“Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by a Khadem [meaning servant in Arabic].” This traditional saying expresses the contempt by mainstream society in Yemen against members of the Akhdam community.
“Everywhere we go, we face discrimination,” Ali Saleh al-Haymee, the chief, or Aakel, of the Akhdam community in the south of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, said.
The Akhdam are Arabic-speaking Muslims, same as the rest of the population. They do not belong to any of the three main Arab tribes, however, that make up traditional Yemeni society.
According to the most popular account, they are the descendants of Ethiopian invaders from the sixth century, forced ever since into the performance of menial jobs, such as sweeping and shoe-making.
Generally isolated from the rest of Yemeni society, they reside in low-income districts outside of the cities.
The Akhdam community of Mahwa Dar Salm district in Sana'a, for example, is a slum where some 3,000 men, women and children of the community reside in small huts haphazardly built of wood and cloth. With few basic services available to them, such as running water, electricity and sewage networks, poverty is rampant.
According to official estimates, the total number of Akhdam countywide is in the neighbourhood of 500,000, some 100,000 of which live in the outskirts of the capital Sana’a. The remainder are dispersed mainly in and around the cities of Aden, Taiz, Lahj, Abyan, Hodeidah and Mukalla.
There are a number of theories as to why the group has historically remained isolated from the rest of Yemeni society. According to Qayed al-Sharjabi, a sociology professor at Sana'a University, the Akhdam are descendants of the Ethiopians who briefly occupied Yemen some 1,500 years ago.
After their defeat and expulsion in the sixth century, the remnants of the Ethiopian army that stayed on were reduced to slaves by the native population.
These, explained al-Sharjabi, have been forced ever since into performing menial, low-status jobs, such as cleaning of latrines and shoe making – vocations for which they are still known to this day.
Akhdam say discrimination holds them back
While the Akhdam have been traditionally scorned by their more conventional Yemeni counterparts, they have also largely been prevented from integrating into official aspects of society due to their economic situation fuelled by discrimination, they say.
Few of the community’s young people, for example, are enrolled in school.
“Not one of these children knows where the school is,” said the 50-year-old al-Haymee, pointing to a group of Akhdam children playing among worn out tires. “When we go to the school to enrol them, administrators tell us that there’s no room.”
The generally extreme financial plight of the Akhdam – most of whom can find work only in relatively low-income professions, such as street sweeping and scrap-metal collection – doesn’t help.
“I want my children to go to school, but we can’t afford the expenses,” said 26-year-old mother of nine Sabah Nasser, whose husband works collecting scrap metal. “The money we get from my husband’s work doesn’t cover the costs of food.”
Nasser’s 40-year old husband, Yahya Sabr, however, said that school for the children – five of whom help him collect scrap metal for about one US $1 per kg – was out of the question. “I didn’t go to school, nor did my father or grandfather,” Sabr said. “I need the children to help me collect empty cans and bottles to make a living.”
According to al-Haymee, whose authority as Aakel extends over 300 families in Mahwa Dar Salm, most Akhdam are considered lucky to get any jobs they can find. “Most of these families are usually forced to beg for a living,” he said.
Because as an Aakel, al-Haymee receives YR 5,000 ( about $30) every three months from the government’s Social Care Fund . Nevertheless, he must supplement this meagre income by working as a taxi driver to put food on the table for his family of 10.
Commenting on the preponderance of local stereotypes and prejudices, al-Haymee noted that would-be passengers, especially women, often refuse to take his taxi when they see he is a ‘khadem’.
“The people in the street look at me disparagingly,’” he said.
Government: “No official discrimination”
Government officials, while admitting an historical disdain for the Akhdam among conventional Yemeni society, insist that there is no official discrimination.
“In terms of government policy, there is no discrimination against this group, who are subject to the same laws as everybody else,” said Mohammed al-Gharbi Amran, deputy mayor of Sanaa.
“The schools, hospitals, universities and public facilities are open to all Yemenis, and if we receive complaints from our black brothers about discrimination, we will hold those responsible accountable.”
Amran added that everyday discrimination simply represented a lack of public awareness, both on the part of typical Yemenis and the Akhdam themselves.
“The Akhdam are Yemeni citizens, but they need to be more aware of their rights and duties,” he said.
Responsibility for changing popular stereotypes of their dark-skinned brethren, often perceived as lazy and dishonest, fell to civil society, the religious establishment and the opposition, as well as the government, Amran added.
Amran went on to point out that some 4,000 Akhdam were employed at municipal offices in Sana’a, while another 2,000 are about to be hired. Public housing in the capital’s Sawan area, furnished with basic utilities, had also been provided by the government, he added.
Noting that old habits died hard, though, Amran complained that some 30 percent of those Akhdam who received state housing had turned around and sold it, choosing instead to return to their original neighbourhoods.
Nevertheless, he added, “We’re ready to support awareness projects proposed by any organisation.”
But while no discrimination exists officially, many Akhdam claim that officials often block their attempts to seek state services at schools and hospitals. “They say things like, ‘it’s full – we have no space for you,” said one member of the community.
When asked if Akhdam received equal treatment by the state, Adam Taylor Awny, technical advisor of CARE International’s Akhdam programme, noted: “All I can say is that they are marginalised and need a lot. But we are working in cooperation with the government to help them.”
International aid efforts
The plight of the Akhdam hasn’t gone unnoticed by aid agencies. CARE international and the UK based-OXFAM NGOs, both of which are active in Yemen, have made an effort to improve living conditions for the minority community.
“We focus on building capacities, through establishing income-generating associations, and providing them with training,” said CARE’s Awny, adding that income thus generated was used to pay wages for teachers and instructors.
With support from the Dutch government and the European Union, CARE has also launched a number of aid initiatives in the Akhdam neighbourhood of Bani Hushaish in the northern suburb of Sana’a.
These have included a chicken farm, sanitation projects, the provision of electricity and classes aimed at eradicating illiteracy, Awny explained.
Despite these strides, though, aid workers concede there’s still a long way to go before Yemen’s Akhdam can enjoy a standard of living on par with their mainstream compatriots.