Nawal Mohamed Khalil: interview transcript

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Nawal Mohamed Khalil: interview transcript

Nawal Mohamed Khalil lives in Dondeed, Dakahlia province, Egypt. She was aged 47 when she was interviewed on 22 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.

As in the focus group discussion, we will talk about poverty and we will submit a report about this to IFAD. Do you agree to participate in this interview?
Yes, I agree. As long as it is for the good, and as long as there is no harm, ok. We can do it.

We want to take a picture of you. And if you don't want we can only take your back in the picture. And if there is any question you don't want to answer, you can refuse it.
If there is no harm, you can take the picture as you like. We are very poor farmers. We work all day long, just to feed ourselves. Now nobody can hide anything. All news agencies write every day about the miserable life of Egyptian farmers. No one cares about the Egyptian farmer. The government doesn't pay any attention to their problems. We work all day to earn a few pounds. The pound we get is like a bar of steel which cuts our body, and all day long we work to get it and the government doesn't care.

The report won't harm you. We're talking about life in the past and nowadays.
When we delve into our life in the past we feel sad. Our life is paradise right now [by comparison].

Now could you tell me about your life: who are
you?  When and where were you born?
My name is Nawal Mohamed Khalil Fadl. I am 47 years old, I was born in Dondeed. I was the third child of my parents.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Five sisters and two brothers. My two brothers are older than me and I am the oldest daughter. My mum lost three children, two before I was born and one after. I remember that he was one year old when he died and I was four.

This, I am sure, was a very difficult experience for you?
Yes, I remember I cried a lot. I even named my only boy Osama after him.

How many children do you have?
Osama, he is 29 years old. And four girls, not to mention those who died.

Oh dear, how many children did you lose?
Two children, a boy, he was two months old, and [one due to] a miscarriage, I am not sure if it was a boy or girl.

When did you get married?
I married when I was 16.

How old were you when you gave birth for the first time?
I was 17, the first one died and then came Osama and there were two years between each child.

How was your life and the place you lived in during your childhood?
There was no electricity, water or sanitation; Dondeed was just a small village. Now it is like a city. And it has a mayor1.

How was your home?
It was built of mud. We used to rebuild it every year. But now we have rebuilt it with bricks and cement, not like the poor old days.

I mean your parents' house before you met Abu Osama.

I mean, you said that you have seven brothers and a sister. This is a big family. So, was it an easy or difficult childhood?
Easy! Not at all. [Laughs]

Most of the farming land in the village was owned by one man and my Dad was renting two acres from him. My dad and mum used to work for him as daily workers as well. It was a sort of slavery. This landowner used to take as much maize and wheat as he wished from the field. The acre was rented out at 10 Egyptian pounds (1.81 US$)2 a year and we couldn't afford it. Now it is rented out for 6000 (1087 US$), it's a big difference. I had to stay in the house to help my brothers and sisters, and in the summer I worked as a labourer. I worked every summer from when l was seven years old in the cotton fields during the harvesting season. The landlords used to hire me until sunset for five piastres (100 piastres = 1 Egyptian pound). It was slavery and there was no money. Nowadays, I hire someone to do something for me and he takes 50 pounds for one hour and a half. There is a great difference.

Did you go to school?
Yes, for three years in the primary school. I can hardly read, but I can write my name.

But why did you leave the school? Was it your choice?
I had to work in the house to help my mum and my sisters. My mum had to help my dad in his field. As far as I remember when I was a child my mum was pregnant most of the time.

And what about your brothers and sisters? Did they go to school?
Like me, all of them went for a few years and stopped. We were very poor. My dad was not encouraging us to go to school, he dreamed that he would get my brothers to volunteer in the army; and as for us, girls, he wanted us to get married as soon as possible.

You said that you got married when you were 16 years old, tell us more about that? You were very young.
Not really. It was the normal age for girls to get married… When we got married, we moved to my husband's parents' house, it was built of mud bricks and we only had to get a bed, a mattress and a carpet. We lived in a room next door to my parents-in-law's room. The same thing happened for my brother-in-law and his wife; they got married [and they stayed] in another room. But nowadays you need a flat and a fridge for 3000 or 4000 pounds. In the past, the groom had to get an old style (kerosene) lamp.

Tell us about this early time of your marriage?
Abu Osama used to work on building sites to get extra money and I used to work in the field like a man. We used to wake up before dawn and work till sunset. Life was very difficult. I used to work the whole day in other people's fields for 5 piastres. Then, [I would] come back home to look after the children and my husband. I used to take a couple of my children with me while I was working in the field. The children were young and God helped us, thanks be to God. We stayed in my parents-in-law's house for seven years; the room had become too small for us and the children. We saved some money and Abu Osama built this house. It was built with mud, but a few years later [we rebuilt] it using modern materials. Oh, it was a long journey. The price of a kilogram of meat was 50 piastres and we couldn't afford to buy it. We used to eat it during feasts only. We used to see meat at the butcher's. But now my daughters eat a lot of meat. Right now we have got bored with meat. In the past, when I went to Meet Ghamr (a city close to Dondeed) and saw fruit, I asked my mother what it was She answered me, it is only for patients. Apples are only for patients. Now we eat it, thank God, we are blessed.

