Genet Tilaybelay went from being a weaver to a coffee seller, all in the quest to survive and feed her new born baby, after the pandemic served up a bitter brew.
Genet Tilaybelay loved her job as a weaver. Her job allowed her to be creative and find new ways to express her culture in different clothing items. Pre-COVID-19 she felt more valued.
“ It was nice that my work was being sold in dollars. When tourists visited our shop and bought my work I would not only earn good money but also feel pride in my work”, she explains.
Her life started to change when she gave birth to her first child. As a single mother living in the city, things were not easy. She could not go to work with her daughter as the work environment was not child-proof. This posed a problem when her daughter became frequently sick. She could not keep her close and it was challenging to get time off to take her to the hospital. When her employer gave her an ultimatum, finding someone to take care of her child or leaving the job, she chose her daughter.
She found herself wondering what would happen next.
“ I didn’t know what to do! It was scary to think that I would not be able to feed my child. What would happen if she got sick again? I started considering other options. For a few months I found a job as a daily wage earner on construction sites but that wasn’t something sustainable for a woman who had recently given birth. The work was physically demanding, I was drained all the time. In the midst of all this, COVID-19 was announced. This friend I knew, Beamlak, who operated a small street coffee shop was leaving the city to go back to her hometown. Knowing that I was struggling, she suggested I take over her shop until she returned. I didn’t have any experience nor the basic materials to run that shop! Beamlak insisted and left her cups, thermos and djebena for me to use”.
Despite the uncertainties the virus presented, Genet ventured out to sell coffee. As a single mother, she could not afford staying home. There were bills to pay and she could not let her child go hungry. After a month running the shop, her friend came back. The coffee stand had given her some confidence and it gave her hope and motivation to to start her own coffee selling business. She set up shop near a construction site. Often, coffee shops like hers would be set up near similar working sites as construction workers look for fast and cheap meals and coffee stands. As she settled into her shop, she would bring her daughter with her. After a few weeks of selling under coffee stand with no shelter, a woman living nearby would take notice of Genet’s business.
“It felt strange bringing my daughter with me and making tea and coffee in the sun. The woman would frequently pass by and I was sure she wondered why I would bring this little child outside in the heat, in the middle of the pandemic.
"The day she visited my stand, I knew she wasn’t here for my coffee, she looked like she could afford better coffee elsewhere. I was curious, so I asked. She was honest and asked me why I was working in the middle of a pandemic. When I shared my story she wanted to help. She paid for every customer that day, coffee and gave me an additional 1000 Birr. On her next visit, she would bring a new set of coffee cups, a thermos, a djebena, 5 kilos of coffee and sugar and additional money. That moment was indescribable. This woman gave me so much hope with this gesture. It was not something I expected and I always thank her in my heart. I’ve never seen her after that, but I always think about her”.
Even with these encouraging moments, Genet was afraid. On the one hand, she is supposed to take precautions and protect her daughter from this new virus. On the other hand, if she stays home she wouldn’t be able to provide for her family. She felt strange telling people to wash their hands or put on a mask but thankfully, she did not have to.
“Everyone was asking me ‘do you have soap? Are there many people? Can we come later?' I was relieved, people understood and it wasn’t something that I had to force upon them. They did it for themselves too”.
She was also one of the first women to set up a coffee vending station in the area but as other coffee vendors started to set up shop, she found new friends that would help her in diverse ways. She did not have to worry about who would look after her shop when she left to pick her daughter up from school or when she ran out of supplies. Someone was always there to give a helping hand. The women would form a small community with the construction worker and life became a little easier.
Genet feels uncertain about the future. As new government urban planning directives come into play, her shop is under threat. This directive states that plastic covered shops would be demolished to keep the city clean. As her shop is made of plastic covers, she knows she does not have long. However, she has a plan. Provided that she finds a new space, she aims to build a bigger shop with concrete materials to serve a larger set of clients. She feels that there is potential in her work.
"I have no other option than to feel hopeful and work hard to make this dream a reality. I hope to have enough income to cover more than just my basic needs. Even though, I can’t say I save for that dream right now, if I have that space I know I can do better and expand on this business”
Genet’s story is a reflection of many people across a diverse set of professions. Many had to give up their jobs and are forced to work with competing safety priorities. Despite the challenges the virus presented, people still worked and found resilience and strength in the kindness of random strangers and friends who supported them in their struggles and pursuits while protecting themselves and those around them.