< < <
Date Index
> > >
by Louis Proyect
19 February 2002 14:56 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
Less Than $1 Means Family of 6 Can Eat 
By Jon Jeter

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 19, 2002; Page A01 

MARAMBA, Zambia -- She is sitting on a warped stool in a roofless market
with the ferocious midday sun bearing down on her. A sinewy woman with
deep-set eyes and sharp features that jut sphinxlike from under her black
head scarf, Rose Shanzi awoke with a start this morning, and the primordial
question that jarred her from sleep is stalking her again:

Will she and her children eat today?

It is always a compound question. With five children to feed, often there
is not enough food to go around; tough choices have to be made. Still, all
the answers Rose is searching for today lie in the neat rows of tomatoes
arranged by size, ripeness and price on the wooden table standing at eye
level before her.

"If I sell my tomatoes, we will eat today," she is saying simply. "If I
don't, we don't eat."

To buy enough food to get her family through another day, Rose will need to
earn roughly 75 cents.

Day in and day out, survival for one-fifth of the world's population turns
on what others consider loose change. Much as one woman in a remote town in
southern Africa tries to keep hunger at bay for just a little longer, so
too are 1.3 billion others throughout the developing world who earn, on
average, less than $1 a day.

The percentage of the world's population living on less than $1 a day is
smaller than it was 10 years ago. But in absolute terms it has hardly
budged in more than two decades, actually inching up slightly from its 1990
level, according to World Bank statistics, based on household surveys
around the globe.

In this hardscrabble town on Zambia's southern border, nothing comes
easily. The 75 cents that Rose needs to make ends meet is about 50 percent
more than she ordinarily earns from her vegetable stand in a 12-hour day.

Moreover, the competition is stiff. Rose is one of no fewer than 4,000
vendors peddling everything from double-A batteries to zebra-skinned love
seats at Maramba's sprawling market. At least a few dozen women here sell
tomatoes just as red and ripe as Rose's.

And although the tomatoes cost just a few pennies per handful, customers
are hard to come by. Jobs have evaporated since duty-free shipments of
foreign-made clothes began pouring into Zambia a decade ago, shutting down
virtually all of the textile factories here and in the nearby city of

"No one has money anymore," Rose is saying as she sizes up a woman who
handled her vegetables but left without buying anything. "The town has no
buying power. Selling anything is like squeezing blood from a stone."

The littlest of her children, 3-year-old Betty, finished off the family's
last dollop of porridge this morning. No one else in the household has
eaten in nearly a day, leaving Rose unsure if the knot in her stomach is
hunger, or anxiety, or both.

She has not made as much as a cent today, and she's been sitting here for
more than two hours now. There have been luckless days when she's gone home
with nothing, and it is that possibility that preoccupies her now. Eyes
shut, hands clenched tightly together in her lap, Rose bows her head in
prayer. Resurfacing, she is smiling weakly, rejuvenated momentarily by
faith, inspired by fear.

"If you are a mother," she is saying, her gaze fixed on the middle
distance, "you don't know what suffering is until you have watched your
babies go hungry. I have suffered many times."

Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or the former Soviet Union,
surviving on less than $1 daily is like living in a time warp, a universe
of hand-to-mouth existences wholly untouched by technology's advance, the
Berlin Wall's collapse, the torrents of cash flowing from one increasingly
borderless country to another in this new epoch of surging global trade.

And nowhere has time stood as still as it has here: sub-Saharan Africa. 

New Trade Policies

Following decades of colonial misrule and early experiments in socialism,
nearly 40 African governments have adopted laissez-faire trade policies,
submitting to the so-called structural adjustment programs of the World
Bank and International Monetary Fund -- which reduce spending on public
services and increase privatization -- in hopes of attracting foreign
investment and loans.

Yet while sub-Saharan Africa's 640 million people represent about 10
percent of the world's population, the region accounts for only 2 percent
of all international trade, less than it did during the last days of
colonialism 50 years ago.

Zambia, a landlocked, butterfly-shaped nation of 10 million people, is as
poor as Africa gets. Eight of every 10 Zambians live on less than $1 a day.
Ruled by British mining concerns for more than a quarter-century, then
colonized by the British in 1924, Zambia won independence 40 years later. 

For the 27 years that followed, President Kenneth Kaunda pursued economic
policies that joined government and the economy at the hip. Daunting trade
barriers, massive state subsidies and onerous business regulations
protected and steered a fragile economy heavily reliant on a single
commodity: copper.

