Living with poverty: personal stories

Each Westerner from a rich country living in a poor country like Madagascar faces the challenge of coming to terms with being rich living amongst poverty.

There are those who despise the poor people around them, those who live in permanent sadness for them, those who try to shut it out, those who are motivated to act to improve the situation and those who are resigned to the fact that life isn’t fair and there are people who have and people who haven’t.

In reality, most of us have all of these feelings at different times.

Lazarets roadI’m going to examine various aspects of poverty over the next few posts – it is a defining theme of life here, that combines with Malagasy culture to constitute the reality of life.
Below are different stories of five Malagasy women I know, showing just some examples of how life is tougher here than in developed countries.

I’ve included describing things I give to these women because deciding whether to give or not is a complex issue, one I will look into more deeply in my next post.

Why only women’s tales? Well, that’s a whole other issue but, to summarise, I believe men and women’s experience of poverty is generally quite different here and my friends are mainly women because it’s difficult for women to have real male friends here. I will try to include some male stories at a later date.

Drop in the ocean

HouseLast weekend I took a walk through some of the poorer districts of Antsiranana this Sunday. My partner was showing me where he grew up. As we walked past family after family all struggling with stories of poverty I felt a sense of hopelessness creep over me. And I know that these town dwellers, in the main, are not the really poor people of Madagascar. Corrugated iron may look like poverty to westerners, who prefer to see the houses from natural materials, but it’s a valuable building material here.

I can give little gifts to my friends which they appreciate and no doubt helps me feel better. But, all these houses, all these stories. They go on for ever. Throughout this town, throughout Madagascar and throughout the world.

Story 1: Soa – the recently widowed street stall seller

Soa sells tea, coffee and rice cakes (each for €0.04 or 2.5p) in the mornings on the main street in Diego.

I used to have breakfast there when I was staying in a nearby hotel in 2005. Soa has a soft manner, open face and kind heart. I appreciated seeing a friendly face each morning when life could be lonely.

The other day, I was taking an early morning stroll and stopped their for tea, mainly to chat and introduce my baby son.

I asked her if she had children. She has 5, the youngest being 6 years old. When I asked her, laughing, if she’d stopped now or was going to have more she smiled but said quite firmly that she wouldn’t have more.

Then she stopped smiling and said “Life is hard”.

I asked her if she had a husband at home and she told me he had died 6 months ago. “So life is more hard now than before.”, I said. She nodded solemnly.

When I’d finished my tea I handed her “A present to help out a little.” (20, 000 Ariary or €8).

She smiled at first and then tears rolled down her face. She was too upset to speak but mumbled “God bless you” as she tried to compose herself before the next customer.

I don’t know the exact reason for the tears. Maybe they were from the actual benefit the money would bring, feeling that somebody was just taking an interest or just because life is really hard.

The money I gave won’t pay for her rent or school fees for the children or any medical bills that come up. I don’t know how people find such expenses with such tiny incomes.

Her story, of trying to make ends meet on her own with five children to support, isn’t unusual in the slightest. I live surrounded by people facing similar struggles, or worse, all the time.

But, for some reason, I couldn’t get her out of my head all day and night. The next day I took her a bag full of durable food products like oil, tins of tomato paste, toothpaste, condensed milk and some biscuits as a treat for the kids.

Story 2: Nadia – the cleaning lady

Nadia is our cleaning lady and nanny for my son. She has work all year round looking after this rented property so gets extra pay from us now she is looking after our son. She works 6 days a week for 5 and a half hours.

For looking after Felix (and washing all our laundry) we pay her €35 per month for her work with us (plus ‘gifts’ of money, food, clothing etc.). A pittance in European terms but a decent salary here for the hours she works and type of work.

She is a wise and positive woman who is supporting three grown children through their studies despite being on her own after her husband died 4 years ago. Unusually for this area, she says she will never remarry – her husband was and will always be her only husband.

She goes home every evening to a house without electricity. She had always had electricity since she was a little girl but there isn’t any at the house she moved to with her husband just four months before he died.

Often she takes the bus or a taxi home (both €0.30) but sometimes saves the fare by walking the 50 minutes without shade. Her children work in the holidays to pay for their own school equipment and fees.

Despite obviously being an intelligent woman she finished school mid-teens. She wanted to start earning to get money to escape from the house she was living in where she was beaten by an aunt.

Story 3: Meva – the single Mum street stall seller with new baby

Similar to Soa’s story is Meva, who sells little fried goods locally every day. Her daily life consists of sitting under a corrugated iron shelter with the sun beating down, surrounded by boiling oil and burning charcoal with her baby crying in a cardboard box beside her.

I can’t reconcile her daily slog with the exhaustion new Western mothers complain of (including me) in our comfortable houses and with maternity leave. She is a single Mum with four children by three different fathers. Contraception is rarely used here so often each relationship brings children with it. Having many children is seen as a blessing – although I can’t believe they really always think that when another one pops out.

She has family in France so her house has had various improvements– including a concrete toilet and shower block. However, I hear that the relationship has broken down so she is getting less help.

She smiles radiantly all day and chats without ever complaining. I pass on to her things of mine or my son for her or her baby son.

Story 4: Cecilie – the single school teacher

Another friend is a single, childless school teacher in a village in the bay. She gets housing (single room from traditional materials) with her postings and a salary. However, sometimes she has to go long periods without pay if the villagers can’t pull together her salary (which is very small).

She has to be financially and psychologically independent. Not only does she have little family back in town but a single, childless woman is often be viewed with suspicion by villagers in a country where your group matters more than who you are as an individual.

I gave her some photos of her I’d printed off and a photo frame that I wasn’t using any more that had cost me €1.50. I know, because I’ve visited her house, that this will be the nicest decoration she has in her house. I also gave her a dress I bought but never wear and my French / English dictionary. As I had some spare I also gave her a packet of soup – which she had no idea what to do with but might just do as supper one day when food is scarce or if she’s ill.

Story 5: Tina – the academic high flyer

Tina is a gorgeous, bright woman in her early twenties from an educated family. She was a student of mine at the University and now teaches me Malagasy. She doesn’t count as either poor or rich by Malagasy standards. She’s been to University, she can earn money from teaching English to Malagasys and Malagasy to the English. Her parents are divorced but both professionals – her mother is a French teacher and her father a doctor living in another town. She was the highest performing student on her degree course and in Europe would be considered a high flyer.

University accommodationNevertheless, living in a poor country with poor infrastructure effects everybody. Most of the University graduates face an almost non-existent job market. Don’t patronise your taxi driver here – he might have a PhD.

Like the rest of her class, Tina can’t graduate as one of their courses wasn’t completed as the teacher didn’t turn up. “Maybe this year” is all they’ve been told. The buildings on the right are the student accommodation at the University.

She also spends considerable time looking after the house and her sister’s new baby, while her sister goes to college. Whilst her sister’s husband is away earning money in a different town she also shares a bed with her sister and her baby.

She has options for the future but nothing like the options if she was in Europe. Yet another example of someone who brings home the unjustness of people’s blanket resentment of immigrants to developed countries. Why shouldn’t somebody like this have the chance to shine in Europe and then either stay there and contribute or come back to Madagascar?

Not that she can afford the airfare of course.

Everybody has a story

So, these are just a few stories of some of my favourite Malagasy female friends – each of them showing resilience to their situation and an unwillingness to burden others with their problems.

I don’t want to over-romanticise the characters I’ve portrayed here. They are not heroines, they are normal women living lives repeated hundreds of time across the world. They all have their qualities and faults.

And, if you find yourself in poverty, you don’t have much choice – you keep getting up every day and you try to make the best of it.

I imagine I would fight as hard in the their shoes but seeing their lives up close keeps me humble.


12 Responses

  1. These are great stories , thank you for sharing them to the world! Humility is really the word to use in their cases because they always want to show the brighest side of everyday life. Just think about the everlasting smile these women are wearing in any occasion…so you know they do their best and want you to do the same …

    Nante9, a young director, has posted on his blog a great video where he asks malagasy children about their dream job. Most of the kids were very mature and down-to-earth. Unlike what most of us expected, the job they describe was the one which could provide them money and comfort for their family. A little girl has a very social and entrepreurial approach with her desire to run a sewing formation institute! But what I like the most was the strong sense of belief and pride they weren’t ashamed to show in front of the camera !

    Happy New Year to you and your family ! Have you heard about your finallist position at the BOMBS ?? I’m so happy because your posts and your sincere commitment deserve more and more. But I already told that!

    Bises Joan

  2. I have so much enjoyed your perspective of the Malagasy culture. I found myself on your website as I searched for interesting things to tell my Girl Scout Troop (ages 6-10 years) about the country they have chosen to study for a project. I was hoping to find a few menu items to prepare for them to taste and maybe even make each a lamba to try and keep on. I nearly fell off my chair laughing with your photos of Vazaha watching and then found myself swallowing past the lump in my throat with the reality of poverty. Thank you for your candid perspective. It is beautiful.

  3. Salut / mbola tsara Joan

    Thanks for your comments on my post and for directing me to the video . Sadly due to connection speed, I can’t watch it but I will look when I’m back visiting the UK.

    I think the BOMBS have been a great idea – they’ve opened my eyes to many more blogs and have certainly increased traffic to mine – so they’ve achieved their aim of raising the profile of Malagasy stories and communicators. Well done to the team involved.

  4. Hi Genevieve

    Thanks so much for your comment – it’s really nice to know that people are finding it interesting. Good menu things to try are the little doughnuts (I’ll get the recipe and send it to you) or a savoury dish cooked in coconut milk eaten with rice with the accompanying salad. I’ll have a look and see what I can send you.

    I’ll send you lamba instructions too once i look at measurements of mine at home.


  5. Thanks for the post. You write in a way that conveys very simply the challenges that these women face in their daily life. In South Africa, many women manage to make a little money through craft, such as telephone wire weaving. Is there anything like this in Madagascar? If not, might it be developed?

  6. Ruth,
    Thank you for your offer of recipes and lamba instructions. It would be most helpful if not an impositon for you.

    After having read most of your fascinating accounts of living as a foreigner abroad, I find myself (as a woman and a mother) pondering whether I would have the testicular fortitude (smiling) to chose a life for myself and family in such a contrasting culture to what I have known. Was it a difficult decision for you?

    It is easier to image MYSELF with less creature comforts (basic necessities) but then I try to imagine how hard it would be to raise children in those circumstances. I admire your tenacity.

    As a mother of four, I find myself with jangled nerves when I have to beg someone to take the clean dishes out of the dishwasher. I guess we could all use a little perspective from time to time.

    I hope I have not rambled. Have a wonderful day.


  7. Hello Kevin

    There are men and women who make money out of crafts, either off their own back or through projects lead by people such as the Peace Corps.

    Most crafts are produced and bought on the plateau around the capital, Tana. Here you can buy good quality crafts for low prices. Even the crafts on sale in the North tend to be those brought up from the plateau.

    There’s very little craft made and sold locally. I’m not sure why this is. Lack of skills partly (as it’s not something that has traditionally been done) and lack of understanding of what tourists might buy.

    However, many women make the wicker baskets and mats – these are not for tourists primarily but bought and used by Malagasys.

    I’ll include a post about crafts shortly to explain more fully what’s available.

  8. Hi Genevieve

    I like the phrase testicular fortitude…might borrow that.

    The most accurate response is that the decision of where to live isn’t fully made. We’re taking each year as it comes. As you know parenthood changes your perspective.

    The difficulties arise from 2 things. Firstly, practical everyday difficulties from living in a poor country. Secondly, having a cross cultural family with someone always dealing with culture clash.

    On the first point, you find ways to make things as comfortable as possible and learn to accept things you wouldn’t in a developed country. Also, my life here is so much easier than most people’s, that I can’t complain. Yes, the local hospital is not somewhere I am keen to take my child….but I can afford health insurance and, in most cases, could fly somewhere appropriate if need be.

    On the second point – I’m sure this is shared by thousands of families across the planet.

    For what it’s worth, I have explored how UK mums are rushed off their feet when, in theory, life should be simpler. I think largely we try to get more done. Most Mums are trying to achieve something other than just feeding and cleaning their children. If not working, they’ve usually got a house project on, or run scout troops or are learning a language etc. Oh, and we live lives based around our nuclear families instead of one of a group of families so it all falls onto mum and dad’s shoulders. In Madagascar, there’s all the family and neighbours who can help out at any point, and expect to.

    And, I don’t know how you manage with four children – I guess we all just muddle along.

  9. Hullo Ruth,
    The discription of poverty on Madagascar sounds so familiar to a South African ear. I agree that giving is more complex than people realise. I tried helping one person who came to my gate asking for help. It wasn’t long before I had 8 to 10 people arriving through the week! They asked for work, food, clothing, shoes or money to feed, educate or bury a child. Who does one give to? I have seen people sleeping on the pavements in Mumbai and thought ‘gee, but at least they are warm, no frosty nights for them’.
    I am SO enjoying reading all about the Malagasy people and their culture!

  10. Nice and usefull post, thanks, this is one for my bookmarks!

  11. i really feel sad for all the people living in poverty

  12. Would it be permissable for me to use a few of your stories in a booklet for fatih sharing that I am writing?
    I would give you credit and quote you.
    Thank you,
    Mary Elizabeth Clark

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