Tag Archive | "Poverty"

Bangladesh Burning


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c31_0RTXQSP7From Bangladesh Corespondent Rezwan…

Bangladesh has more 4,000 ready-made clothes factories of different sizes, which are earning more than three-quarters of the countries export revenue. The world’s third-largest garments export industry employs more than 3 million workers, 90% of whom are women.

Over two decades these garments factories contributed to changing the role of poor Bangladeshi women who mostly used to work as housemaids. Although the cost of labor is low Vikas Bajaj wrote in the New York Times what positive impact this industry had on the families and off-springs of the female workers and how it empowered them.

As a developing country Bangladesh is under close scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Corporate Social Responsibility Stakeholders regarding compliance. In the past five years both CSR experts and buyers report improved labor and social compliance standards. But there are still some areas of compliance that needs further improvement. The government has been stringent on eradicating child labor and increased fire safety measures but some entrepreneurs are more keen on profit rather than improving working conditions.

The recent tragic fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd’s nine story factory building in Nischintapur, Ashulia (near the Capital Dhaka) that killed more than 110 garments workers, has raised many questions. Although the factory had a total of 335 fire extinguishing equipment and 300 trained employees to fight fire in emergency situations, there was no visible efforts to douse the flames. The fire alarm went off at right time but witnesses claimed that a number of doors were locked by the management preventing the workers from escaping.

As the images of burnt bodies emerged in the social media and in TV broadcasts many people were shocked and outraged. Thousands of angry garments workers protested today (Monday) demanding justice and better working conditions. Many netizens vented their rage in Facebook, blog and other social media asking many questions.

Rahnuma Ahmed writes:

“Fifty-nine of the 111, which means more than half, were burnt beyond recognition. I heard a firefighter say on television, the bodies had been reduced to a skeleton.”

She quotes Abir Abdullah, a photographer:

“It was difficult for me to take the photograph, disfigured still beautiful, with a small ornament visible on her destroyed nose. I felt sad to take the photo [but] at the same time I felt grief and anger inside me [I still took it wanting] to show [everyone] the gruesome portrait to [make them] understand and make the world realize, how much importance they get when dead but nothing when alive.”

Seeker writes:

Dr Kamal Hossain, a prominent lawyer and politician commented that the lives lost in Ashulia Fire Tragedy is life lost to greed, profit. He termed these deaths as evidence of life’s worthlessness on the face of commodity and business aspirations. Shocking – yes, truly shocking that this is the case in 21 Century Bangladesh. But it’s a sad reality.”

Also theories emerged as to whether this incident was a deliberate act of arson. A female worker was nabbed today in a nearby garments factory trying to arson it. She confessed to police that she was paid Taka 20,000 ($250) for this crime. The Prime Minister said at the parliament that the fire was pre-planned and interlinked with several violent incidents taking place in the country lately.

But Rahnuma Ahmed lashes at all these theories and explanations:

The problem, say BGMEA leaders, is the rush, the panic. The problem, they say, is mid-level management. The problem, they say, is the short circuit.

 “Mid-level management” is an easy cop-out, it seeks to prevent questions being raised as to precisely why people who are callous and indifferent, who treat workers like cattle, who cuss and swear at them, who lock exits, who tell the workers to get back to work when a fire breaks out, are hired in the first place. The answer is ugly. To rake in more and ever-more profits.

The stairs to the exit and the one to the storehouse were side by side, a flagrant violation of rules. As I watched BGMEA leaders blame the fire brigade for having issued safety licences, blame the factory inspector, I wondered how could they not just break down and cry? Is it because they are scared of being implicated? The “brave entrepreneur” story is a capitalist myth.

The government has declared compensations for the victims and the nation will observe the day of mourning. It also vowed to shut the factories which do not have sufficient fire escape installations. However Kuloda Roy [bn] blames the government and political parties of the country for ignoring the issue of improving the working conditions of the workers for long. He also blames the civil societies.

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Greed


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From Bangladesh Corespondent Rezwan…

The population of Bangladesh is increasing and there is a growing demand of land mass for housing. As it is already considered a densely populated country, finding empty lands for development of housing complexes can be a tough ask. Political and business powerhouses grab government and private lands and the security forces or the law can barely do anything to protect the rights of general people.

