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.

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Begging and other ways to get money

Madagascar is one of the poorest counties in the world, positioned 164 out of 177 countries for GDP per capita and 143 out of 177 for its Human Development Index (Madagascar’s Human Development Index 2004). So you would expect to see people begging (we do in London after all).

But, in Diego, begging only happens under rare circumstances.

In other parts of Madagascar begging is much more common, most noticeably from my travels in Tana and Tulear, though not as aggressive as in many other poor countries.  In Diego, when you hear the cry ‘Vazaha’ from children it’s normally just for their own amusement, in other places it almost always leads to a demand for money or presents.

Friday charity

Friday is giving day – a Muslim tradition. Thus the very poor, mainly the elderly, walk politely around town, especially the Indian and Arab shops pausing near people in the hope of some small change. They don’t pester and they always express thanks.

Because everyone is poor to a greater or lesser extent, people need some justification for receiving these alms. As I said, this is usually old age.

This system seems to work very well as you pass the rest of the week without expecting to give to anybody. Even on Fridays, it’s so polite and unobtrusive as to make giving a real pleasure. I know it should always be a pleasure to give but normally it gets all mixed up with trying to work out why that particular person is more deserving of money than the next person or you feel harassed. Not so here.

People look after each other

As said, everybody is familiar with poverty to some extent. Not having anything for the evening meal doesn’t make you very unusual here. So, you’d have to be really in dire straits to resort to begging. On top of this, if you did find yourself in crisis, people from your family or neighbourhood would take you home and feed you or get you through whatever crisis you were in.

And, because it’s a small town, you can’t fake your crisis. If you were attempting some kind of fraud it would be considered theft which is punished most severely.

There are a few known people whose begging is tolerated (but ‘managed’) and these are a small number of mentally ill people, harmless enough to themselves and others to be wandering around. I’ve noticed street vendors giving them food to eat as a matter of course so the community keeps them alive (and enjoys the entertainment their antics provide).

Other ways to get money

The lack of begging does not mean that hard graft is the only way to make money – far from it. Money is interlaced with every single interaction here and financial morality is much more fluid here than in the UK.

Life here is a series of negotiations in which everyone is a business person, taking their cut where they can. Sometimes this gets into territories that we would call ‘conning’ people – but it can be hard to draw a line between honest and deceitful business. I’m not a businesswoman in Europe, but I suspect that people with business in their blood understand this mentality more than I do.

Getting money out of Vazahas

Vazahas (white people) are always a target. Most Malagasys don’t have any understanding of the Vazaha way of life but they know we have money. And, although I’ve heard many younger travellers bemoaning that they don’t have much money, they really do compared to most people here.

At the beginning I tried to imagine every Vazaha walking around dripping with money and gold to help me understand the Gasy obsession with Vazahas and our money.

Charming money out of tourists is helped by the cheerful personalities, warm smiles and good looks of the locals.

Normal ways for trying to get money out of Vazahas includes:

  • sex
  • ‘love’
  • ‘friendship’
  • stories of hardship or desires to better themselves through a scheme (these may be true)
  • charging higher prices (this isn’t conning – nothing has a fixed price)
  • facilitating products or services (where you can cream a cut from the buyer and / or the service supplier)
  • buying and selling

These techniques are not reserved exclusively for Vazaha and are also used to a lesser extent on other Malagasys (apart from sex which is used an awful lot, but for different prices).

Why not beg from the rich?

Despite the other ways to get money, I still don’t understand why people don’t beg more from tourists, resident Vazahas or wealthy locals. The wealth gap is often enormous and, in the case of tourists, they are unlikely to know whether a case is genuine or not.

Long may it remain begging free

I am in awe of the people here for not begging when they are faced with such an immense wealth gap. As a resident Vazaha I can regularly be seen spending or wasting the equivalent of a week’s salary on some trivial fancy (this week it was a small packet of Fruit and Fibre cereal).

Maybe begging will become a norm in this region but I hope not, for the sake of the people who live here and for visitors. A major attraction of the region is the relative safety and relaxation that tourists can move around in. The worst thing that happens is usually fatigue from being over-‘charmed’.

It’s depressing, alienating and tiring being on the receiving end of begging, or very unreasonable conniving, however understandable it is.  Even in Diego, I get tired and frustrated just knowing that many people are wondering what they can extract from me with their ‘charm’.

However, being around people who, in the main, respectfully get on with their own lives, even in great poverty, fills my heart with warmth and admiration for local people. It can turn one-time tourists into repeat visitors and, more importantly, ambassadors for the county. How sad for everyone if that were to change.