Ibrahiem Abo Zeid: interview transcript

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Ibrahiem Abo Zeid: interview transcript

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

Ibrahiem Abo Zeid lives in Dondeed, Dakahlia province, Egypt. He was aged 55 when he was interviewed on 24 November and 1 December 2009 for the Rural Poverty Report 2011. The interview was recorded in Arabic and carried out by a staff member from the Sons of Land Association for Human Rights. The interviewer had an existing relationship with the community but was not a professional researcher.

Firstly, before we start, I would like to explain that this interview will be used as part of the International Fund of Agricultural Development (IFAD) 2011 Rural Poverty Report. This report will focus on how to reduce poverty in rural areas in the future. It will also reflect views of farmers and people living in rural areas from several countries including Egypt.

Now, do you agree to be part of this report and to be interviewed?
I agree

Do you agree to this interview being recorded?
Yes, I agree

What is your name?
My name is Ibrahiem Abo Zeid.

Where do you live?
I live in Dondeed village, Dakahlia governorate.

Please tell me about your childhood.
My childhood, Why! What is the importance of such a question?

Because we would like to make a comparison between the living conditions of the past and those of the present.
I do not think I will reply to this question.

So can you please speak about your children, your life and career?
They have a good life because of my efforts. Let me tell you that my father was a farmer. My dad had worked very hard to provide me and my brothers and sisters with a good upbringing. After I finished my Diploma, I worked in the Domiatte textile factory, but because it was far away from the village I live in, I was fired. I could not stay far away from my father and mother; I was the only source of income for them. Then I went to live in Zefta, and there I found a job in the Zefta textile factory. Unfortunately I had to leave it as well, because the salary was very low. Afterwards, I worked as a casual labourer, making chairs from the branches of palm trees. This craft was common at that time and it helped me sometimes to earn a fair amount of money.

We need to compare the situation now with what was the case ten years ago, as the report is issued every ten years. Please tell us a little about how things were ten years ago.
The last ten years were the peak of suffering for me and my generation. I am aware of the circumstances of my relatives and friends. We all have been suffering from the need which we call poverty. I would like to refer to something so simple that it can be a summary of the answers to all the questions. The Sadat pension1 was increased by Mubarak to 100 pounds (18 US$)2 . This amount cannot buy anything today, as one kg of meat costs 40 pounds. How can the family provide bread, clothing and treatment expenses? Clerks' salaries are not enough for the basic necessities of life. The last ten years is a mathana (a difficult year). In the street you will find drivers complaining about their needs. In the villages there is a recession, increasing rates of unemployment due to the use of technology and modern machinery. Furthermore, the living standards of villagers are lower than those in urban locations. Every year, prices become higher. For example, the price of a butter plate (platefull of butter; about 0.5 kg) was 6 pounds ten years ago. Today, the price has reached forty pounds. After all, the income is limited. You can say we are now destitute. We do not feel secure.

What is the main cause of the problems of your family?

But if we compare the lives of your children and the children of your generation, what do you say?
My children have access to today's needs, such as electricity, computers and television which were not available before. But we cannot compare their lives to the lives of children of wealthy people. Yes, my children today live under better conditions, but they have a bleak future.

What were the main crops that were grown in the village, and why?
Cotton, from which peasants were able to save a fixed amount of money per year. Boys and girls used to save some money by working during the harvest season towards meeting the cost of their marriage. Today, there are a lot of problems as a result of reduced acreage planted with cotton.

By the way, when did you get married?
I am 55 years old now, I married in 1981. I was then 28 years old, so I delayed my marriage due to the difficulties of the financial situation.

What is the educational certificate you have obtained?
I have a diploma.

Did your father own land?
My father has two qirats (0.035 ha) and he also rented two acres. It was cultivated with high yield crops. In addition to this, he shared a rice machine with others. In addition to that he used to sell rice.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?
We are seven children, three boys and four girls.

Did you, your brothers and sisters get the opportunity to go to school?
Only two males – my brother Ahmed and I – completed our education. We obtained diplomas while my sisters could not complete their education. They left school after the elementary level.