Shahjahan Siraj describes in a podcast report at Panos London how land owners are turning beggers because of land disputes:

Disputes over land are the biggest single cause of court cases in Bangladesh. It’s usually the rich and powerful who win.

Recently in the Rupganj Upazilla near capital Dhaka Bangladeshis saw another kind of land grab. Protests of land-owners turned deadly as more than 50 people were injured and one person died (three more reported missing) from the clashes with the security forces. At least 10000 people were demanding cancellation of the government decision to acquire about 5,000 bighas (appx. 1653 acres) of land in Rupganj for an army housing project. The police has brought charges of vandalism against approx. 4000 people as they torched an army camp.

According to media reports [bn] the army had established 4 camps in Rupganj Upazilla 6 months ago and were carrying out the land acquiring tasks from there. Locals said that the personnel from these camps were forcing them to sell off their land very cheaply.

The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a press release alleged that a vested group has instigated landowners and local people through spreading ‘hostile’ and ‘fearful’ rumors against army and the army housing project in the area. They denied about the existence of army camp naming them temporary offices manned by army officials to facilitate the project.

Some bloggers are reacting with anger over this incident. Blogger Dinmojur at Somewherein Blog writes in details about the army housing project (AHS) and how the army approached with the difficult task of acquiring so much land (1653 acres) for the project:

Those who have the faintest idea of buying and selling land knows one can never purchase all that land together without force. Not everyone will want to sell their ancestral house, family graveyard, and their means of livelihood. [..]
So the army took the hard path. [..] Showing their power of uniform they stopped all buying-selling of land in 24 Moujas. They had only one demand – if anybody wants to sell land then they will have to hand it over to the army. And as they had to assert power why buy at a fair price?

The blogger posts evidence that the formal approval for the project from the land authorities is still pending. But the AHS project has already received payment of installments from potential buyers – many army officers for this project. The blogger also points to the advancing business interests of Bangladesh army. A recent BBC documentary showed how Bangladesh army has become a big conglomerate.

However, blogger Osthir Prithibi has questioned the hyped criticism and negativity against the army and requested not to jump into conclusion without much information.

Blogger & journalist Maskwaith Ahsan at Somewherein Blog vents his frustration on the politics behind the incident and the blame game:

We clever people still are contemplating – there is fire in Rupganj, so what! We don’t know when this fire will spread in our houses. We stick our head in the sand in leisure and inaction and watch the breaking news counting..Nur Hussain, Richil, Jamal.. all these dead bodies…

Then the war criminals will try to exploit this incident to stop the trial against war criminals, BNP (opposition party) will try to shed some popularity of Awami League (ruling party). Because the only goal of BNP is to come to power again. The party is greater than the country. And of course the land is greater than the people.

Mustak Khasru at Somewhere In Blog writes [bn]:
The law of acquiring land in the country of 166.4 million people should be repealed. The cultivable land in this agriculture based country is decreasing exponentially. If we can’t stop it people will be hungry and turn carnivorous.
The protests of Rupganj perhaps has made Bangladeshis realize that the lower middle class has overcome the fear of army in this democratic country but the weary middle-class has to wake up.

First published in Global Voices Online. The protests of Rupganj perhaps has made Bangladeshis realize that the lower middle class has overcome the fear of army in this democratic country but the weary middle-class has to wake up.

First published in Global Voices Online.

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One Man’s Work, One Man’s Dream


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From Tanzania Corespondent Lute Wa Lutengano…

I was last in Kipengere, a sleepy village below the imposing Kipengere Mountain peak on the eastern end of the famous Mount Livingstone ranges, in the mid 60s. The village which is roughly mid-way from Njombe town to Tandala in Ukingaland, Makete used to be an important stopping stage for our rough ride from the town to our boarding school in Tandala.

It was an important stage because of the nature of road particularly during the rainy season. The rough road from Njombe usually became worse from Kipengere onwards. It was therefore important to send some scouts in advance to check on whether the muddy and slippery road had dried a bit before attempting to drive the 40 or so kilometers to Tandala through the notorious Mang’oto escarpment. Sometimes our waiting would go for days or even weeks. 

