The cost of living
When an egg goes missing the fault-lines in Mary’s family grow
deeper. A short story from Pakistan by Maria del Nevo.
Three fresh eggs lay in a small bowl on the top shelf in Freda’s kitchen. She stood frowning furiously at the bowl as if it had insulted her. ‘Yesterday Naseem gave me one piece of meat only. And it was this small!’ she said to her daughter Mary, making a tiny circle with her thumb and forefinger and screwing up her eyes for further emphasis. ‘And now,’ she went on in a whisper, ‘an egg has gone and I can guess who has taken it!’ Freda glanced accusingly out the window to the room across the yard where Naseem, her daughter-in-law, lived.
Mary was the youngest of four. Her elder sister had married and moved to her in-laws. Her elder brothers had a room each for their families in her mother’s house. When her father was alive things were different because Mary and her mother were dependent upon him and he was a kind and generous man. In those days her mother never had to question her status in the house and her sisters-in-law would not have dared question it either. But after her father’s death, Mary and her mother were left to the mercy of Mary’s brothers and then the rumblings of conflict vibrated through the walls and divisions appeared between the three families of the house.
Mary made no comment to her mother about the egg. She was tired of the endless bickering over food. She was often hungry herself. The pains in her stomach woke her up in the night and most mornings she got up feeling light-headed. Sometimes she stood before the mirror and inspected the bones which protruded offensively from her shoulders and ribs and then she closed her eyes and prayed to God that He might make her disappear altogether.
As Christians, arranged marriages were not customary in Mary’s family. Her brothers and sister had chosen their own spouses, and when Mary was 18 she became desperate in her search for a husband. Only when she married would she belong and, like her sisters-in-law, be valued and looked after for being a mother.
Having failed to find a suitable Christian boy Mary fell in love with Ahmed, a Muslim. They dated a few times but when she fell pregnant Ahmed abandoned her. During the pregnancy Freda became anxious. Mary was so small that sometimes she wondered if her daughter would survive childbirth. And when she gave birth to an eight-pound baby boy the whole family expressed amazement at such a miracle.
Ahmed immediately reappeared. He wanted his son in his parents’ home and Mary there to look after them. Even though her mother disapproved of a mixed marriage, Mary converted to Islam, changed her name to Hafza and moved to her in-laws.
Her mother-in-law kept a watchful eye on Mary who, terrified of being thrown out of the house, obeyed her every command and dared not become a burden on the family resources. Although, when she awoke at dawn, the hunger pangs gnawed at her stomach, she waited until midday for a bowl of dal and always refrained from taking meat at the evening meal. While she watched her pampered son grow more healthy each day, Mary’s own unhappiness seemed to be reflected in her increasing loss of weight.
After months of complete isolation from the outside world Mary’s sister visited her. They were allowed a few minutes precious privacy before Ahmed’s family crowded round to offer customary hospitality. ‘You know what these people are planning to do?’ whispered her sister, and at Mary’s blank expression she went on. ‘They have to put up with you until Imran is seven only. Don’t you see? When he reaches that age they can get custody of him, and then they will throw you away like a dirty dish rag.’
But Mary was parted from her son when he was only three. Her husband, who had quickly tired of his emaciated and moody wife, kicked her out of the house and threatened her with never being allowed to see Imran again if she attempted to fight for custody.
Initially Mary’s family were pleased to have her back. They took every opportunity to remind her that she should have known better than to marry outside her own community. But when it became clear that she would remain an added burden on them and arguments over the cost of living became more frequent, they began to resent her presence in the house. Then it dawned on Mary how her situation in her mother’s house differed little from that in her in-laws’.
As she did most afternoons, Mary went across to Naseem’s room to help look after her nephews and nieces. She watched Naseem as the older woman fed her baby son. She was tall and well-built, just like Nadia her younger sister-in-law. Mary’s brothers often joked about Naseem and Nadia’s weight which had increased since their marriages. But secretly they were proud of their wives and satisfied that they could never be accused of neglecting the mothers of their sons. Mary only hoped that her brothers lived long lives for she would never wish her mother’s sad fate on either Naseem or Nadia.
