with tassels under a newsboys cap. She says a hard hat is just too heavy.
The 19-year-old Mekedes is one of six women working alongside 60 men at a construction site that will next year be a new wing of a city hospital. She wears a paint-spattered sweatshirt and a skirt over her jeans, a nod to her Orthodox Christian upbringing.
While she typically does lighter jobs like cleaning and shoveling sand, roles on the site are always fluid. She's tackled even the heaviest lifting jobs since she showed up to work as a day laborer at age 15.
"[I feared] that it might be a difficult job," she says. "I was also scared of the boys because they were very huge, and I see them lifting heavy stuff and that used to be a little scary."
Less Than $1 A Day To Start
She was paid 75 cents a day initially; the men were paid $2. She didn't take issue with the salary, reasoning to herself it was because she'd be doing lighter jobs.
But then one day they were mixing cement from bags weighing about 110 pounds, heavier than Mekedes. One of the foremen looked around for someone to haul the bags and his eyes landed on her.
"My boss told me to do it and I did not want him to find out that I'm scared or I did not want him to know that I may not be able to do it," she says.
She needed the job, and it was either haul the bag of cement or haul herself back to Semen Shewa, the tiny village in the north where she was born.
"If I was going to lift it on my own maybe I may not have been able to do it, but the boys are the ones who lifted it and put it on my back, so, I did it," she says. "I carried it ... so that gave me the confidence."
Growing up, she never would have imagined herself working alongside men in the open air and climbing scaffolding of raw timber. Girls from her village usually drop out of school by fourth grade to prepare for an arranged marriage.
"My father's plan was to give me a husband. He wanted me to get married and have a family," she says.
Young Mekedes had other plans, however. The first was to finish her education, and for that she needed money. Against the pleas of her father she went to Addis Ababa and, at the age of 11, found work as a live-in maid earning $4 a month.
She looked after three children — aged 6, 8 and 12 — washing laundry, picking them up after class and preparing their lunches.
That meant rising before dawn in the cold to cook injera, a spongy flatbread. In the end it was the cold that got her; she caught pneumonia and the woman of the house kicked her out, withholding six months of her salary, a whole $24. That left her little to take back home to her father.
"He saw me and he started crying, and then I was also very shocked. I couldn't control my tears. I also cried with him," she says. "I disappointed him and that made me feel very bad."
Mekedes helped her dad in his shop while she nursed herself back to health. In some other period of Ethiopian history that is where her story might have ended. At 13, unable to make a good marriage because of her relatively advanced age and the smell of the city on her, she would be consigned to the role of the spinster daughter taking care of her aging parents.
But Mekedes' convalescence came timed with a remarkable uptick in Ethiopia's economy. In 2007, Ethiopia's GDP was growing at more than 6 percent per year. On the radio in her father's shop she would hear stories of women finding work in construction sites in the city. The stories were almost always presented as lurid cautionary tales about a young woman's descent into prostitution or drugs, confirming her father's worst fears about city life.
"Usually people in the village believe that people in the city can easily be exposed to bad life, so he was scared I might also have bad friends and they [would have a] bad influence on me," Mekedes says.
Mekedes listened to the same stories on the radio and heard something entirely different: a second chance. Girls were actually leaving, getting out, making salaries and becoming independent. So at 15, she found herself on a bus back to Addis Ababa.
"Now I am freer, I get paid monthly, I am self-dependent and I can save a little," she says. "But construction work is a very difficult job for a woman; it's very difficult carrying heavy stuff."
Still More Challenges
It's not just the heavy lifting that makes it difficult, however. Mekedes often has to fend off advances from her male coworkers, and while those radio stories in her father's shop had steeled her against the dangers of temptation, she had not counted on the seductive math of economics. Men on the construction site are paid more, and combined with a man's salary, she could achieve her goal of getting to school much faster.
"When you work together, when you are two, life can be better," she says. "You live together, you make money together and you can have a better life."
But she saw what happened when a good friend on the site moved in with a man. Instead of getting a better life, she got pregnant and abandoned. That, she says, is exactly what her father fears.
So Mekedes lives alone, though that means she spends more on rent. She now makes $1.50 a day. In a good month, she saves $10. And at age 19, while she hasn't quite given up on pursuing her education, she has a short-term goal. These days her vision of achieving independence is having her own small shop in the city.
"If I can save good money, I want to have a shop that has everything in it," she says. "It could be juice, fruits, anything, but a little shop with everything in it."
A little shop with everything in it, and, she adds, nothing too heavy to lift.
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