I had not gone back to Kipengere since those schooling days. It was therefore with added curiosity that I found myself driving on that same road to Kipengere last week. It was a nostalgic short visit. Many changes had taken place. The road was in a better condition and I was told the notorious Mang’oto section was being tarmaced. Actually this would be done to the whole road to Makete.

I arrived at Kipengere mid-morning and realized it was the same old sleepy village but now surrounded by large farms of wheat and maize. There was however piped water and more traffic along the road with some sleek saloon and four wheel vehicles zooming past the village.

But all life seemed to lead to the Kipengere Roman Catholic Parish mission centre. This is where there are schools, orphanages, medical and agricultural support services and naturally an imposing church. No wonder I had no choice other than turning towards to the straight, narrow and tree lined road to the mission centre. It actually reminded me of sleepy Florence, somewhere in that land of Berlusconi – Italy.

At the Centre I was interested in meeting the only person whose name is synonymous with Kipengere, if not the whole of Njombe development activities – Father Camillo Calliari. He was out on the mountain working on a water supply project he is planning for several villages, some more than 50 kilometers away.

But as luck would have it, as I drove out of the mission gate, Father Camillo arrived. The Romanian born 71 year old Italian father with graceful receding grey hair and generous beard was surprisingly sprightly fit. He is a missionary priest, like so many others doing good in this part of Tanzania. Ordained in 1965 he left for Tanzania in September 1969. Unlike other missionary priests Baba Camillo likes to do his work his way. For those who know him, he is not only a priest but also a farmer, mechanic, manufacturer and charity and development worker.

Since 1996, for example, Father Camillo has built 14 concrete water reservoirs and 250 piped water outlets in 15 villages in and around Kipengere reaching 35,000 residents. He also has 6 prefabricated ovens for bread supplied to villagers. More than 200,000 books, thousands of pens, erasers, crayons, chalks and the like have also been distributed to schools in the area.

Father Camillo, whose mission has its own hydro-electric supply system is now busy trying to expand the supply to surrounding villages by constructing a big dam, piling stringing wires, constructing four cabins for processing and turbine housing. Apart from running medical facilities the mission also has an orphanage for hundreds of children from the area whose parents either died of AIDS or other natural causes.

As an agricultural expert he runs large crop and dairy farms with his artificial zebu heifers now producing up to 25 liters of milk per day per cow. His expertise in these fields is now benefiting thousands of villagers in and around Kipengere. To cap it all, his mission is now ready for the mineral water project after successfully testing hundreds of water from the natural springs flowing down the Kipengere mountain peak.

Eight thousand kilometers from Italy, Father Camillo is not only changing the spiritual lives of thousands of Njombeans but also providing each of them with clean drinking water, medical facilities, a light bulb, a glass of milk and wheat bread on the table. Not only is he the Baba of 13,000 baptized Kipengerians but he also a true manifestation of Giorgio Torelli’s recitation “The Gospel of Toil.”

“The end of any mass,” says Father Camillo,” is the dawn when you remove the white garment worn and dive into greasy overalls and devote efforts to the most desperate. I worry though whether there will more to follow this line of duty after I pass on.”

 

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Magic On A Donkey


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From David Anthony Hohol…

Through the Colombian countryside, a man hobbles along a gravel road atop a donkey carrying with him more than a hundred books. He is tired from a full week’s work, but come his day off the first thing he does is load up his mule and head into the hills on a quest to reach as many rural villages as he can. Upon his arrival, children of all ages run to greet him. All are there for a chance to read through a book, to see pictures from the outside world, and to feel the magic of learning.

Luis Soriano, a 38 year-old school teacher in Magdalena, Columbia is a man on a mission. That mission – to save as many children from the darkness of illiteracy as he possibly can.

 “There was a time when many people thought that I was going crazy. They’d yell, ‘Carnival season is over.’ Now I’ve overcome that,” Soriano says. 

“In rural areas, children often ride donkeys or walk for as much as an hour in order to reach the nearest schools. In the end, a child has few opportunities to attend secondary school. There are so few teachers willing to teach in the countryside,” he explains.

