New Internationalist

It’s been half bricks, half rocks

Issue 083

Three different women from three different cities in three different continents talk to New Internationalist correspondents about their lives in the Seventies.

LATIN AMERICA
by Margaret Grammer

Meat? Meat, my child, never

ARMALINDA DE SOUZA, whose husband left her for another woman when she was pregnant with her tenth child, lives in a two-roomed shack on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Had it not been for the children, Armalinda says now, ‘I would have gone under in despair.’

Like several thousand other families, Armalinda pays $35 a month ‘land rent’ on unregistered land that can be sold from under her whenever the owner feels like it. ‘We all make the payments. We’re afraid not to. I insist on it. We can do without food in the house, but we make the land payments.’

The family is now supported by Armalinda’s elder son who earns 50 cents an hour working as a packager at the Kibon Food Factory (a subsidiary of the American company, General Foods).

Four of the other children are in school. But the twin boys, aged 11, will have to leave next year. ‘I cannot let them study too long because I need them to work’, says Armalinda.

I thank God they are all healthy,’ she says remembering the four of her children who died. ‘At school they get a hot lunch and get treated for worms’ (Nearly all the local population have worms unless they have a filter for the water. Armalinda cant afford a filter.)

We are poor, and there is no way for the poor to eat well. We eat rice, beans, and manioc flour. And vegetables when we have the money. Meat? Meat, my child, never. I can’t even buy milk for the children, but they dorit miss it. What we have, they eat.’

I’m always worried about debt. I owe $100 to the little store where I buy my food, and I have to re-negotiate my bill so that the children don’t go hungry. I may borrow it from the Community Centre but then I’ll owe them. That’s the way it goes.’

When the children are older, there will be more income for the family and Armalinda is already planning to build another room when the 11 -year-old twins start work next year (at present, 9 of them sleep in one room). Until they are eighteen, the twins will probably get a job paying 25 cents an hour because children receive half the minimum wage. Consequently, they are likely to lose their jobs to other children as soon as they reach the age of eighteen.

Armalinda cant read and write but says, ‘I wouldrit trade my illiteracy with them that are educated. Because my experience has been my education. It’s been half rocks, half bricks. But they say that God gives the cold according to the blanket, and I guess He Knew I would manage. There are all kinds of problems with poverty, but the worst fear is letting the problem take control. The thing to do is to be calm and have patience. You can’t give up, he down, or get desperate. Things are getting worse and it’s too easy to give up.’

What would really help would be if my son was higher paid for his work.’

ASIA
by Malicca Wanigasundara

It’s six years since I bought any clothes

ON THE BANKS of the Wellanatte canal, just outside Colombo, 500 people have taken up their precarious existence in a wretched shanty town of one-room huts, made out of wattle and daub, plaited coconut fronds, old planks and boxes or rusty zinc sheets. There is one water stand-pipe and one public toilet - 200 yards away across the main road.

Here Jaslin lives with her husband, Gunadasa, and their four undernourished children. They belong to the millions of Asians who are undernourished, to the 400 million who do not have gainful work and to the millions who have drifted to the cities.

Ten years ago, as the Seventies began, they lived in a village. They had a tworoomed house with a kitchen and their first child, Iranganie, had just been born. ‘We had two good meals of rice a day,’ says Jaslin, ‘and we had a well to bathe in. Life was more peaceful and settled. We did not have to share a house with my mother and sister. Here, there are incessant quarrels over trivial things.’

Now, my children (four girls) never have enough to eat - a piece of bread in the mornings, bread again and a cup of tea at noon; it is only in the evening that we can have a rice meal.’

We left the village to come to my mother’s house to have my second child.’ After the baby was born Jaslin’s mother wanted her to stay to help look after her father.

Jaslin now wants to go back. But Gunadasa is unwilling. The city has a pull for him which he cannot resist and cannot quite understand.

It’s dark inside the lean-to house, save for the stray rays of sunlight coming through the wall and roof of plaited coconut fronds. When it rains there are pools of water everywhere. Jaslin’s main complaint is the exorbitant cost of everything. ‘We can’t afford to buy firewood at one dollar a hundredweight,’ she says. ‘People tell me that unboiled water is not safe. But how can I boil water for drinking when I do not even have firewood for cooking?’ ‘The last six years or so I have not bought any new clothes for myself. But I try to buy my children some new clothes for the Sinhala new year.’

Gunadasa can earn 10 rupees (65 cents) a day working at the bakery. But he does not work for long at a stretch. ‘I do not feel well enough to work,’ he explains. So he stays at home, sleeps for hours on end, turns bitter and sometimes violent, (and ‘almost sends me round the bend,’ says his wife). The family then depend upon Jaslin and the 15 cents a day which she earns as a domestic help.

Jaslin’s main hope for the 1980s lies in the education of her children, which, in Sri Lanka, is free. After the third child, Jaslin could not persuade her husband to allow her to be sterilised. After the fourth, she succeeded. But Gunadasa’s eternal regret is that his wife has not produced a son.

AFRICA
by Margaret Aveli

Health and Education are better now

ROSE IS OLD. ‘Very old,’ she says, ,perhaps seventy’. She lives in a two-roomed but on the dry Yatta plain east of Nairobi. Eight of her twelve children died. But the youngest, Jane, is now her main support. Everyone in the community knows that Jane has a job with a European family in Nairobi, so Rose can get sugar and tea and paraffin for her lamp on credit. Jane pays when she comes home.

Rose looks after Jane’s children, a boy of 9 and a girl of 12. Every day, before or after school, the children fetch water from the river a mile away and collect enough wood for their grandmother to cook on. There is no electricity.

Every month, Jane makes the trek home. It’s a ten-mile walk from the main road to their village.

Rose’s husband thought school was ,somehow wrong’ and so only the last two of their children, the two who came to school age after he had died, ever went to school. Jane, now 25, did exceptionally well and was one of the few to go to secondary school. But after one year she left and got a job as a primary school teacher in order to support her mother.

The 1970s have brought few changes in Rose’s life. There are no foreign-aided development projects in the area and even the rhetoric of development, which comes so readily to the lips of every politician in Kenya, is unknown to the old lady. She has no radio and in any case she does not understand a word of the national language, Swahili. Her tribal language is Kikamba.

She has never voted in her life. It would mean an eight-mile walk to the polling booth and no Member of Parliament has ever come near the area. Her world is as tightly confined to the daily struggle for existence in the immediate area of her hut, as it was thirty years ago.

One improvement which the 1970s have brought to Rose’s children and grandchildren is better health and lower infant mortality. Both of Jane’s children survived. Her brothers have four and six children respectively and only one of them has died. The biggest killer-disease in these parts is measles, and both Jane’s children have been vaccinated against it.

A second improvement for Rose’s family is the change in attitudes towards, and availability of, education. Jane herself speaks four languages - Kamba, Kikuyu, Swahili and English - and her talents are under-used in her job as an ‘ayah’. ‘I was born a generation too early,’ says Jane philosophically. But she is determined that her own children will stay on at school and she hopes that they will get secure jobs in government.

Back home in Yatta, Jane would undoubtedly be one of the most educated and dynamic women in the district. ‘But there it is not a good life and nothing will change. When my mother dies, I will never go back. I will bring my children to Nairobi.’

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