Inefficient and unproductive, propped up by foreign loans and dragged down
by plunging copper prices, Kaunda's "humanist" system slid inexorably into
collapse. Fed up with constant shortages of food and fuel and with Kaunda's
authoritarian leadership, Zambians forced their independence hero to allow
elections, then voted him out in 1991 in favor of a trade union leader
promising reform, Frederick Chiluba.

Under Chiluba, Zambia eliminated tariffs on foreign goods, weaned farmers
off practically all government subsidies and support, and sold more than
300 state-owned enterprises, including the country's copper mines.
Virtually overnight, a socialist command economy had been replaced by a
deregulated, free-market model. 

The payoff so far is an economy fueled by little more than grit and guile,
practically devoid of valuable commodities. Since 1992, Zambia has shed
nearly 100,000 jobs; last month, mining giant Anglo American abandoned its
attempt to make its Zambian copper mines profitable, putting 4,000 jobs in
peril. Less than 10 percent of working-age Zambians work full time in the
formal sector, leaving the jobless to sell whatever they can get their
hands on at markets like the one here in Maramba -- or on the streets after
dark. Police say prostitution has skyrocketed since 1992, especially in
urban hubs such as Lusaka, Livingstone and Kitwe.

"You won't find many Zambians old enough to remember it who would want to
return to the Kaunda era," said Fred M'membe, executive editor of the Post,
an independent newspaper in Lusaka. "But you won't find anyone who will say
that we're better off now than we were 10 years ago. No one alive today has
ever seen such poverty. How do you run a modern economy when the vast
majority of your earners are taking home pennies a day?"

'Mama, I Am Hungry'

"It seems I just woke up one morning and everything was gone." Rose is
explaining how she got into the business of selling tomatoes.

That was four years ago, after her husband lost his job as a firefighter
when the government began restructuring the workforce. That was after the
last of the nearly 40 clothing manufacturers in Livingstone and Maramba
shut down, unable to compete with secondhand goods pouring in from Europe
and the United States. 

What was she to do? She was a 40-year-old woman with a high school diploma,
with four children and another on the way. There was no work to be had, so
she did not look. There was no dole, so she could not wait. There was no
charity, so she could not beg. 

"If I cry or go to my neighbors, what good would that do?" Rose is saying.
"They have nothing either. They are suffering just as much."

Friends who had lost their jobs at the local textile factories had begun
selling vegetables and charcoal that they purchased from wholesalers. Rose
decided to join them.

The number of vendors at the Maramba market, which opened in 1952, remained
constant for nearly 40 years, then tripled over the next 10 as unemployment

"My husband was dying along with the town," Rose is saying of her husband's
slow disintegration from kidney failure. He died a year ago, a broken man
in a broken town. 

"I think not being able to support his family is what really killed him. He
was a proud man. He hated not being the breadwinner. But it was the only
way we could make it. All of my neighbors work here at the market. For most
of us, it is the only way to survive."

She is saying this when a lithe figure with braided hair and a featureless,
torn dress appears as if dropped from the sky, hurtling into Rose's lap
with playful fury.

"Mama, I am hungry," 10-year-old Ennelis is saying as Rose gathers the girl
up in her arms. It is the girl's summer vacation, and she awoke to a house
with no food. 

"Then help me work," Rose is saying to her. 

The girl is like a talisman today. Within 30 minutes of her arrival, three
customers appear at the tomato stand, forking out about 8 cents apiece for
a handful of the medium-size tomatoes. Ennelis, who worked the vegetable
stand alone for three weeks last year when her mother was bedridden with
malaria, rips scraps of paper from one of Zambia's independent newspapers,
the Monitor. An editorial laments the failure of Chiluba's economic
policies. Ennelis wraps the tomatoes inside.

Rose hates to count money during the day. She is afraid that there are too
many idle young men around waiting to snatch a day's revenue from some
unsuspecting woman's hand. 

So she usually hides the crumpled, faded bills underneath the plain, white
doily on her table. The newspaper provides Rose with both something to do
in between customers and an idea of how business is going that day. 

"If you are just reading bits and pieces of a story at the end of the day,
you have made good money," Rose is saying. "If you have a lot to read at
the end of the day, then you have not made very much money. If I have used
up most of my newspaper today, I will be able to buy maybe two small bags
of maize meal, and that is all I need to make me happy today."

Rose's Budget

Ask just about anyone in southern Africa what it means to go hungry, or
what constitutes a food shortage, and they will say they are without "maize
meal," or "mealie meal," depending on the country. It is all the same
thing: the region's all-purpose staple, used to make porridge for breakfast
and nshima for lunch and dinner and any meal in between. 

Nshima -- called sadza in Zimbabwe, pap in South Africa -- is the color of
grits, the consistency of polenta. Zambians eat it with just about
everything. Sprinkled with groundnuts, chopped okra or maybe just some
sugar, it is a meal in itself when little else is available.

