/ 2 September 2008

Ordinary people, struggling to eat

The current food crisis is said to be the worst since the 1970s. Ordinary people across the world have been forced to make severe adjustments to their lives.

A combination of complex factors, including poor harvests, higher energy prices and unprecedented demand exceeding supplies have led to the present situation.

The world is a different place from that of the 1970s, though; it is a vastly connected and interdependent globe, highly networked, largely dependent on the dictums of the logic of globalisation, where chinks in supplies have a ricocheting effect across the globe. The following stories illustrate the effects of the food and oil hikes across the world.

Durban, South Africa
Margaret Shabalala* (85) is a pensioner and the breadwinner of her household. She lives with two of her unemployed children, who are in their mid-40s. She has four grandchildren, all high-school graduates, who, except for one, are unemployed. ”Obviously my pension is unable to cover buying the food for such a big family,” says Shabalala. ”From my pension at the end of the month, I try to buy basic foodstuffs like rice, flour, maize meal, oil and sugar. These should last us for the whole month, but that does not happen. Sometimes I am left with nothing and I can’t even go to church as taxi fares are also increasing.” — Nomkhosi Xulu

Kakola, Tanzania
Caleb Lukaka (28) works as a casual employee wherever he can. He lives with his wife and two children, aged eight and six, in a rented two-room mud-brick house. He works as a cleaner in a clinic and earns 647 shillings (R3,80) an hour. He works 12 hours a day. He earns about 150 000 shillings (R985) a month, of which 30 000 shillings (R200) goes into taxes and rent. He buys all the food for his family of four from the village market — largely vegetables with the occasional piece of meat or fish. Food costs amount to 75% of his remaining salary. —Mohamed Raiman

Cairo, Egypt
Muhammad Yusuf (28) works as a janitor. He has an education diploma, but could not find a job that uses his qualifications. He earns less than $100 (R770) a month. He is responsible for a family of eight: his parents, his wife, his baby daughter, and his younger siblings. He says wages in Egypt are ridiculously low. He works 18 hours a day and still cannot afford to get a radiological examination for his wife, who is sick. He says he cannot even describe his situation; he is ”too exhausted and suffocated from everything”. — Julten Abdelhalim

Tunis, Tunisia
Sabrina Hajri (26), a single mother in Tunis, struggles to survive. Although some prices, such as those of baguette and fuel, are controlled and subsidised, the increase in other prices is taking its toll. There is no support programme for single mothers. ”Life is very tough for us here. I don’t know how to make ends meet even though I am working hard every day cleaning other people’s houses. I am counting every cent, but food and transport and rent are exceeding the little I am making.” Hajri can no longer afford basics such as milk or tomatoes. — Sebastian Veit

Istanbul, Turkey
Derya Gundogan (56), a retired government clerk, says his pay in 2007 came to 1 200 Turkish lira (about R7 500), but a year later he got an increase of only 70 lira (R430), while fuel increased by 15%. ”After the economic crisis of 2001, all of us became economy experts,” he says. ”Today my basic living expenses have gone up to 1 300 lira [R8 100]. This is more than my income! This means we are having a diet, but an unhealthy one.” — Tamer Söyler

Damascus, Syria
Abu Maajid*, in his 80s, runs a small supermarket, selling basic groceries, cool drinks, snacks and odds and ends. He used to sell Egyptian rice (zarzour) for 30 Syrian pounds (about R4.50) a kilogram; it now costs 90 pounds (nearly R14) a kilogram. ”It will go up again soon,” he says. He used to sell 100kg of rice a week but now he sells only 5kg to 10kg a week. ”Things are really bad and people are suffering,” says Maajid, whose four married sons are all struggling to get jobs. He has not paid his last four electricity bills and his phone has been cut off. — Bilal Randeree