Upon starting his work as a teacher in 1990, Soriano soon realized some students simply did not have the perquisite skills necessary to learn. Most of these students lived in rural villages, were raised by illiterate parents and had no access to books.

To help bridge this divide, Soriano decided to bring the books to the children himself. Twice a week, for the last 17 years, Soriano rises at dawn. Leaving his wife and three children, he loads up two donkeys with books and heads into the Colombian countryside.  “It’s not easy to travel through the valleys. You sit on a donkey for five or eight hours, you get very tired. It’s a satisfaction to arrive to your destination,” Soriano says.

When he arrives, the village children are abuzz with excitement, each and every time. Dozens of kids jump at the chance to learn, to read, or to listen to a variety of fictional stories, adventure tales and history lessons Soriano always has prepared.

“You can just see how excited the kids are when they see the biblioburro coming their way. It makes them so happy he continues to come,” says Dario Holguin, 34, whose two children take part in the program.

Upon coming across the story of Luis Soriano, I was immediately reminded of my childhood and what magical place the library was for me growing up as a young boy in rural Canada.

From my earliest days, I entirely enjoyed the challenge of learning. According to my mother, I was always very competitive with both myself and others, and simply loved the act of discovering from the youngest of ages. I guess I was even able recount the first several letters of the alphabet by the age of only nine months. Moreover, I would get mad at myself for making mistakes and forever wanted to know more than the person next to me. Perhaps, little has changed.

Long before I could fully understand what was being said, I’ve been told I loved to sit and listen to my mother read me stories. As I got a little older, I naturally developed a love of books. It was always a big event around the household whenever my mother would take me down to the magical place that was the local library. By the time I was three or four years old, trips to the library became a regular part of life and I so loved going there.

I often spent what seemed like hours looking through all the wonderful books stacked in the towering shelves of hope that surrounded me. Venturing off on my own, I would amble down the narrow aisles amidst a peaceful silence I could find nowhere else in my life and take in the world. Anything with pictures would catch my eye in the beginning, and I reached the height of enjoyment while stretching out on the carpeted floor to look through books on animals, movies, and famous places. I always felt as though I was off on a grand adventure, like I’d escaped that ubiquitous madness that went on at home, and during a day at the library I always felt wrapped in an edifying cloak of silken freedom. I was entirely disappointed whenever the call from my mother came announcing we had to leave. Nevertheless, I looked forward to taking some of the hidden treasure I’d discovered with me to enjoy over and over again.

After arriving home, I would most always go straight to my room and close the door behind me. Stretching out on my bed, I immediately jumped back into the world I’d brought back with me. The pages themselves always seemed even more magical when I viewed them within the confines of my room. It was as though I’d managed to smuggle in another plane of existence, and the hope and freedom that came with it, into a sometimes somber childhood. My mother has often told me, I would later emerge from my room and loved recounting my new-found knowledge to anyone who would listen. Further still, I enjoyed being challenged to do so. I guess the hunger was always there.

And this is the hunger Luis Soriano so heroically helps to satisfy. He has helped thousands of children to experience the magic of reading over the years and brought both light and hope to where once only lay darkness. In addition to the biblioburro program, Soriano and his wife have also built the largest free library in Magdalena. The library is located next to their own home and is stocked with thousands of books, most all having been donated.

“For us teachers, it’s an educational triumph, and for the parents it’s a great satisfaction when a child learns how to read. That’s how a community changes, and the child becomes a good citizen and a useful person. Literature is how we connect them with the world.”

Luis Soriano is a hero indeed.

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The Double Standard of Poverty


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dhaka2From Indonesia Corespondent Rezwan…

A man should be judged by his deeds and not on his appearance – Al Quran

Migrant laborers from South Asia have played a great role in the transformation of Middle Eastern Gulf countries like UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.  Most of construction work that takes place there consists of physical labor by people of this region, all of whom are paid only a few dollars a day for their efforts. Further still, they clean up the garbage, build the roads, live in cramped quarters many times hard to imagine, work in every kind of shop there is, and some have even been recruited by the police for community service.