"If you don't like nshima," said Judith Namakube, a vendor at the Maramba
market who sells oranges and other fruits, "you aren't Zambian."

Relatively speaking, Rose does better than many other Zambians. Her husband
left her with a two-bedroom home. She has no electricity, relying on
kerosene lamps and candles for light, charcoal for heat and fire. But with
a tap in her back yard, she does have access to clean water, saving the
time it would take to fetch it from faraway wells or dealing with
waterborne illnesses such as cholera. 

And Rose has been able to make the most of her meager earnings by joining a
relief agency project that provides small loans to poor entrepreneurs. The
money is not much, maybe $20 every six months. But it tides Rose over in
particularly rough times, ensuring that she has a steady supply of tomatoes
to sell. 

"It is not a lot of money," said Joshua Tom, a project coordinator for
CARE, the U.S.-based relief agency that runs the microlending fund here.
"But it can mean the difference between life and starvation for a lot of
people here."

Living on $1 a day makes budgeting difficult, but also reduces it to a few
simple priorities. 

Of Rose's profits from the stand -- roughly $12 to $18 per month -- half
goes for food. About $2 goes for the fees charged by Ennelis's public
school. She pays $2 a month for water, another $1.50 in property taxes and
50 cents for the government's health insurance plan. Whatever is left goes
to pay off her loan from CARE.

Health insurance for the whole family would cost double what Rose pays for
herself, so whenever other family members get sick and need to go to the
clinic, they simply pretend to be Rose. That works fine for Rose and her
four daughters, but when her 20-year-old son came down with malaria last
year, employees at the local clinic wanted to know how he came to be named
for a woman.

"He told them that his parents really, really wanted a girl," Rose is
saying, dabbing her eyes while laughing at a rare triumph.

Water, education and health care were free during most of Kaunda's rule,
and it rankles her that she now has to pay for basic services. 

"That's money I could spend on meat," Rose is saying testily. The family
eats meat only once a year, usually at Christmas when Rose splurges. "It's
rubbing salt in our wounds to take jobs away from the people and then make
them pay for things they cannot afford because they're not working."

Another customer wanders by, followed by another maybe an hour later. By 3
p.m., Rose has earned a little more than half of what she needs to buy two
three-pound bags of maize meal, meaning that the market's end-of-the-day
rush will make or break her. The few people in town with jobs usually stop
at the market on their way home, but it's anyone's guess whether they will
need any tomatoes or if they will choose Rose's over those of the dozen or
so other vendors who sell them.

Still, Rose is feeling confident. Perhaps more important, she wants Ennelis
to feel confident, safe, to believe that she will have food today. 

"Children should not live with such grown-up worries," she will say later.

So she gives the girl the equivalent of about 12 cents and sends her off to
buy vegetables for this evening's nshima. An act of faith. 

"Pick out what you want to eat with the nshima and take them home for you
and your sister to chop," she is saying to Ennelis, whose right hand is
outstretched in anticipation. She skips off happily. 

Enough for Dinner

The market is a hive, snatches of color and sound and chaos that flit
across the landscape like reels in a movie: young men pushing wheelbarrows;
an old toothless man holding a squawking chicken in a plastic bag; barefoot
children weaving through the vendors' stands, chasing one another; women
squinting in the sun from their misshapen stools.

Rose is beckoning a boy to fetch her a cup of tea for a nickel. It has been
nearly 24 hours since she last ate anything. 

"This is what I usually have for lunch," she is saying. "It settles an
empty stomach."

Then, a flurry of customers. Rose springs from her stool. A woman buys one
of Rose's biggest tomatoes for about 12 cents. A young man in a tie buys
another. A woman who attends the same church as Rose palms three of the
small ones and hands Rose about 8 cents.

"Rose, I am skinny, but you are really getting skinny," she is saying as
Rose wraps her tomatoes in newspaper. "You are going to look as old as me
if you don't eat."

"This life we live makes us old before we are ready," Rose is saying as she
hands the package across the table. 

The sun is setting when Rose returns to her stool and retrieves the scraps
of newspaper from underneath her table. She sizes up her surroundings and,
seeing no signs of danger, pulls the wrinkled bills from underneath her
doily. She melts into her seat while she counts: 

Three thousand nine hundred Zambian kwachas. About 97 cents. Rose is
smiling as she rises from her stool to go buy the maize meal that she
promised her daughter, then start her 30-minute walk home.

"Ah," she is saying as she stretches her arms toward the sky, "today we are

 2002 The Washington Post Company 

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >