Portrait of a village
In Baweit in Upper Egypt, one of Egypt's poorest villages and the object of a government development programme, patience is often the residents' only form of wealth, Ahmed Abu Ghazala listens to their stories, while Sherif Sonbol photographs their life
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Despite being the poorest village in the country, residents of Baweit still have hope for a better future while waiting for the government development programme to positively affect their lives. Water, electricity and a sewerage network are on top of their demands Rokaya at her doorstep; Abdel-Shafi, the oldest man in the village; life at its simplest form where farming is the only source of income; animals are the main source of transportation; children have nothing to do but study and play in the street unaware of the ranking of their village
The road leading to the village of Baweit through the town of Dairout in Upper Egypt is almost good enough for cars. It is 400 kilometres from Cairo to this village in the Assiut governorate. As soon as one's car reaches Dairout, a sign announces a sewerage project in Baweit to the right of the road. After a right turn to the village, the scene changes. Sand, dust and rocks cover the road. Cars can't go faster than 20km per hour because of the road bumps.
The village alleyways are narrow and the houses small and very similar to each other with little privacy for residents. Gamal Fahmi and Hamed Abdel-Hakim's houses are typical, these villagers' houses having a dark and narrow corridor that only allows one individual to pass at a time.
Their houses have no main sewerage, like the other houses in the village. Many houses also lack ovens, washers, or closets, and many of them lack electricity and running water. The rooms are small, allowing space for a bed and for two individuals to sit. There is a stairway made of bricks that leads to another room above.
In short, the village lacks basic amenities, and according to the government's Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), it is one of the poorest in Egypt. Baweit is also one of the villages included on a government project to develop the poorest 1,000 villages in Egypt.
"Many people don't have water or electricity in their homes because they would have to pay between LE2,000-4,000 to equip their houses to receive such services. Those who have money can live, and those who don't shouldn't ask for more," said Abdel-Sabour Fathi, a young man in his 20s.
Fathi goes to Cairo to work as a day labourer for short periods and then comes back to Baweit to spend his earnings. As for the sewerage project that was announced last year, Fathi said that no one in the village knows when it is due to be finished.
There is an older system of sewerage in the village, Abdallah Mohamed, who owns a grocery shop in Dairout, explaining that specially designed vehicles that remove sewage from cesspits located under the houses are supposed to empty the waste in the desert, though they frequently empty it into the agricultural irrigation water instead. The charge is LE20 per household.
According to Mohy Abdel-Alim, the village chief, or Sheikh Al-Balad, such incidents happen very rarely, adding that those working on the trucks are always told to empty the sewage in the desert. "Incidents when this does not take place always happen at night without our knowledge. We give the workers clear instructions on what to do and we always inspect their work," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abdel-Alim added that the "irrigation water is clean. It comes from Dairout, and it is not contaminated with sewage because it is a long way off and cannot be reached with the kind of trucks the sewerage men use." The problem lies with sewage water lying uncovered next to the houses, and this can cause contamination, he said.
Abdel-Ghaffar Deyab, a lawyer and the son of the local mayor, said that one main problem the village suffers from is a lack of telephone lines. Lines were installed some years ago, but the cables were stolen and despite complaints no new ones have been provided.
"Every house that has a telephone pays LE24 every three months for a service that they don't receive because there are no telephone lines. Nevertheless, we keep on paying because if we don't the company will cut the lines for good. We continue to pay hoping that they will fix the problem," he said.
Yet, Baweit's main problem is not the lack of utilities or of basic services. Instead, it is the village's high level of unemployment.
Mohamed Farag, 55, stood smiling on his doorstep, ready to discuss Baweit's needs. His mother, Roqaya, now in her 80s, stands besides him. She seems to be blind, and she can no longer hear as well as she once could.
Farag, a day labourer, earns between LE10 and 15 a day, when he can find a job. Although his house has electricity, it lacks water and sewerage. He goes to the mosque next to his house every day to get water, and he uses a small basin to wash out his bathroom every day.