Because of the lack of interest in education for girls.  The percentage of girls who were allowed to go to [secondary] school after they finished the elementary level did not exceed twenty percent.

Has the status of girls changed today?
Of course, the situation of girls today is better in terms of the care and education they receive, but I can remember little from my childhood, but I remember that I was almost a spoilt child because I was the first male child in the family.

What are the general conditions in which people lived in this village in the past?
Awareness was limited due to the lack of electricity, while watching television was only available in coffee shops, where we used to pay a piastre (100 piastres = 1 Egyptian pound ) to watch TV. There was no sanitation. A small percentage of the population had direct access to clean water, while the majority needed to get water from water pumps. Moreover, most of the houses in the village - including my home - were built with mud bricks. Furthermore, the livestock shed was within the house. The population then was no more than 20,000, while today it has jumped to 70,000 people.

Tell us about the wealthy people 20 years ago?
The richest farmer in this village twenty years ago owned about 40 acres. Today, those that have more than one acre are deemed to be rich. The majority of my generation believed in education as a lever to get privileged occupations and to leave the village to work in cities.

There was a general resistance to continuing to work as farm tenants, and a general feeling that farming is a low ranking profession, while in contrast to agriculture, work in the companies and factories was seen as superior, as it ensured that workers received pensions and health insurance.

What were the main crops that were grown?
Agricultural cycle crops such as maize and cotton. The government used to provide farmers with fertilizers needed for agriculture.

What are the main problems facing farmers today?
The main problem is the government's policy toward farmers, where the government has abandoned the policy of supporting farmers and no longer provides them with fertilizers.

What about irrigation?
The problem of irrigation occurred in the village in the last 15 years only. Previously, irrigation canals met the needs of the farmers, but water became scarce. Therefore, the farmers tended to buy machinery to dig wells.

Is the scarcity of irrigation water due to the increased area of agricultural land in the village?
On the contrary, the agricultural land area has not increased, but what happened is that canal water is no longer available except one day per week

Do you know the reason for this change?
I think the government diverted the water to the desert to serve the plots of investors rather than poor peasants.

What is the crop which has replaced the cultivation of cotton today?
They cultivate vegetables to be sold in the market, while the land which is cultivated with cotton is very limited.

What was the age of marriage 20 years ago?
14 years for the girl and 18 years for the boy.

What were your sources of news?
The radio was the main source of news and entertainment, and we gathered around the radio to hear the voice of the singer Um Kalthum. The youth of the village agreed together to buy newspapers throughout the week. I bought a newspaper three days a week, while others bought for the rest of the week so we could read the newspaper seven days a week.

What is the change in the village compared to twenty years or ten years ago?
A big change is that now houses are built with red brick, with a height of four and five floors, and there is increasing interest among people in buying good furniture. Moreover, the children have improved their situation and their chances are better for accessing opportunities for education and promotion at their workplaces. In general, we can say that the villages, our village in particular, have become more a part of the city.

Is what happened a result of an improvement in people's income?
The main cause of what has happened is that lots of people travelled to work in the Gulf States since the ‘70s. At the beginning [the trend] was to travel to Libya and the Gulf States, while large numbers did not go to Europe. During this period some farmers had to sell their land so they could build houses. However, the income of those who remained in Egypt did not improve significantly.

 Is the level of education better now?
No I think education in the past was more serious and benefited the student more.

Do you want to own land?
I look forward to buying a piece of land. In the past, the land was a man's honour, now I cannot buy land, because my income is exactly equal to or less than my expenses. But certainly if there was money I would buy a piece of land, because before it was very important to have land, but everything has changed. For example, now we have a problem in the village to get a loaf of bread. Farmers no longer bake at home but buy bread from the bakery. Most recently, the government began to distribute coupons for subsidised bread in small quantities, which pushed me to return once again to baking at home, and I think that the farmers want to return to baking bread in the house if they have the financial ability to buy flour.

And how do people help each other to address poverty?
There were people who were distributing wheat, milk and cream to the poor, and there was a greater degree of social solidarity3.

