· Vatican City ·

The silent forest Ethiopia

Almea and her grandmother’s legacy: “From the restaurant to the soup kitchen”.

Some women receive help at the Centro San Giuseppe (from La goccia.it)
26 September 2020

The food then the showers, the beds, and the school. The Government entrusts the street kids to her.

At a certain point in her life Almea Bordino feels that cooking in her restaurant in Addis Ababa is no longer enough for her. At this moment she realizes that she has to help the poor and the desperate people crowded on the pavements, those who have nothing to eat, nor the possibility to feed their children: and this is how she begins to distribute food and water to those who have nothing. This is 2002, and Almea divides her time between her catering business, her young children and helping the poorest. She went on in this way until 2014, when she closed the restaurant and from then on she dedicated herself exclusively to the lowliest.

Next, she moved to a small house with a few rooms in the heart of the capital of Ethiopia, the second most populous Country on the African continent. Two years after the end of the last conflict with Eritrea, in which 50 thousand people had died, a war broke out over a disputed territory. Despite the eventual thaw and the signing of a laborious agreement, it only concluded in 2018 with the historic embrace between the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) and the President of Eritrea Isaias Afewerki. This was the year when the number of poor people in Addis Ababa increased every day, also because of the flow of the Eritrean population. The story of this beautiful and smiling Ethiopian-Italian woman, now 53 years old with a girl’s face and a cascade of black hair, continues in the extreme outskirts of the city. She moved there to have more space, a bigger house a few steps from the slums inhabited by the poor who arrived in the capital from rural areas, expelled from the countryside by war and famine.  In the city, they find only shacks of sheet metal, hunger and despair: in this house, eighteen years ago, in the heart of the African megalopolis, the Saint Joseph Charity Centre of Almea Bordino was officially founded. At the beginning it is a soup kitchen and Almea, together with a Capuchin friar, Father Tommaso Bellesi, distributes food and water to all the derelicts of the city: she does it with her hands, looking into the faces of men, women and children exhausted by hunger and thirst, the other face of the African metropolis, which Menelik II wanted to call the “New Flower” of Africa. Once a day, she distributes a bowl of ingiera, local bread made of toff, with wott, Ethiopian spicy sauce, and a little bit of water to the poor living in the slums.

 “Poverty was all around me, whole families of beggars were living and are still living today camped on the pavements. I felt the need to commit myself to my neighbor, to the poorest, and so I decided to close the restaurant for good and put myself at the service of the needy. It was the Lord who asked me to do it,” she simply says. A few months go by and there, in that suburban house, Almea started to offer something else, even a shower, and she listens, tries to understand what is needed by those people who live in such desperate conditions. “They needed everything, not only food —  says Almea via WhatsApp, finally at home after a day of work at the St. Joseph’s Centre — Those people also asked for school, education for their children, advice, assistance, medicines, and we began to organize ourselves to meet all their needs”. The Centre became bigger, the number of offered services multiplied as well as the generosity of donations, without which nothing would have been possible. In addition to meals, Almea is able to offer showers, clothes, medical assistance, school and school uniforms, loans for small activities, electricity and water connections, a dormitory. Fourteen thousand poor people find help and assistance at the Saint Joseph Centre. Almea does not hesitate to sacrifice even her life with her husband (who at first did not understand and it took years before he was by her side again, finally participating and showing solidarity), choosing to dedicate herself to her two very young children in the evening, when she returns from work to the service of the last ones. At first, she was alone with the Capuchin friar, now with them there are 10 volunteers and 33 regularly hired employees. This is how she describes her commitment for the weak: “I was born in Asmara, and when I was a little girl I saw my grandmother welcoming lepers, beggars and the sick into her home: she looked after them, washed them, fed them, and made the complaints of her children, of my mother who complained that they brought fleas and lice into the house. Since then, the poor have been a magnet for me”.

Now something has changed. The government in Addis Ababa, which is part of the Ethiopian federal government, asked Almea to take care of the glue sniffing street kids before the Coronavirus epidemic broke out. There are many of them, sixty thousand according to official estimates, they come from all over Ethiopia, they are between 10 and 16 years old, they live under bridges and in manholes, or at bus stops, under shelters, and they are the rejects of society. Some are HIV-positive; there are girls who prostitute themselves to survive. They sniff glue to better withstand the cold and hunger. They are piled up at the Addis Ababa Block, on the outskirts of the city, a sheet metal shed and nothing else. The government wants to build a dormitory, which is why Almea, in addition to dedicating herself to the 1,200 boys who go to school, to those who attend handicraft courses, to the elephantiasis patients, is now thinking about the street kids. A few hindrances are encountered. “We wanted to bring our three centers together in one big building, but we are stuck. I do not hide the fact that I am experiencing a crisis. I wonder if the Lord, with these obstacles, is not sending me a signal”. Almea says that faith will help her to decide for the best.

by Lilli Mandara