Not Easy to Look the Other Way

Nov 23 , 2019
By Etenat Awol

I do not hesitate to admit my pro-individualistic view of life. I do not have much involvement in collective customs and as a matter of fact, I do not even have a say in most of it. This does not mean, however, that I do not think about other people, their life plans and their roles in this world. I do think about them sometimes involuntarily, trying to break down a hard and completely puzzled subject of life by just wondering, formulating and constructing imaginations about how people deal with life. Because I know no matter how isolated we feel, no matter how much we prefer individualism, there is a thread of attachment that never lets go of a search for belonging and community.

After a long days work, with much longing to just throw myself in bed, I knock on the main door, and a boy around 13 years old opens it for me. I give him a quick glance and rush by him to my rental room. I figure he is a new watchman in our compound. For the full summer, I usually manage to get home around 5:30pm. I meet him in the semi-opened door. Half of his body out of the compound, he quickly gazes outside at the street, seeming to wonder about life on the outside, I think to myself.

Recollecting my energy, I give him a brief greeting with a slight glance, since I do not speak the same language. I cannot help feeling a bit helpless in the pit of my stomach when I see this boy every day, responsible for opening and closing the main door and cleaning the main house every morning. Witnessing the trace of curiosity in his face as he looked at the streets outside, I wonder how confined he feels in this compound. There is no doubt that at his age he must be feeling the urge to explore his environment and play with his mates.

However, at the same time I am grateful that at least he gets to eat and have a place to rest in a secure compound. That is better than a lot of teenagers living out on the street. But the heartbreaking news is that despite his unbearable loneliness, he will not be going to school. When I discovered this dreary truth, I felt a pang of remorse and helplessness. It reminded me about all the failed dreams of a generation, every drop of wasted childhood because of poverty.

Such situations push me to do things I rarely bother to do. Despite the considerable language gap, I decided to ask him why he is not going back to school. I explained my assumption when he first came during the summer, that since he was staying with the landlords, I thought they would be sending him to school. But he told me that is not the case. He has a lot to do, and his parents are too poor to help. All the remains of his yearning desire cannot outweigh the question of survival itself.

This is the dilemma the country is facing. This is the truth, the reality staring us all in the face. It is not right that children are engaged in child labour to survive. But if my landlords did not give him this job, this child will starve and live on the streets where he will suffer a much harsher fate. I wish they would send him to school, but I know they are not doing something peculiar. This is only too common.

This got me into thinking that campaigning too stringently to ban child labour and try to force people to send such boys to school might cost them their livelihood and relatively safe life. Looking the other way is accepting the defeat of this child’s dream dying in front of me. Tradition can persuade people to believe, accept and practice what seems familiar, but harsh reality often ruins an appealing idea and a moral way to lead a quality life.

With no easy answer and facing a moral dilemma, I could not stop thinking about it. No matter how individualistic we act, how much we try to isolate ourselves by believing everyone is responsible for their own life, such encounters pull us into the problems of the community. We may not have a solution, but at least we share the pain. At the end of the day, no person is an island. It is not easy to just shrug one’s shoulders and look the other way.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 23,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1021]

Etenat Awol can be reached at

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