Jaipur, India
Gayatri Sharma (47) survives through chadhava (offerings) at the Sun Temple. Her lower-middle-class family struggle to make ends meet and maintain their social status. ”The poor can live on onions and bread. We can’t. We live on the most simple diet,” says Sharma. ”[But] the prices of oil, pulses, wheat and salt – all indispensable ingredients in Indian cooking – have doubled in just one year.” Sharma doesn’t buy fruit as she used to. Delicacies are not affordable. The family goes without an air cooler even on the hottest days to save electricity. — Nishtha Prakash and Flora Saint-Sans

Suzhou, China
Min Li* (40) has been working as a taxi driver in Suzhou in Southeast China for six years. Every alternate day, he wakes up at 7am and gets into his blue Santana car. He will work till 1am or 2am the next day, then take the day off to recover. Supporting his nuclear family was easier until last year. Since 2007, food prices have increased exponentially in China, especially basics such as vegetables and meat. The killer is the sudden rise in petrol prices, which has hit taxi drivers very hard – Min says fuel now costs ”almost one-third of our daily turn-over”. — Huang Yue

Singapore City, Singapore
KK Yeo (58) runs a transportation business. He is still paying the bond on his flat, which he bought nine years ago. He has three children in their late 20s and early 30s. He works 12 to 16 hours a day. Increased prices have drastically affected his business: he used to own three trucks and hire two to three drivers, but has had to sell off the trucks and let the drivers go. He continues to meet his target income of 3 000 Singaporean dollars (R17 000) a month, but can no longer save for ”rainy days”. Medical bills continue to soar. He comments sardonically: ”In Singapore, if you have no money, you better not fall sick.” Yeo cuts down expenses by buying cheaper food – and contraband cigarettes, which cost about half the shop price. He says: ”Everyone is doing something illegal to cut costs.” — Karen Yeo

Berlin, Germany
Firat Kurt (24) runs a small döner kebab diner, named Ali Baba, together with his father Kemal and brother Cahit, one of many families of Turkish migrants in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Business is slow. The prices of dairy products and meat are rising unbearably. Before, döner was prepared with lamb, but it is now proving too expensive; chicken will have to do. ”The price I pay for a box of salad varies from €6 [R73] one week to €12 [R147] the next. I can’t make a calculation on the basis of such chaos.” Should they raise the price of their döner? ”The competition is tough,” says Firat Kurt. ”Too many of us migrants are involved in the same business.” All Ali Baba’s seven employees are relations from the same village in Turkey. He feels they are all at the mercy of international politics. ”We are angry, very angry. Also about ourselves because we feel helpless.” — Katharina Weltecke

Medias, Romania
Dumitru Popescu* (50) works in construction. He wanted to take early retirement but the retired have the worst living standards in the country, so he keeps on working. Popescu is thankful that the bread is kept constant by government subsidies. He drives to villages outside the city to buy milk directly from farmers, paying 2,50 lei (R8,50) for one litre instead of 3,70 lei (R12) at a supermarket. ”In Romania, nobody is dying from hunger at the moment,” says Popescu, ”but I feel very sad when I see my retired colleagues fighting to survive”. — Ercument Celik

Trento, Italy
Armando Pedevilla (57) is the owner of a small transport company in northern Italy, which is affected by fuel prices. ”In the last six months the oil price increased by over €0,30 [R3,60] a litre. One single truck needs hundreds of litres of fuel daily — then you have to think that my trucks transport mostly fruit and vegetables, which, in addition, need to be stored in refrigerated trailers that work with fuel as well.” Consumers are buying less: ”Fruit, and especially vegetables, have become luxury goods,” he says. Protests against food prices are hitting Italy. Pedevilla says: ”Food is becoming so expensive that the entire population should go on strike!” — Arianna Baldo

Bogota Ortega, Colombia
Hugo* (54) says the price of fuel has increased by more than 10% in the last year. His wife’s car is becoming a burden on the family budget. He and his wife have switched supermarkets, shopping in less hygienic, but cheaper, stores. He says the supermarkets they used to go to are now owned by transnationals and prices have increased by as much as 400%. It is a misconception, he says, that just the lower classes are being affected by such shifts; the middle classes are feeling the pinch too. — Ana MacNaught

* Not their real names