Five Questions to Dawit Shanko

When did you realize: I want to do something - I can not help it?
In the weeks before Christmas of 2000, I saw an advertising billboard in Berlin. It showed an African woman holding a baby in one arm and carrying an obviously heavy water container in the other. An organization asked for donations for the suffering people in Africa.

I recognized the woman as a former neighbor from Addis Ababa. In our neigborhood she was a model of energy, life affirmation and courage to us. But the poster showed her as needy by only pointing out what she lacked. On behalf of all women in Africa, of course.

A question that had been vexing me for years, turned into anger. "Why do posters and people in Germany always point out what is missing, when it comes to Africa?" People there are exposed to a lot of adversity. But most of them take the initiative and make a lot of efforts to achieve a worthwhile life.

I worked myself worked as a shoeshine boy when I was 12 and 13 years old, later as an egg seller and did it to pay for my school materials. Perhaps I would also have looked pitiful on a poster, but that was not how I felt. On the contrary, I was proud and happy that I was able to pay for some of the things I needed myself.

Many people in Africa are not only poor but also rich: rich in courage and strength, talent, plans, or the willingness to stand up for each other. None of this was in the poster. I wanted to show this. And also find a way to strengthen and genuinely support these people's commitment.

How did for engagement start?
I sent a couple of cameras and black-and-white films to a group of young shoeshiners in Debre Zeit, a small town in Ethiopia, and asked them to take pictures of themselves and their daily lives. Then I showed the fotos I received to artists in Berlin. They saw the ragged pants and shirts, but they also saw the humans behind it, their youth and enthusiasm, their strength, their light. That was the initial spark of LISTROS Association.

Listro 's means shoeshiner and stems from Latin lustrare: make shiny, spread radiance. The artists created paintings and sculptures that dealt with the living conditions of working teenagers on the African continent. Their art works laid the foundation for an exhibition and collection that by now consists of over 200 works. It is called "Adream in a box" .

And, as the core of our work, we have 3500 wooden shoeshine boxes from Ethiopia. Each of them came to Berlin in 2010 with a "Letter to the World," written by a Listro. 14- year-old from Addis Ababa, for example, wished: "Love for me, respect for my work. "

Your biggest achievement?
There are two: In the past ten years an interdisciplinary dialogue regarding a new perspective on Africa has developed in Germany.

The second is the fact that LISTROS in Ethiopia has turned into a voice for the working youth. In 2007, we organized the first idea contest for young people in Addis Ababa and asked them: "What is your idea?" 7800 young people participated. They wrote that they are normally associated with dirt and expressed their gratitude that we wanted to hear their point of views.

Since then, we have been organizing annual public campaigns to change perspectives in Addis Ababa. It is called "LISTROS CAMPAIGN" and aims at presenting these teenagaers as an important group within Ethiopian society.

In 2012, we organized a conference which was attended by 900 Listros. They elected representatives and expressed their concerns to the public. Every time we manage to make the voices of these young people heard and their concerns felt, I regard it as a success .

What annoys you?
I resent the indifference of policymakers and the fact that they seem to have little personal insight into a disquietening circle: Everbody who shows self-initiative like the Listros do at an early eage for their own education, their families and and, ultimately, for the whole country without receiving any recognition for doing so, will respond to this insult with anger, frustration and helplessness. In the long run this person will be deeply hurt inside and this, in turn, will weaken the country's future - what a waste! Especially because this will have bitter consequences such as escape, passivity among young people, high unemployment and rising poverty.

Do you have a vision of a "better world" ?
My vision is that economically poor countries like Ethiopia will one day be able to give their children and young people what they need for their development, and appreciate their contributions. If someone had come along and given my money when I worked as a shoeshiner I would, most probably, have accepted it gratefully. But much more I would have liked people to see the visions that carried me through the day, and to encourage me for these. You easily spend money and need more right away. Appreciation is something that nobody can take away again .

At the same time, I also would wish for an open and courageous Germany that shares its valuable experience in close and genuine partnership and does not get lost in charity culture and a gentle diplomacy. The Germans have pulled themselves up after the Second World War and at the end the GDR – and these were really difficult situations. I hope that they do not forget how much courage can be found in poverty and crises. For me, the experience of the reunified Germany would be the No. 1 among export goods.