Poverty, sickness and discrimination in the country s forgotten region
MINYA: Whenever the subject of Upper Egypt pops up in any conversation, images of a certain degree of poverty and a primitive lifestyle always come to mind. For years, I ve heard about the distressing conditions of the country s poorest region and the brutal sufferings that have become an everyday reality for the south s residents. I had never gotten the chance to visit the notorious countryside of the south until recently when a certain charity group invited me to accompany them on one of their regular expeditions to the governorate of Minya. Based on my experience with the unplanned housing of Cairo, I thought I possessed a preconceived knowledge of what the south would be like, but nothing of what I ve witnessed in Cairo could ve prepared me for what I was about to encounter.
My impression of Minya wasn t far-off from the average Cairo resident s conception: a large governorate containing a strong sugarcane and cotton industry, a well-known major university and plenty of beautiful scenery. However, what Minya, once dubbed the Bride of Upper Egypt, is in reality is a decaying city with a huge population and an alarming degree of underdevelopment.
The sugarcane industry of the governorate is currently the only prominent business found there and the factory employs a large number of workers. New factories for other industries, such as plastic and livestock fodder have been recently established in New Minya City, yielding limited success so far. According to the city s locals, business in Minya, unlike Cairo, takes a few years to produce any significant profit due to the static, slow economic environment of the entire governorate. As a result, a large number of new school and college graduates struggle to find an available job in any available field in their hometown. For these young men, and their families, their only salvation lies in the prospect of leaving their town for Cairo or, if they re lucky enough, for Sharm El-Sheikh or Hurghada.
Minya City, capital of the governorate, differs drastically from the countryside. The capital is more vivacious, more civilized and the degree of literacy is higher than the rest of the governorate, while the residents are a tad more open about the rights of women and the relationship between males and females.
On the other hand, everything about the countryside feels and looks prehistoric, as if all the social and scientific revolutions that have taken place over the centuries never occurred.
The towns of Bani Mazar, Samallout, Maghagha, Abu Quorqas and others look generally alike: tiny shabby houses of one room or more filled with an average of six to eight members all crammed in the same room with their cattle, extremely narrow alleyways with stray dogs roaming everywhere and dozens of little naked kids sleeping outside their homes.
Some houses are roofed by bundles of straw with gaps, while others don t even have the luxury of such rooftops. The majority of the people we visited in these villages didn t even have a bathroom; instead, a tiny place that resembles a container called a bayara acts as a toilet and is usually cleared every couple of weeks. It doesn t have a specific place in the house and is created wherever an empty space is found. But even the bayara isn t available in all homes; some residents such as 70-year-old Aida Shawky and her husband are forced to walk all the way to their daughter s house whenever they need to use the bathroom.
Beds are another scarce item in lots of Minya villages; Nady Rizk is one of the many locals who don t even have a mattress to sleep on. His father, Aziz Rizk, lives in a more primitive state with no electricity, very limited lighting sources and a house that could be easily mistaken for a grave.
The most radical crisis of all though is the absence of proper uncontaminated water. Most villagers resort to the mucky water of the Nile through conventional water pumps or directly by filling their buckets with river water. Water taps are considered a luxury item among these farmers and are found mainly in city houses.
The result of this lack of sanitation and the lack of awareness of its critical importance is well known: the spread of a wide range of fatal diseases ranging from cancer, liver disease, blindness, tumors, to the most prevalent disease of rural Egypt, bilharzia.
The patriarch of the family remains the caretaker of his wife and children, so when the father or husband is struck by disease, the family finds itself in a harsher degree of poverty. Om Ibrahim, for example, found herself pleading for help from civil institutions and charity groups after her husband, who used to work as a cattle driver, was diagnosed with hepatitis C and couldn t continue to work to feed his seven kids after his health deteriorated.
The lack of sanitation isn t solely confined to the countryside inhabitants but also to hospitals and other health institutions in Upper Egypt. A few years ago, a wedding was held on the rooftop of one of the old houses of Al-Fashn city in the governorate of Beni Sueif when it suddenly collapsed, killing three children and injuring several others. Two of the wedding guests, Nadia and Nabil, ended up with broken legs and were transferred to the Beni Sueif Hospital. Doctors and nurses immediately splinted their broken limbs without cleaning out the dirt and blood and, as a result, the two ended up having their legs amputated.
