Different communities and groups of people have different ideas about what it means to be poor. In the United States, the poverty line is something like $18,000 per year, which works out to about $50 a day. Worldwide, a person is considered impoverished if he/she lives on $1 per day or less.
Here in my community, the people are mostly somewhere in between those two figures. It’s harder to measure people’s wealth here, as most are self-employed farmers whose product is not sold, but consumed within the house. Some men work outside of the community in bigger cities and have a salary, but not much of that money makes it back here. The main source of income generation is herding sheep and goats and selling them when they get big. A goat might sell for 400 Dhs ($50) while a big ram will sell for as much as 1200 Dhs ($150). Some people have smaller flocks (5-20) while there are others who have herds as big as 80 or 100. But having such a big flock doesn’t mean that you can sell them all every year. Obviously some sheep must saved in order to reproduce. So it’s difficult for me to estimate how much a family with a big flock can make, but seems to be decent money.
My host family, on the other hand, is an exception as they are on a fixed income. My host Dad used to cut wood for a logging company and now receives a quarterly pension of about 2,500 Dhs, or 10,000 Dhs ($1250) per year. That works out to $1.71 per person per day. They just sold the bull that their cow birthed for around 6,000 Dhs, but that is an event that happens irregularly, perhaps once every two years. They get milk from their cow and eggs from their three chickens. They harvest wheat and barley every year, but the harvest is only enough for half a year’s worth of bread. My family here is fairly well off. They are never worried about running out of food. They don’t have much money for extras or luxuries, but they live comfortably enough.
There are some families who are wealthier than mine, but most are probably poorer. My host cousin, for example, has no external source of income. His family has a small flock of sheep, but it’s not enough to generate very much money. Mostly they live on the wheat, barley, and vegetables that their fields generate. And they have several chickens and a cow for milk. I found myself unexpectedly at their house for dinner one day and all we had was this greasy flat bread and butter.
I am probably the wealthiest person in my village, earning 2,000 ($250) Dhs a month ($8.33/day) from Peace Corps. However, this is more money than I need here; on average I spend 44 Dhs/day ($5.5/day) on non-work related expenses. I travel far more than anyone else in my village and I spend more money on food. Also, I’ve had to furnish my house, while most people have families to inherit things from.
While life in my village is difficult for American standards, it is nothing like some of the outer communities of my commune. I recently visited a douar that was much poorer. Poorer soil quality and colder temperatures mean that they are unable to grow any vegetables other than potatoes and turnips. This also means that there is less land for grazing, so people are unable to have big flocks of sheep. Most difficult of all is the fact that there is hardly any wood in the nearby mountains for stoves. So people’s houses are cold. These people have a much lower standard of living.
In my communities, no one (that I’ve seen) is dying of hunger. It may just be bread, but I believe that people can always feed themselves. There are some health problems due to malnutrition, but not severe. Water borne illnesses are a problem, but nothing like other parts of the third world. Living in a mountainous, sparsely populated place means that most water is coming from springs without facing too much threat of contamination. As there is little access (and people don’t take advantage of what is available to them) to health care, infant and maternal health is a problem, but I don’t believe that infant/maternal mortality rates are as high as other places.
What I’m trying to say is that life in my community is hard and people are impoverished, but there are other parts of the world where it’s much worse. Getting by on subsistence agriculture and herding doesn’t provide a lot of surplus, but people do have enough to get by.
News Commentary and Update
The effect that the conflict in Gaza has on Morocco is huge. There are protests all across the country. When I was in Rabat, there was a protest there. There was also a protest in Tounfite, my 6,000 person souq town. People are angry. When I was in Midelt, someone approached me and started talking to me in English about the conflict. Then he said, “Tell your Jew friends that there is a message from Morocco. Fuck Israel.” Whoa. I saw on the news that there was a large protest in Istanbul, Turkey. When moderate Muslim countries like Turkey and Morocco are so angry, that is a bad sign.
People here in Agoudim ask me what I think of the conflict. I tell them Israel is wrong. They ask me why Israel wants to kill women and children. I say that it is an accident. Then they ask why they would blow up a school. I say I don’t know. Talk often turns to America; people ask why George Bush isn’t saying anything. They say that if America told Israel to stop they would stop. They ask why Obama doesn’t say anything and if he will when he becomes President. I say I am worried that he will not say anything.
This kind of incident really fans the flames of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. It’s the kind of thing that turns moderates to extremists. Popular opinion in countries such as Morocco probably isn’t Israel’s first priority, but given that we are trying to win “hearts and minds,” you would think that America would be a little more concerned about the lasting consequences of such a conflict. America is seen as siding with Israel and thus siding with the slaughter of innocents.
In other, more personal news, I’ve been on vacation for the last three weeks. My mom, sister and I went to Marrakech, K’lah Mgouna, Hdida, Midelt, my site, Meknes and Rabat. They flew back to America on Thursday the 8th. It was a great trip. Most of all, it was good to spend time with my family, but it was also nice to see other parts of the country. There wasn’t nearly enough time to do everything we wanted (or even everything we had planned on doing). I really like Meknes and hope to go back there. It’s a city with a ton of history, but doesn’t have the constant nagging of tourists. As someone who lives in Morocco, it can be frustrating to go somewhere and be identified as just another European tourist. But at the same time, when I was able to make connections with people, they were really excited to meet an American who lived here and spoke Tamazight.
I hope all is well at home.