What did poverty teach five year old Mohamed?
“It taught him that we are lucky if we have three meals a day and that a bowl of rice is sometimes all I can offer him,” answered Ghada Ahmed, Mohamed’s 33-year-old mother."Poverty teaches you everything."
Ahmed, who lives in the Basateen suburb of Cairo, had to sell her gas cylinder, television, refrigerator and bed in order to feed her children. “And the spare fridge is not working, so even when we manage to get food, we have to leave it outside, which makes it go bad,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed is not alone in this daily struggle. There was a time when low-income Egyptians complained about not being able to afford meat, and had to supplement their diet with vegetables, legumes and their favourite drink: heavily sweetened tea. Now, these items have joined meat products on the “not-in-the-budget” list of many Egyptian households.
In recent months, Egyptians have witnessed an increase in the prices of many food items, particularly meat, poultry, sugar, wheat and cooking oil. These were quickly followed by a rise in vegetables prices. And the fact that an Egyptian court rendered a ruling in April to set a new minimum wage at LE400 ($69) per month did not help, either.
In fact, according to a study by Ahmed El-Naggar, a leading economist at the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, with the current soaring prices, Egyptian families need at least LE1,200 ($207) in order to survive.
El Naggar explains that of this amount, LE300 ($51) will go into paying for basic housing needs; LE300 into buying simple food items; LE100 ($17) for clothing and LE200 ($34) for transportation. The amount does not include additional money spent on health problems and medical care.
With an average of LE10 ($1.7) left to spend on food every day, this amount, says El-Naggar, is the least an Egyptian family – made up of an average of 3.5 persons – needs to survive.
Looking at the latest figures, it is easy to understand why Egyptians are struggling to put food on the table. According to the 2010 Human Development Report, 21.6 per cent of Egyptians are classified as poor, while one in five children, according to UNICEF, belongs to a low-income household. Similarly, a 2010 UNICEF study found that half of Egyptians under the age of 18 live on less than $2 a day.
Another study, conducted by the National Council for Childhood & Motherhood (NCCM), found that 74.7 per cent of families (in the seven governorates researched) do not have enough money to buy one of their daily meals, and that 2.2 per cent of them resort to selling household items.
“Often these families are poor because the father is sick, dead or unemployed, and so the mother, who is often illiterate and with no qualifications, has to support the family,” explains Somaya El Alfy, the coordinator of the Poverty Alleviation Program which oversaw the study.
However, El Alfy argues that, while the figures are frightening, they do not reflect a recurring event. For example, the inability to buy one of the daily meals did not consistently happen to the same family.
But for people like Ghada Ahmed, putting food on the table is a daily obstacle, nonetheless. Her husband is fully bed-ridden due to a car accident, and his medication eats up their entire monthly income. Ahmed herself is unable to work as a result of an eye injury, and so the family has to make do with only LE160 per month.
“It is impossible for us to survive with this. We pay LE300 ($51) per week for medicine alone,” says Ahmed. “Additionally, we have our rent and electricity bills, and in the end there is nothing left for us to buy food.”
Ahmed says that they often have to live on rice alone, and sometimes she has to go without food herself so as to feed her children. “It is very hard to explain to your hungry child that rice is the only thing available,” she says.
The NCCM study, found that 33.3 per cent of the participating families live in poverty due to a sickness of a family member, and the amount of money spent on medication leaves little else for the family to live on.
This finding was confirmed by Mai Saad, one of the managers of the Resala Charity Organization which helps struggling families by providing them with food and financial aid. “Many of the families who come for help have a sick family member; sometimes both parents are sick,” she says, adding that “diabetes, blood pressure problems and heart disease are the most common ailments.”
According to Saad, many families are left deep in debt as they try to make ends meet, with debts ranging anywhere from LE500 ($86) to several thousands. “They don’t pay the electricity or rent bills, because they would rather spend this money on food. But eventually the services are cut,” explains Saad.
Lack of stable employment is also one of the major factors contributing to this problem. In fact, according to the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), unemployment in Egypt is nearly ten per cent.
Soad Omar, 43, and her husband are both casual workers and have no steady income. “Sometimes we earn LE10 ($1.7) or LE20 ($3.4) a day, and other times we get nothing,” says Omar.
She is the mother of three and her middle child, 16-year-old Shaimaa, suffers from epilepsy which requires that they spend LE150 ($26) on medication every month.
“We live on fava beans, eggs and lentils,” she says. “If there is no food, I will borrow money from a neighbour. But I will never tell them that I can’t even eat. It is a matter of pride.”