In general, however, these people are looked down upon as miskins (beggars) and the bottom place of society, mainly because they’re poor. Not satisfied, people have found another way to example single out and dishonor them.

Look at the pictures below. Do you see any indecency in the photgraphs? On the left is he lungi, traditional south Asian clothing for men. On the right, a thobe, kandora or dishdash, traditional wear for Arab Gulf men. Most will look at the two pictures and see no indeceny. In fact very few will see little difference at all between the two, but believe it or not, the Sharjah Police are cracking down on men wearing the lungi (on the left) in public.

 

lungiKandora

 

An Asian man was arrested and interrogated by police patrols in Sharjah, UAE (Dubai’s conservative brother emirate) a few days ago for wearing a lungi. The man later said police told him lungis cannot be worn in public.
Sharjah Police maintain that indecent and revealing clothes are not allowed in public. “The decency law was implemented in Sharjah ten years ago,” an officer said.

He said people were expected to wear decent clothes in public, but did not explain if there was a ban on wearing the lungi in public.

Here is what an Arab male quoted in the Gulf News has to say about the Lungi:

“The Lungi is not indecent dress. when anybody lift the lungi above the thigh then it is indecent. Even kandoora can be lifted. if police found any one lifting lungi then they can take actions, but generally when anybody wear lungi in decent manner then it is wrong to object that.”

You will see a lot of illogical comments in this particular Gulf News article about the lungi being indecent and how it should be banned. It may be a poor man’s attire and be considered informal, but who decides fashion? Is Sharjah paying these laborers decent enough salaries so they can afford to the fancy thobes locals wear? What would these people say when Sharjah bans tight jeans because one can see the curves?  It may be interpreted as indecent, although it’s not revealing. There is already a crackdown on jeans in Iran.

There are certain rules about attire in every society. In Bangladesh, there are places where you need formal dress and cannot enter with a lungi. With that said, nobody should have the audacity to say that the lungi should be banned from all public places.

Illogical moral policing will not establish a good example of advancement of society. It is pure racism, this time in a new bottle.

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Top Ten Countries With the Lowest Life Expectancy


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halloween_demons_219The lottery of birth can be unforigiving at times. None of us get to choose where in the world we come into being, but for those born on the list of countries below, life is hard from the moment they arrive. Simply and harshly put, death comes to these poor souls very early. People in these countries live, on average, nearly 50 years less than those living in countries with the highest life expectancy. Huge problems like HIV infections, high infant mortality rates, and societal violence impact young people and drive the life expectancy downward. The results are the average number of years to be lived by a group of people born in the same year, if mortality at each age remains constant in the future. Each entry includes total population, as well as both the male and female components.

  • 1. Botswana  – 32.3
  • 2. M0zamique – 33.7
  • 3. Swaziland – 34.2
  • 4. ZImbabwe – 35.3
  • 5. Malawi – 35.6
  • 6. Namibia –  36.1
  • 7. Zambia – 37.4
  • 8. Rwanda – 38
  • 9. Central African Republic (the Congo) – 43.1
  • 10. Ethiopia – 43.3
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On the Verge of Chaos


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2188452373_9e77d78edaYemen is one of the most impoverished and religiously fundamentalist places on the planet. Its own government even understands the fact that urgent political and economic reforms are needed to fight the cancer that is al-Qaeda, slowly spreading throughout the nation. They recognize the fact that continued al-Qaeda militancy risks stability and will only bring problems to an already troubled country.

Poverty is conducive to an atmosphere of radicalization and with nearly half of all Yemenis living on $2 a day, millions of people feel alienated and disenfranchised. Roughly half the population is also illiterate and the nation recently ranked 182nd out of 191 countries in general knowledge aptitude tests. In other words, Yemen is prime territory for al-Qaeda recruitment. Hopelessness, poverty and illiteracy are all hallmarks of those most often drawn into terrorism.