"All the villagers are farmers, and most of them earn their living in the same way as I do," Farag said. "We haven't seen anything from the government, and as you see all the people are poor." Farag has not got married, and he doesn't intend to. "What will I do with a woman in my life," he asks. "Isn't it enough for me to take care of my mother? I don't have the money to take care of anybody else."
Villagers, all men, gather to follow the conversation. All of them are wearing galabiyas, except the children who are wearing casual clothes.
All the villagers said that there was no employment in the village except in agriculture. Almost all the villagers are farmers, and most are day labourers. There are very few teachers or medical staff, though there are some doctors and nurses appointed by the Ministry of Health to work at the village's health unit.
Anyone from the village who succeeds in getting a qualification in a respected field such as medicine or engineering tends to go to work in Cairo or in other Lower Egyptian governorates. "Many youngsters do that. You can find factories, companies and a wide variety of opportunities in Lower Egypt, unlike here in Upper Egypt, where things are much harder. Although we have industries in larger towns like Assiut, they still remain very limited," one of the men said.
A few metres from Farag's house some 50 or so of Baweit's young people were sitting in the village's main café. Most of them are unemployed, and those who do have jobs earn a very limited salary.
Among the lucky few is Hussein Mustafa, a computer teacher at one of Baweit's schools, who earns LE1.80 a class and teaches 18 classes a week. This means that he earns around LE130 per month, "money that only covers my transportation," Mustafa says.
Mustafa graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Trade at Helwan University in 2008, and since he could not find a job that suited his qualifications he decided to return to Baweit to work as a teacher. "There is no attention given to Upper Egypt, and all investment goes to Lower Egypt, making it very difficult to find a job here," he said.
Even though it does not pay well, many young people interviewed by the Weekly were eager to work as teachers, often to benefit the people in the village. Walid Ashour, a student at the Faculty of Dar Al-Oloum studying Arabic Language and Islamic Sciences, wants to be a teacher in Baweit after his graduation and does not care about the small salary.
Most of the other young people work as day labourers, looking for a job each morning in the fields or on a construction site. "Most people here live below the poverty line. Those who can work on a construction site can earn LE20 a day, while those who work in agriculture get around LE7. If you aren't able to find a job on a given day, you sit at the café. As you can see, this tends to be for much of the time," Ashour said.
The lack of opportunities was given as the main reason for the high levels of unemployment among village women.
"The men are unemployed. How will women find work? If a woman finds a good job, she works. No one forbids women from working," said Deyab. "It's true that women are not allowed to work as farmers, because this is not good for them. We have our traditions, but women are allowed to work in the professions, and there are many women who work as nurses or teachers."
Although many older women in the village are illiterate, most of the younger women and girls have received the same level of education as their male peers. Farmer Ahmed Sedki, who is in his 60s and owns a small piece of land, said that most villagers, whether men or women, have an intermediate school diploma, and some of them have a higher diploma.
"However, most women in our village don't work," Sedki said. "They may get an education, but even so they will eventually tend to stay at home, unless they get an official job, mostly outside the village. Finding a job in Upper Egypt is not easy."
No women appeared in the village's main street during the Weekly 's visit.
It is not a lack of education that prevents villagers from working. Rather, it is a lack of jobs.
There are three large schools in the village, two of them primary and the third preparatory. The land on which the schools stand was donated by the villagers, and the villagers said that they will donate further land to the Assiut Education Committee to build a secondary school later.
Students acquire their secondary education in the nearby village of Dashlout, and they can then pursue undergraduate studies at Assiut University. Furthermore, the state schools are not the only way of receiving an education in Baweit: six-year-old Fahmi studies at the village kottab, a traditional religious school at which children learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Holy Quran and Islamic principles, and where they are taught by a sheikh.
Another form of education is provided at the village al-maahad al-diny (religious institute), which is similar to the official school system but with a more religious emphasis, where 11-year-old Hammad studies.
Yet, although there are three methods of education available in Baweit some villagers are still illiterate. "Education needs money. People need to pay fees and buy books, and some people can't afford such expenses," one of the villagers said.