So, what changed these habits in your opinion?
Capitalists, who kahrbwa (complicate) our lives and now make the necessities of life more difficult to achieve. Also, businessmen who suck people's blood. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the terrible extravagance in spending on weddings and entertainment which, if distributed to the villagers, would have improved their positions (living conditions) significantly.

What are your sources of news about what is happening in the world?
Satellite channels, newspapers, and to a lesser extent TV, I have a link to a cable TV which allows me to follow a group of channels, including Al-Jazeera.

What about the education of girls today?
The literacy rate amongst girls is almost equal to that of boys, and in the past girls did not get beyond the middle school.

In your assessment, what are the literacy rates for girls?
90% of girls today are going to school, and we have female doctors' clinics in the village, as well as pharmacies, and I personally have two daughters in the Faculty of Commerce. I know that higher education in general was rare in the past, and today higher education has become more widespread.

What is the importance of education in your opinion?
It enables you to know your rights, and deal with the law of your country, so most parents are making a great effort to educate their children.

What is the main challenge in front of them?
Skyrocketing prices.

Currently, which is more important: to have land or get a job?
Ownership of land is the most important thing because it will provide me with an income, as long as financial aid is available so that I can spend on the land.

What is the area of land that could generate income?
Not less than one acre and a half if I am to live a decent life.

And what are the crops that you will grow?
Maize, wheat and rice, because they provide key inputs for a living.

What is poverty, in your opinion?
Poverty is that I'm not able to provide a decent life for my family, not able to provide the necessities of life.

What is the income necessary to achieve a decent life?
2000 pounds (362 US $) per month.

What is a decent life?
Not to have outstanding debts to anyone. And I can meet the needs of my family for food, clothing, etc.

What are the causes of poverty?
Billionaires, who control the country's wealth, and the decisions of the Minister of Commerce and Industry, which have led to higher prices of basic commodities such as electricity and water. This is happening at a time when there are increasing rates of production and an increase in the number of factories. Moreover, the high prices have not been accompanied by an increase in income, and ration cards and goods that are distributed to low-income people do not meet the main needs of the people.

But what is the main cause of poverty?
Higher prices as a result of decisions that are biased and made without research being done.

In the past there was no electrical power, and most activities were associated with agriculture. Today the literacy rate has risen as well as women's employment which will generate income. Also the conditions for children have improved. How can you say that poverty rates are rising?
Because families deprived themselves of the necessities of life so that they could provide lessons for their children, as well as the impact of travel to the Gulf as we mentioned before.

Did the changes also affect the types of food people eat?
In the past we depended on butter and cheese, but now the situation has changed. Chickens are being sold at a reasonable price and the needs of the children have changed. We live in a different age.

What are your fears for the future?
I am very concerned for the children; there is a glimmer of hope in front of them but I think the situation is heading for the worse.

Who is poor?
Those who do not have land to provide them with the necessities of life, and who do not have a job to provide them with a stable income.

What is the source of your income now?
I work as a correspondent for several newspapers.

I apologise at the outset about the following embarrassing question: what is the average income you receive per month?
It cannot be determined exactly.

Who are the poor?
People who are living on subsidies, and those whose skills have become out of date, such as copper workers.

What is the effect of the law No. 96 on the relationship between landlord and tenant?

Are there any major projects in the village?

What are the activities that people work in?
Besides agriculture, there are trade activities, especially trading of clothes. There are many boutiques. The village has the largest proportion of people enlisted in the Egyptian Army, and they receive reasonable salaries, and this has led to higher prices, bringing the price of a qirat of land to 25,000 Egyptian pounds instead of the 20,000 that it was a couple of years ago, and pushing the price of rent per feddan (1 feddan = 0.42 ha) up to 400,000 or 500,000 Egyptian pounds.

If you were the decision maker, what are the decisions you would take to improve the situation of the people?
The establishment of major projects to exploit the huge human potential in our country.

What do you need to achieve that?
We need organizations working to change the status quo.

Can you tell us about your experience with disease?
When I feel sick I go to a clinic, I pay 5 pounds. But the drugs are expensive; I never go to the health unit because the doctors there are not professionals.