Following the December 25th attempt to blow up an American Airline with 300 people on board, under pressure from both Saudi Arabia and the Unites States, the Yemen government officially declared war on al-Qaeda. The States and Saudi also happen to be Yemen’s two biggest donors. Al Qaeda aside, Yemen is also facing a nation wide water shortage, a secessionist movement in the south, and a Shiite Muslim revolt in the north. In other words, it is a country on the verge of both chaos and collapse.  

“The challenges in Yemen are growing and, if not addressed, risk threatening the stability of the country and broader region. The government of Yemen recognizes the urgent need to address these issues which will take sustained and focused engagement,” said a government statement.  

In an emergency interventionist meeting planned for this week, the G8 nations (Canada, the United States, Japan, Italy, France, the UK, Germany and Russia) the Gulf Cooperation Council (the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman) along with Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey will meet to discuss Yemen’s fragile and potentially hazardous state. United Nations representatives and officials from both the Word Bank and the IMF will also be present at the meeting set to take place in London. Security, health, education, and economic reform are expected to take center stage.

The attempted December 25 made the international community realize that if Yemen is left on its own, al Qaeda could transform the country into something along the lines of Somalia, the tiny nation’s lawless neighbor just across the Gulf of Aden.

From David Anthony Hohol…

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A Cry in The Wild


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LutenganoBasic human rights are often taken for granted.  Further still, hospitals to go to, schools to attend and even clean drinking water are things many of us count as the entitled norms of daily life. For many of our fellow human beings however, this is simply not the case.  Some of our brothers and sisters do not enjoy such basic human rights as liberty, freedom of expression, or personal security. Proper medical care and an education are little more than a far off dream. RELATIVTY OnLine’s Tanzanian correspondent Lute wa Lutengano pulls back the tattered velvet curtain of Africa to reveal the plight of many in his region. His words should remind those who have more to be thankful for pulling a winning ticket in the grandiose lottery of birth.     

It was cloudy and chilly morning when I walked into the offices of Mr. Alatanga Nyagawa, a charming young political activist in Njombe town in Southern Tanzania. I had gone to enquire about the several NGOs based in Njombe. And Alatanga was and is the Chairman of the association of NGOs in the district.

Sitting before him in his office was a middle aged white lady who I was to later learn was a German volunteer. Mrs Angela Gierl, told me she was in the business of helping a health centre in Uwemba – the St Anna’s Health Centre, some 20 or so kilometres south of Njombe town.

From the brief exchange we had in that office it occurred to me that Angela was gravely concerned with the life of the Centre which caters for about 25,000 in the area. In my good stride and for the sake of being polite I casually told her I would also try in my small way to assist in solving the problems of the Centre.

Angela was, to my surprise, delighted and her sad face lightened up, on getting this promise. She explained that she was sadly on verge of returning to Germany because her visa could not allow her to continue with her efforts. She would try coming again next year. We exchanged contacts and she promised to follow up with me on the matter.

That was a few months ago and I’d almost forgetten the whole incident, when the other day I received a message from one Sister Bernarda Hyera, a sister and overseer of the St. Anne’s Health Centre at Uwemba. The message reminded me of my earlier meeting with Angela.

But hers was, to be more precise, a lightening a bolt to my conscience on the plight of the Centre. She narrated to me the need for urgent assistance to the Centre which she described as being in a very sorry state. And this she explained was adversely affecting the people’s lives.

The story begins some seventy seven years ago, in 1932 to be precise, when the German Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing established a dispensary in Uwemba in the then Tanganyika. Later in 1976 this establishment was made into a Health Centre. For a long time it was supported by the families of the Benedictine Sisters from Germany . But the most of these Sisters died, and now the community consisted of mainly local Tanzanian Missionaries. 

Unfortunately and predictably they, the local missionaries and their families are poor and cannot financially support such an enterprise. With no Government support, funding has naturally decreased to an extent that the Sisters themselves do not even have salaries. Sister Hyera now says medical equipment and medicine is inadequate if not there. Premature and unnecessary deaths therefore occur because of this and even when there are referral cases, no transport in available. Poor peasants simply return home to suffer and die.

She adds that if she and her fellow Sisters could provide an improved health service, there would be fewer premature deaths, fewer orphans, higher productivity and a better quality of life. 

