Hicham Safieddine visits the Manzala Lake islands where, looking to mainland help, people face an uphill struggle to build their community
When the sun rises over the shores of Port Said, site of the Manzala Lake docks, the view becomes a watercolour masterpiece. Shades of fiery yellow and sparking blue fill the horizon. A grey mist falls on the flickering water, enveloping the silhouettes of fisherman on boats bound back from the depths after a long night of work.
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Water-weary, the people of the Manzala keep the faith in a better future. Above, school teacher Abdel-Mottalib fights the elements and bears high hopes for his young Island students
Sail inwards for a mere 15 minutes, however, and the romanticism will immediately give way to a bleak tale. There lives an all but dying community, the life of its members cut off from the mainland, not only by the forces of nature but by a pile of man-made problems as well.
The setting of the tale in question is an archipelago estimated to number almost 1,000 islands where close to 5,000 people make up a loosely knit community. And aside from motor-powered boats ploughing the waters, there is very little semblance of modern life there. This may be a consequence of living in a water-locked environment, but -- the fact notwithstanding -- development seems to have passed the islands by. Paved roads are a rare phenomenon, while power generators are used to illuminate six primary and three preparatory schools, to which children are conveyed by boat.
The residents reiterate a common proverb: out of sight, out of mind. They are not visible enough, they say, for the government to pay attention to them.
Of all state employees with the governorate of Port Said, school teacher El-Blasee Abdel-Aal complains, "we are always the last to get paid." Abdel-Aal happens to live on the same island on which his school stands, so he goes by donkey or on foot; but most teachers, he stresses, must go by boat.
And though a collective community fund for hiring a motor boat to transport the teachers has been established, students have the benefit of no such service.
Like many of his schoolmates, Ahmed Awad, 10, brave the early-morning cold -- sometimes compounded by rain -- in the company of two younger sisters, Iman and Sarah. And though this hasn't dampened their enthusiasm for learning, their father has much to say for himself: "Education on the islands is not easy. My children have to finish their homework before dark because we have no electric power at home; a paraffin lantern, which they sometimes use, can hurt their eyes." Yet three years ago conditions were even worse. For one thing, Al-Sabayha School, which the Awad children attend, did not even exist. Awad was obliged to leave his family in Matariya and stay on the island by himself: "At least now we are together."
Built in 2003 to accommodate growing demand, the LE200,000 school could only be accomplished with private donations and community funds, according to Mohamed Abdel-Mottalib, a teacher there. "The government has finally sent us the two computers we asked for but there is very little support for us. I have the best students in the province," he boasts. "They are smart and motivated and want to show how the island people can be a great asset to all of Egypt, but they need better resources to do that." A just-arrived collection of second-hand books, he adds, will form the core of a school library.
"It's a positive step," Abdel-Mottalib says, "but our students still don't have the freedom to go to a town library or a friend's house like they would in Port Said when they need an extra book." In the last 25 years, a community committee has looked after these and other demands. Committee head Mohamed Khalil says priorities also include subsidising livestock production and animal feed, some two-thirds of the islands' economy.
Another sticky issue is the regulation of transportation across the lake. "Many of our motor boats are arbitrarily held up by the coast guard," the octogenarian complains, "and taxed extra." An island police officer told Al-Ahram Weekly that many people obtain a boat licence and then add on the motor, which requires a different licence. Yet many boatmen insist that these are but excuses to keep the population under control and undermine livelihoods so that people will be compliant with the authorities on elections allegiance, for example.