Deyab said that education was not considered a problem in the village, and that most people were literate. "Formal education has existed in the village for a long time. My father was teaching villagers back in 1964, for example," he said.
Although the village is among the poorest in Egypt and many of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, many amenities work well as a result of the personal efforts of the villagers themselves.
Deyab said that the villagers have a huge sense of responsibility towards education and they also donated land for the religious institute. "There is a health unit in the village that provides assistance to people, and once again the land was donated by the villagers themselves." The unit provides medical check-ups and inoculates children against different diseases. If a patient needs more extensive treatment, he or she is directed to the hospital in Dairout.
"The Agricultural Association, which helps provide fertilisers and pesticides, was also built on donated land," said Abdel-Alim, the Sheikh Al-Balad. "The post office was also built by the villagers, and the state didn't spend anything on it."
On the other side of the café, there was another wooden bench and chairs where older villagers sit. They too have their fair share of problems.
Hefzi Stohi, 70, a farmer, receives LE80 from public insurance, and 71-year-old Farouk Mohamed received a pension of LE300 as a former government employee at the telephone department in Dairout. Mohamed said that this was not enough to guarantee a good life, though "as you see it allows me to sit at a café and have a cup of tea".
The older villagers often have more substantial problems than the younger ones. Most live on less than LE80 per month, and they have to spend much of their income on medicine. Mahmoud Abdel-Rahman, for example, is 54 and suffers from paralysis. He gets LE70 from public insurance and goes to Dairout hospital every month for treatment.
The high levels of poverty that prevail in the village often prevent the older villagers from receiving financial aid from their sons. "This is the poorest village in Egypt. How do you expect sons to help their fathers? All of them have their own families to take care of," Mohamed said.
Medical problems aren't only confined to the old. Ahmed is one-and-a-half years old and needs a liver transplant. Because his father, Rezk Saber, cannot afford the considerable expense involved, Ahmed is being kept alive on the medicine that his father can afford to buy him. The medicine costs LE300 a month. Saber told the Weekly that he works as a day labourer in order to earn LE15 a day to pay for the medicine and take care of his family.
Health concerns are also related to water. While some villagers have running water in their houses, this is underground water, a fact that worries many. According to 60-year-old farmer Sedki, officials from the Ministry of Health come every month to check the water, but "whether it is suitable for human use or not, we drink it because we have no other choice."
Villagers also complain about the declining quality of the agricultural land. According to Hussein Emam, 66, a farmer who owns a small piece of land and has six sons and daughters, "the water levels have decreased, so those who were planting wheat have now started planting anise, because soil that was once irrigated twice a day is now only being irrigated once."
He added that the cost of farming has also become more expensive. "Two years ago, wheat seed cost LE60 and 5kg of corn LE40, but now they cost LE200. Chemical fertiliser cost LE30 and now costs LE70, and other fertiliser once cost LE35 and now costs LE95."
Emam lamented the general state of agriculture in the village. "Cotton was once the village's main product, but we don't plant it anymore because prices have gone down. Instead, we grow beans, wheat, clover, anise and caraway."
At the café, the young people shared another concern. "We have a huge problem with the bread supply. The bakers sell some of the subsidised flour to other traders and save portions of the bread for their relatives, with the result that we poor villagers can't find enough subsidised bread to eat," said Rezk Saber.
One 13-year-old boy said that he had to stand in a queue everyday, but even so was not able to buy anything more than a small number of loaves for his family. Sometimes he was not able to buy even one loaf, he said.
There are three bakeries in the village, each of them open from 8:15-10am. According to Mansour Hemeida, a baker, each bakery receives nine bags of flour a day, each bag producing 525 loaves of bread. This means that the three bakeries produce almost 14,000 loaves, not sufficient for the village's nearly 17,000 inhabitants.
