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Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But behind the statistics and the figures is a cultural shift in a traditional society. The vast demand for construction labor is drawing women into an industry dominated by men. NPR's Gregory Warner profiles one young worker and her quest to find a space of her own in the new Ethiopia.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Earlier this summer in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, I heard a complaint from professional women, journalists and civil engineers, that they could no longer find cheap house cleaners and nannies. The apparently endless supply of girls from the countryside who would work for peanuts just for just a chance to move to the capital was drying up as more of those girls were finding work - and here was the surprising part - on one of the city's many construction sites.
So I went out with my translator to meet one of these representatives of the new labor force.
MEKEDES GETACHEW: (Speaking foreign language)
WARNER: Mekedes Getachew is 19 years old. With the permission of her foreman, we met at a small outdoor cafe just behind the worksite. Above us looms seven unfinished floors of what will next year be a new wing of the city hospital. But unlike her male coworkers, you will not find Mekedes wearing a hard hat, just a bright purple headscarf with tassels under a newsboy's cap.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) Yes, at the construction site, they give out the helmet. That's very big on me and plus it is very heavy. When I put it here, I feel that heavy weight on my head.
WARNER: Mekedes - Ethiopians call themselves by their first name - is one of six women working on this construction site alongside 60 men. She wears a paint-spattered sweatshirt and a skirt over her jeans, a nod to her Orthodox Christian upbringing. And while she typically does lighter jobs like cleaning and shoveling sand, work roles on the site are always fluid. And she's done even the heaviest lifting over the past four years, since that first day she showed up to work as a day laborer at the age of 15. She told me about that day through a translator.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) Yes, I had a fear that it might be a difficult job. I was also scared of the boys because they were very huge, and I see them lifting heavy, heavy stuff and that used to be a little scary.
WARNER: She was paid 75 cents a day. 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...
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) There was this day, we were mixing and when we did a cement, and one cement, package of cement, is 50 kilos.
WARNER: Fifty kilos is 110 pounds, that's heavier than she is. One of the foremen looked around for someone to haul the sacks and his eye landed on her.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) 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.
WARNER: She needed this job. It was either haul this bag of cement or haul herself back to Semen Shewa, the tiny village in the north where she was born.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) If I was going to lift it on my own, maybe I may not have been able to do it, but the boys were the ones who lifted it and put it on my back and I did it. I carried it and I put it there, so that gave me the confidence.
WARNER: As we're talking, a group of men from the site stroll past us on break. Working alongside men in the open air, scaling scaffolding of raw timber, these are things that she never would have imagined herself doing. Girls from her village usually drop out of school by fourth grade to prepare for an arranged marriage.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) My father's plan was to give me for a husband. He wanted me to get married and have a family.
WARNER: But young Mekedes had other plans. First was to finish her education. For that she needed money. So against the pleas of her father, she went to Addis Ababa and found work as a live-in maid earning $4 a month. She was then 11 years old. She looked after three children, aged 6, 8 and 12. She washed laundry, and though she never got inside the school, she picked them up after class and prepared 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.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) I got sick and I went back to my father, to the village. He saw me and he started crying, and then I was also very shocked and I couldn't control my tears. I also cried with him. I disappointed him and that made me feel very bad.
WARNER: Mekedes helped her dad in his shop while she nursed herself back to health. In some other period of Ethiopian history, that's where her story might have ended, at the age of 13, unable to make a good marriage because of her relatively old age and the smell of the city on her, consigned to the role of the spinster daughter taking care of her aging parents.
But Mekedes's convalescence came timed with a remarkable uptick in Ethiopia's economy. In 2007, Ethiopia's GDP was growing at more than six percent a year. Over the radio in her father's shop would come stories of women finding work in construction sites in the city, stories 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.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) Usually people in the village, they believe that people who live in the city can easily be exposed into bad life, so he was scared I might also have like bad friends and they put a bad influence on me.
WARNER: 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, becoming independent. So at 15 she found herself on a bus back to Addis Ababa.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) Now I am freer, I get paid monthly, I am self-dependent and also I save a little. But construction work is a very difficult job for a woman; it's very, very difficult carrying heavy stuff.
WARNER: Mekedes glances back at the dusty worksite where those 50 kilo bags of cement are still piling up. I follow her gaze and for the first time notice three men on the top of the scaffolding looking down in our direction. Mekedes is often having 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 so much faster.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) When you work together, when you are two, life can be better. Like you live together, you make money together, and you can have a better life.
WARNER: But she saw what happened when a good friend on the site shacked up with a man, and instead of getting a better life, got pregnant and abandoned.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) That is exactly what my father fears. His fear for me is what happened to my friend.
WARNER: So Mekedes lives alone, although that means she spends more on rent. She now makes $1.50 a day. In a good month she saves 10 bucks. And at age 19, while she hasn't quite given up on pursuing her education, she has a more short-term goal. These days her vision of achieving independence is having her own small shop in the city.
GETACHEW: (Through interpreter) If I can save good money, yes, I want to have a shop that has everything in it. If it could be juice, fruits, anything, but a little shop with everything in it.
WARNER: A little shop with everything in it, and, she adds, nothing too heavy to lift. Gregory Warner, NPR News.
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