‘Did you hear that one egg has gone from the kitchen?’ Naseem asked her in a whisper. ‘Mummy thinks I gave it to my son. But you know who took it?’ Naseem tilted her head in the direction of the room where Nadia lived. ‘Did you see how much chicken she took last night? A pile as big as this! And the breast she took too, which I was saving for my husband.’
Mary listened to Naseem in silence. She didn’t doubt that when Naseem and Nadia talked together they would accuse her of eating the egg. The thought made her cringe with shame.
That evening as Mary and her mother sat together on the bed with their evening meal placed before them, Mary looked out across the yard into the kitchen opposite. Her nephews and nieces were all gathered around the table chattering happily over their food. She watched as Naseem and Nadia piled their husbands’ plates high with boiled rice and even higher with lumps of beautiful lean lamb. She glanced at her mother who was poking at a piece of gristle disdainfully and she looked down at her own bowl of gravy for a while, before forcing herself to raise the spoon to her lips.
Maria del Nevo is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in Lahore.
Behind the data on poverty and hunger lies the assumption that everyone within a family is affected equally. This is clearly not the case – women in general work more than men, get paid less if they get paid at all, and, when food is an issue, they get less to eat. In South Asia 64 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic, passing on a legacy of malnutrition to the infants they bear.
Increasingly amongst the poorest of the poor, women find themselves abandoned by men, working without respite just to keep the family together. Into a typical day they fit caring for their children, working in the house and working for a wage. They are also the most vulnerable – 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are women and their dependent children.
Undervalued though it may be, women’s work is responsible for at least half of all the food grown in the world. Yet they own no more than one per cent of the world’s farmlands.
Whether it is access to food, land, credit or paid work, women’s decisions tend to be controlled by those in power – usually men.
Working for change
Here are some organizations to contact from the region of our story:
Structural adjustment has taken centre stage in the Philippines and left the change that’s really
needed – the redistribution of land – in the wings. Dinyar Godrej reviews the performance.
The Philippines is a farming nation. Three-fifths of its population live and work on farmland. The vast majority of them – 70 per cent – earn too little to afford a proper diet.
The reason has nothing to do with the amount of food they grow. It’s because only 5 per cent of farming families own around 80 per cent of the land – the vast majority of the rest are landless or sharecroppers.
For over a quarter of a century this injustice has spurred armed rebellion. Every President of the Philippines has come into office by promising land reform: none has delivered. This is because the Congress is dominated by large landowners and the Presidents themselves owned hefty chunks.
The unrest that built up under President Marcos was defused by the Corazon Aquino – the next President – whom people believed would give back their land. Instead the land-reform promise took a back seat to coup threats, import liberalization and debt rescheduling. Farmers were sacrificed to the concept of ‘national recovery’.
Progress under the current President Ramos has been slight. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) has redistributed 30 per cent of the 10.3 million hectares identified for reform. These have been mainly Government-owned and public lands, leaving the large private landowners untouched. Critics say the Programme was ‘designed’ to fail because those who enacted it into law were the same landowners whose lands would be targeted by CARP.
There have been other setbacks – like 160,247 hectares of farmland converted to industrial, residential or commercial uses. Ramos has also cancelled some of the land titles awarded under President Marcos’s land-reform programme. Now the landlord-dominated Congress wants to exempt about 1.7 million hectares of commercial farmlands and prawn farms from CARP.
As if all this weren’t enough, the Government seems determined to destroy local food production by importing cheaper Thai grain and promoting cash cropping. The Philippines is one of the oldest guinea pigs of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), leading the Government to follow a debt-driven, export-oriented industrialization track and to abandon genuine agricultural and rural development.
The real ‘adjustment’ – land reform backed with help for small farmers – waits in the wings. Its presence on the stage may be further delayed because it would involve restructuring society. And the prime actors – the privileged few – could get very upset by this.
The Philippines has numerous activist groups working for land and agrarian reform. These are useful points of entry:
Philippine Peasant Institute (PPI)
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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