Despite the harsh living conditions, the media has never covered life in the village, and the villagers said that the Weekly was the first newspaper to visit them. "Nobody comes to visit us. Even Channel 7, which covers northern Upper Egypt, and Al-Diwan newspaper, which covers Assiut, have never mentioned our village," said Ashour, the senior student who wants to be a teacher.
Mohamed Hafez, mayor of Baweit, told the Weekly that the village needed a lot of efforts to upgrade it. "We think that the desert land next to Baweit should be reclaimed and given to residents. We only have 1,500 feddans of land here, and this is not enough."
According to Hafez, establishing a factory or industry in Baweit would be even better, since this could manufacture products used in the village. The built-up area also needed to be enlarged, Hafez said, in order to improve villagers' living conditions.
Apart from the many problems of the day, people in Baweit don't have any kind of entertainment, except the café. "Do we have any other choice," one villager asked. Due to the lack of a suitable field, young people are rarely able to play football or other sports. One young man said that one villager had bought a computer with games for his own use a year ago, but he had got so fed up with all the others using it that he now kept it under lock and key.
Hafez said that the village needed more entertainment, especially for young people. "We need a youth centre where the youngsters can play sports and the villagers can engage in social activities," he said. Deyab, the mayor's son, added that the older villagers should all be registered on the state health insurance system. "At the moment, state employees are the only ones registered. The state should help all villagers to register," he said.
Some villagers said that the MPs representing their district did not make enough efforts to help them. Hafez and Abdel-Alim said that as mayor and Sheikh al-Balad they did their best, but they were not in a position to change things in the village.
Asked about life in Baweit, Shahin El-Kilani, the National Democratic Party (NDP) MP who represents the Dairout district, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that he visited the village every two or three weeks, and that there was currently a plan in place to upgrade the village.
"However, finding jobs for the villagers is not my job. The minister of state for administrative development, Ahmed Darwish, has stated that it cannot be an MP's role to find employment for his constituents. This is the government's responsibility."
El-Kilani said that while he had tried to set up development projects in Baweit, "this village isn't the only poor village in Dairout, though it is the most deprived, and it is among the poorest villages in Egypt. The state should allocate money to develop the village, and precautions should be taken to ensure that only Baweit's inhabitants benefit from any projects that are established."
Projects suggested by El-Kilani were similar to the ones put forward by Hafez, but he also mentioned other ideas, like providing opportunities for young people to find work abroad. This would "make more job opportunities available for others here, and would benefit the state in the future," he said.
Building paved roads was also a priority, El-Kilani said. "The Sahara Road that links the village with Dairout is unpaved, and while the Dashlout Road that links Baweit with Dashlout was once paved, the road has now been destroyed by the excavation intended to provide Baweit with water pipes."
El-Kilani said that the desert land beside the village made the idea of reclaiming land or establishing factories possible.
The government was doing its best to develop Upper Egypt, but the state's resources were limited, and it could not provide everyone with employment, he said. "The government subsidises many basic products. The government makes efforts, and people complain that it is not doing enough. We are trying to enhance people's perceptions of the government in order to prevent future clashes," he said.
Decisions are made in Cairo regarding the development of villages like Baweit, and conditions there were not surprising to Amal Fekri, a monitoring and evaluation specialist at the Social Contract Centre (SCC), an organisation responsible for monitoring and evaluating projects to upgrade the poorest 1,000 villages in Egypt.
Fekri said that the village's ranking as among the poorest in Egypt made such conditions predictable. However, "something is better than nothing. The government has initiated projects and declared that it is responsible for upgrading these villages," she said.
The SCC is a joint non-profit organisation set up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC).
Fekri said that the SCC tried to ensure that all villages were provided with the same package of services. "The SCC conducts local needs assessment studies," she said, "since each village's needs are different." The results of the studies are currently being collated, the intention being to present them to the private sector and other donors.
For Fekri, Baweit was a clear example of a village where the SCC could intervene to pinpoint specific needs, "The villagers lack a lot of basic services, and they need job opportunities, sewerage and water. However, the same effort is not required in education. Generally, you will find such differences between villages."