To illustrate this tragedy Sister Hyera writes; “In September 2009 the local medicine man came into the hospital because his 11th wife was giving birth and needed medical attention (which he, of course, couldn’t give). Then he proceeded to explain how women had come to him for medical attention and were unable to pay his fees; in compensation for the services offered by him, he married them – so he acquired 11 wives.”

This, Sister Hyerasays, is just one example of the violation of women’s rights and a direct result to the fact that the hospital is right now not always in a position to help these women. This coupled with ravaging HIV/AIDS, at 21% in Uwemba, the Centre is a lone and fragile cry in the wild, which needs everybody’s support.

“I have no doubt that with better health care, the economic situation of the population will improve; and then the patients will be able to contribute adequately for the health care they are receiving. However, there will always be a certain amount of people who are too poor to contribute, but will be treated anyway, as we do,” Sister Hyera cries out.

How to help: call 0767 725199

E-mail hyerabern@yahoo.com.

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A Kingdom’s Poverty


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beggarsSaudi Arabia brings with it thoughts of fabulous riches and extravagance. The Kingdom’s wealth is fueled by the largest oil reserves in the world and the image is often one of luxury. From the outside, it appears the average home is filled with silken draperies and chandeliers, and malls are only stocked with imported designer fashions. But for an increasing number of people, such images are little more than a fabled memory. The country that once bought billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons and helped finance American military campaigns is now mired in debt. The younger generation is struggling to simply find work and homes in the suburbs, never-mind palatial palaces. RELATIVITY OnLine’s Saudi Arabian correspondent Eman Al Nafjan takes inside the story her country’s withering middle class and the dashed hopes of Saudi’s new generation.

The minister of Social Affairs recently made a statement that there are 1.5 million Saudis under the poverty line. Everyone knows that there are poor in Saudi but to have it stated as such a matter of fact has gotten some to take notice. Two quite outspoken Saudis just won’t let it go. The first is Mohammed Al Ritayan from Al Watan Newspaper. He has written two articles on the issue. The latest was published yesterday. In the beginning he sarcastically comments on how expensive the minister’s office furniture looks in the interview photos. Then he moves on to make mathematical calculations that prove that the minister’s number was underestimated. He argues that the real number of poor is no less than 25% of all Saudis. Then he ends the article with a remark that regardless of whether his calculation are correct or not, even the minister’s number is shameful considering that Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world!

For people who have never been to Saudi Arabia, the fact that we are one of the biggest producers of oil often gives the impression of affluence. And in major tourist attractions around the world, every Saudi tourist is thought to be a member of royalty. That’s why I believe it’s important to show that that privilege and extravagance is only true for a very small and shrinking faction of Saudi society. Some of the rest are well-off as a middle-class. And then we have the majority; people living from paycheck to paycheck or some who can’t find jobs. This is a link to an anonymous blogger who has taken it upon himself/herself to contrast the wealth of our highest-class up against the conditions of the poor and some run-down government facilities such as hospitals and schools.

The growing unemployment rate and the rising numbers of households who cannot make ends meet have been a throbbing headache for those in power. Dr. Al Qosaibiwas called in to rescue the government once again as he had with the health sector but even he could not do much when up against the stubborn muttawa ideology. Every common sense proposal he tried to implement was shot down by the dogged fundamentalist.

It is depressing that in a country where there are nine million people brought in on worker contracts, many of whom are low-skill, our own Saudi youth go to waste from joblessness and idleness. Young women not being able to take jobs because they cannot afford a driver to transport them to work or they are told that their job goes against our religion and traditions. Banking jobs are believed to be unblessed by God. Hospital jobs and any other jobs that involve working with men can get in the way of a woman’s marriage prospects and are simply forbidden by many families.

Young men who have to compete in a market where a Saudi’s basic salary could get the employer three men from India, Sri Lanka or the Philippines. I know that some accuse Saudis of being pompous and lazy but I know for a fact that the majority are hardworking and hungry for opportunity. These imported workers are willing to work ten to twelve hour work days and even live at nearby cramped quarters assigned by the employer. And all at a salary that could barely sustain an individual in Saudi Arabia, never mind households. How could a Saudi compete with that?!

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