How do people deal with this situation?

[The first interview ends]

Follow-up interview with Ibrahiem Abo Zeid (12 December 2009)

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by us again. This time it will be a short interview, we will ask you a few questions.

You said that nowadays more children in the village go to school. How many schools are there in the village now?
During my childhood, Dondeed had only two primary schools. Today, we have four primary schools, two middle schools, two secondary schools, and three Al Azhar's institutions. For higher education, students have to go to Al Mansoura University.

You also expressed your concerns about the future of your children. Could you explain more?
I believe that the main problem facing my children and other children in the village is unemployment. We have a lot of young people who have finished their universities (university courses) and yet they are still hanging around the village with no jobs. This problem will not be solved unless the government encourages these young people to establish their own businesses and projects. The second problem is drugs. It seems to me that now many children as young as 15 use drugs, and this problem is linked to unemployment and the lack of hope for the future. I have worked very hard to keep my children away from drugs. Twenty years ago, drug consumption was very rare in the village, but now most of the youth in the village take drugs, such as hashish and marijuana.

Have you, or any member of your family, travelled abroad for work?
Neither I nor anyone else in my family has been abroad. I have a son and two daughters, and it was very difficult for me to leave them (the daughters) as well as to leave my son, to travel outside of Egypt. Of course, travelling abroad would have provided me with the financial resources to build a better house, like it did for a lot of families who did so, in addition to buying some luxuries of electrical appliances and furniture.

Is there any reason for this?
I did not want to leave my family and kids alone. I preferred to stay close to my family rather than to travel after money. I know a lot of men who travelled abroad for work and made a lot of money, but when they came back to the village they found that their children had become drug addicts or had left school. I did not want that to happen to me and my kids.

In the previous interview you said that the population of the village has jumped from twenty thousand to seventy thousand people in the last 30 years. How does this increase affect people's daily life?
When I was young, about 30 years ago, most people in Dondeed were working in farming and few of them went to work in big cities like Cairo or Alexandria. Also, the farming area in Dondeed has shrunk considerably because people are building houses in this area...and the village is no longer big enough to accommodate the growing numbers of people. Today, there are a lot of villagers working in Cairo and other surrounding cities. The village has changed a lot; most people in the village do not work in farming anymore, because there isn't enough land. During the 1970s, all the village houses were built from mud bricks and were mostly one floor. My parents' house was in the middle of the village. I remember when I used to stand on the roof of the house I could see the fields and farmland. Now the new houses are as high as seven floors and are built of modern materials, with all facilities such as water, electricity, sewage [disposal]. Moreover, in the past the houses filled with all kinds of insects, but today they have become cleaner.

What kind of projects does the village need?
We need to establish plants for manufacturing fertilizers or for drying vegetables. We can set up these plants, either through the establishment of a cooperative, or by obtaining support and funds from the ministries concerned. I believe that these projects will employ a lot of youth in the village and can solve the problem of unemployment.

What was the impact of the abolition of subsidies on agriculture, farmers, on the rural community and on the society in general?
The suspension of state support for fertilizer has led to an increase in crop prices, which has affected consumers negatively. As a consequence, the prices of food commodities have risen accordingly. Often when crop production becomes more than is required by the market, the farmer becomes forced to sell at a lower price than the cost.

In your previous interview you said that you work as a reporter. Is this your main source of income?
No, in fact I write for a monthly news bulletin based in Meet Ghamar. Because it is a small bulletin I do not receive a regular income from them… maybe a couple of hundred Egyptian pounds every two or three months; it depends.

So what is your main income? Of course you do not have to answer this question.
It is not a secret. As I told you before I make furniture from branches of palm trees. I also receive some pension. 

1/ A monthly benefit paid on a means-tested basis to the elderly poor aged 65 and over.


2/ Average exchange rate (5.52Egyptian pounds = 1 US$) November 2009, Interbank rate,source: www.oanda.com

3/ Interviewer's note: Most of these people are rich individuals in the village who donate food and clothes especially during the holy month of Ramadan. It also refers to some Islamic charities operating in the village and nearby villages.