There are around 10.7 million people living in the 1,000 villages slated for development, 4.7 million of whom are considered to be living in poverty. The 1,000 villages were chosen according to a poverty reduction plan drawn up by the ministry of state for economic development and the World Bank based on data contained in the general census of the Egyptian population conducted in 2006 and survey data on income and expenditure collected in 2005.
The first phase of the project is intended to upgrade the most deprived 151 villages, with investment at this stage reaching LE4.3 billion, an average of LE29 million per village, to be completed by 2011. The project involves setting up infrastructure facilities and specific services for each village from 12 governmental entities, including the ministries of housing, health, education and transportation.
Fekri added that 111 villages among the 151 involved in the first phase were officially part of the 1,000 poorest villages. As the project is being "implemented geographically and takes in the whole area, some villages may not be beneath the poverty line but they are upgraded as well."
According to Eman Refaat, a researcher at the SCC, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines unemployed persons as those who have not been in employment for at least two weeks.
According to this definition, the rate of unemployment in the villages included in the first phase is 3.8 per cent. However, many villagers are not officially employed in any case, and only 56 per cent have permanent employment. Others are employed on a temporary, seasonal, or intermittent basis, including as day labourers.
"I am not saying that they don't need help just because many of them do not meet the ILO definition of unemployed. People like the Baweit villagers are the reason why the Social Fund for Development (SFD) is involved in the project," Refaat said. "Both the SFD and the ministry of state for local development will give small and micro loans to the poor to establish their own projects. This initiative, alongside the other projects managed by the government, will lead to more job opportunities."
The project's first phase started in October 2008 and is supposed to end in 2011. While there have been few changes in the situation in Baweit, this is because "sewerage and water projects need a timeframe of at least two years, unlike others which take six to eight months," she said.
Refaat said that it was unfortunate that the project did not specifically target women and older people, which would have been a good idea, since these "are often the most deprived. However, the plan was to upgrade the whole area without segmenting the population. We are conducting studies of maternal and childcare in these areas, in addition to other studies aimed at marginalised and extremely poor citizens."
According to Fekri, studies conducted under the project will be done by independent research centres, in order to ensure objectivity. She felt sure that the results would be good. "The real challenge is the sustainability and maintenance of these results," she added, saying that the SCC would conduct impact evaluation studies in 2013-2015 to measure the success of the project's implementation and specify future best practices.
Fekri did not think that conditions in Baweit would radically change as a result of a three-year project, however. The problems the village faces are serious, and they have been present over a long period. Yet, she was certain that circumstances would gradually improve, and in this she echoed El-Kilani.
"It is possible to upgrade Baweit. I just want people to have patience, and their wishes will come true," he said.
"Patience" is the title of one of the most famous of the mawwal, or traditional songs, sung in Upper Egypt. Patience is also a trait of Hassan Abdel-Shafi, 105, the oldest man in Baweit. Although Abdel-Shafi can now barely see or hear, he goes out to sit on his doorstep every day, sensing Baweit's unchangeable conditions until he goes to sleep at night.
Abdel-Shafi does not believe that there have been differences in village life under the monarchy, Abdel-Nasser, Sadat, or Mubarak. The only difference that time has brought to him personally is that while he was previously able to work as a day labourer, today he receives LE80 a month in social insurance.
Abdel-Shafi is not optimistic about the possibility of development in the village, since he hasn't seen any development in the past. He has a single, very simple wish: "I just hope to have tap water in my house before I die."
The first phase of the government plan to upgrade Egypt's poorest 1,000 villages includes 151 villages from six governorates:
Minya: 30 villages
Sohag: 26 villages
Assiut: 22 villages
Qena: 23 villages
Sharqiya: 31 villages
Beheira: 19 villages
The governmental bodies involved include: the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Development; the Ministry of Health; the Ministry of Social Solidarity; the National Sports Council; the National Youth Council; the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs; the Adult Education Authority; the Social Fund for Development; the Ministry of State for Local Development; the Ministry of Education; the Ministry of Transportation; Egypt Post.