Saturday, April 07, 2007

Daily Bread

I remember someone telling me once that if you have a bank account you are in the top 10% (or was it 1%?) of wealthiest people on this earth. It enables you to save or borrow money. You can manage your money and make plans for the future. Such ways of being are completely ingrained into me, since opening my first piggy bank account at the age of 5 and having to decide which sweets to buy with my pocket money, or saving up for a Michael Jackson tape.

I realised recently just how difficult it is for my colleagues to manage their money. For example: we had been discussing for a few weeks how to solve the problem of food in the office, and it was decided after much debate that all those who wanted to eat lunch could contribute 200 dinars (ie 1 dollar) a day, towards food, which the cook would cook for everyone. Everyone agreed that this was cheaper than buying food in the market. For the whole month this meant the staff would spend about 5% of their salary on lunch.

For one week the system worked beautifully, and we all sat together at lunchtime, waving away the flies and tucking in to a variety of dishes. The khawajas tended to go more for the rice and lentils and the Sudanese seemed to prefer the asida and dried fish in sauce (which my colleague has appropriately named ‘fish and snot’!). We sat around Sudanese style sharing the food from the same big plate, eating with our right hand and keeping our left hand below the table. We would laugh about who ate the most, and eat until everything was finished. Finally everyone had something to eat at lunch. For pudding there were mangoes a plenty, and more swatting of flies.

However, come the end of the second week, no-one turned up for lunch anymore. They went off somewhere during lunchtime, walking around the neighbours’ mud-huts or sitting outside chatting to the guards. I couldn’t work out the problem, did they not like the food? Were they getting ill? So I sat down with a couple of staff who finally divulged that they had no money left. It was about the 8th of the month, and everyone was broke. They’d given money to their wives and families, and so they just weren’t eating during the day. I asked if they could bring some food from home, but they said all the food was always finished the night before, there was never any food left-over.

Financial planning is an alien concept. But then again, in Sudan, if you are hungry, someone will usually feed you, even a stranger. Especially if you are a man; in Darfur the men eat out on the street and if you pass by at fatoor time they will invite you to eat with them. (As a woman it’s not so easy as you have to eat inside the compound, but someone will always help you out).

In the end my colleague and I paid for everyone's food for the rest of that month, and this month we started afresh and people have paid in advance (if they wanted to) for the whole month. So we can still all eat together. Though when it’s the horrible smelly ‘fish and snot’ dish I try to sit at the other end of the table.

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