Another striking fact about these villages is the awfully low wages and pensions these villagers receive. The average farmer receives LE 6 to 8 per day and most of them have difficulty finding a landowner to offer them work on a daily basis. Some are not even privileged enough to receive such an amount of money; Fawzeya Thabet, a mother of nine who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and is married to an unemployed man, has no actual source of income except for the LE 2 her daughter earns everyday from working in a cropfield and depends upon the kindness of strangers.
Pensions range between LE 40 to 80 at most for the entire family, which, for a family of seven or eight, hardly covers their basic food expenses. Moreover, bureaucracy still rules the governmental institutions and some have to struggle to acquire this pension. Martha, a 32-year-old single unemployed woman with a diploma in commerce and no siblings, has been attempting to obtain her pension from the authorities for months since both her parents passed away, but the social services haven t responded so far.
Medical treatment, which the government is supposed to provide for its sick, represents another complex dilemma. Apparently, those who are qualified to receive free treatment from the government are those with crippling diseases that preclude them from work. The criteria the governmental employees use to decide who should be granted such treatment is unclear.
Furthermore, one of the biggest myths the Egyptian media has tried to persuade us of is how education, and nothing but education, is the solution for eliminating poverty. The level of literacy is on the increase and more families enlist their children in schools every year, yet, the level of poverty remains stagnant and ignorance hasn t diminished as the education system doesn t teach kids anything significant and barely provides them with practical knowledge that will help them improve their lives.
Additionally, tension between Muslims and Christians still reigns in Upper Egypt. Minya residents wear their religion on their sleeves; verses from the Quran are painted on many of the Muslim villagers front doors while it s rare to find a Christian house without icons or pictures of saints. Most of the poor farmers don t possess actual overt animosity toward members of the other faith, yet they consistently keep their distance and avoid mingling with one other. Nevertheless, the richer and more educated maintain a larger distance and the majority don t have favorable opinions of either the other faith or its followers.
Few charity organizations, such as t
he Wadi El-Nil Association or the Coptic Evangelical Association, serve all religious sects with no discrimination whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, underprivileged Muslims receive aid mainly from Muslim civil organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood and mosques while Christians rely on the church and other Christian charity groups. However, there s always an exception to every rule and there s no better example than Haj Salah El-Samaloty, a religious Muslim owner of an artificial limbs factory in the governorate of Sohag who donates his products to both Christians and Muslims based on requests admitted from a Coptic charity group. El-Samaloty, a simple, smart and very warm-hearted man said Discrimination is against my beliefs. I m doing this for God and God won t grant me his blessings for sure if I choose to help Muslims over Christians.
El-Samaloty s work is remarkably impressive and thoroughly acknowledged by both Muslim and Christian communities. Yet, what El-Samaloty does is just a drop of water in a large desolate land. The government s role in fulfilling the basic needs of its people is small and perhaps it s impossible for any government to magically resolve the problems of these millions. Dr. Hoda Awad, a member of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, agrees, The current situation is beyond the capacity of the government, she said. But the government does have the ability to act more potently if it allocates its resources more efficiently, setting clear and urgent priorities. That, unfortunately, might never happen unless the country s civil society grows stronger to the extent of acquiring a position whereby they re able to force their demands on the government, she added. Nonetheless, not only is the civil society not strong enough to hold such authority, they re also not organized appropriately and their agenda has yet to include clear benefits for the general public.
Another issue is the minor role the private sector plays in reducing poverty. The private sector is ignoring their social responsibility, Awad said. You can t expect a major change in poverty stricken places in Upper Egypt to occur when the key interest for these businessmen is maximizing profit.
As for the political parties, their role in enhancing the lives of these millions is almost non-existent. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, who is known for their social activities, isn t doing much in these areas, she added.
On my last day in Abu Quorqas, I met up with a girl called Nozha, one of five daughters of a widow who was left without a single extra pound after the death of her husband. Nozha is about 15 to 16 years old and possesses a remarkable penchant for painting. The misery and inhumane conditions of their situation were nowhere reflected in her face; instead, she was calm, cheerful, and, like the greater percent of the people I met during the expedition, always thankful. What I ve witnessed was a small piece of a bigger, more harrowing picture of an unfathomable reality. Egypt is not the slums of Cairo or a segment of The Yacoubian Building, this is the real Egypt.