What are the ages of your children now?
Osama 29, Raga' 27, Hasnah 24, Tuha 18 and the youngest, Shadia 16.

Have they gone to school?
Osama did not like the school and he left school when he was eight years old. Abu Osama also wanted him to help in the fields. We are farmers and we thought that our only son should be a farmer as well.

What about the girls?
Yes, they studied until year nine in school. But none of them has any certificate. Shadia, she is in her last year of secondary school. God help her, she wants to be a lawyer [laughs]!

Osama married and has two children. He lives with us in this house, and all the girls are married and have children, except for the youngest daughter. She is not married yet, she is in secondary school.

If you are compare your time with your children's time, what would you say?
I feel no regret for our time, but my children's time, God protect them, is sweet. They have a sweet place to sleep and sweet clothes to wear and their livelihood is very wonderful. Our time was harder.

When I was a child there was no meat because there was no money to buy it. When you work for 5 piastre, what kind of things can you buy?

I know you are a farmer; I want to ask you what kind of crops you grow.
We grow everything: spinach, onions, cauliflower, cabbage, wheat, maize,
beans, potatoes, barley, and trefoil for cattle. The most important are wheat, maize and rice. This is our main production and the food for our children.

What kind of things did you used to grow ten years ago?
The same things as I told you: rice, wheat and some things like that.

How do you sell what you produce?
We sell the remaining crops, what we grow just meets our children's needs. I usually go to the market and sell vegetables to buy the other things we need.

But vegetables are hard to sell, aren't they?
It is very hard. I get up at dawn and return home in the afternoon.

You sit in the market to sell, don't you?

All vegetables are sold, aren't they?
I sell them and then buy the stuff we need.

Is it a difficult job to do?
Yes, when I get to a spot in the market and stand to sell my stuff, they come and throw it away.

Who are they?
The other vendors, sometimes the owners of the market and at other times some staff from the municipal office. The municipal staff are the ones who damage our stuff, they come and throw it away. They come and throw our stuff away.

Men are like women in this case, aren't they? If your husband went to sell vegetables in the market, would he suffer the same?
He will suffer more than that. When any one of us goes to sell some vegetables or chickens, he suddenly sees his products taken away by three or four policemen who will take the stuff to their van. We don't know how we can get it back. And this is what upsets us.

In this case do you go to the police station or municipal council?
Thank God, I have never been there before. But do you know what will happen if someone goes to the municipal council? They will file a police report against you. The police officer usually stands and takes everything in the police van and leaves the vendors without paying attention to their appeals.

Once we were in the market before Eid ul-Fitr (three-day Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting), buying fish. It was Friday. We heard people saying that the municipal officers were coming. The strong could carry their stuff and run away, but the vendor who can't carry their stuff is the one whose stuff is taken. The municipal police took it from the vendors who couldn't run. They took everything: cloth, lambs, vegetables and everything their eyes could see. Once, I had some vegetables to sell in the market and I heard that they were coming. I picked them up and ran away.  I didn't know where to go. I was afraid. They arrested me and took all the vegetables from me.

Don't you have an agriculture cooperative in Dondeed to help farmers with marketing their crops?
The government used to take only rice and cotton but they no longer do it.
They no longer take the products. They left the marketing to the private sector, and as you know it depends on supply and demand, and so if there is a lot of supply, the demand will fall.

Are you a member of the agriculture cooperative?

Why not?
How could I be? I don't own land.

You need to own land?
Yes, it is necessary, and I don't have any.

Is there any other body to market the farmers' products?
No, there isn't. The agriculture cooperatives used to take the cotton and rice  - it was compulsory [to sell to them] - and we used to hide these things because they used to buy our products for 100 (pounds) and sell them for 200.

I want to ask you, are you a landowner or a leaseholder?
I'm a leaseholder.

How much land do you rent?
For us, for my husband, we have rented a lot of land. We rent two acres. Rented, not owned.

Is there any difference between being a leaseholder today and ten years ago?
A great difference. The rent for an acre was 200 pounds 10 years ago and 300 pounds 25 years ago and 600 over 30 years ago when Nasser's law3 was in force.

And what about now?
5000 pounds [per annum]. And if we don't work day and night, we won't be able to collect this sum. You came and saw what we do.

You have rented two acres, but what will happen if you rent three or four acres?
Land is a blessing, but we will not be able to pay the rent and if we do not manage to pay we will go to prison. The land is no longer a big issue.

What about the irrigation, from where do you irrigate your land?
From a canal, and if there is a lack of water we get it from wells. And it costs us a lot.

Has the acre's productivity increased or decreased?
It has increased, because farmers are using more chemicals on their farms; we put more chemicals as well as more fertilizers. In the old days we used to put in natural fertilizers. When we tried to dig the field, the officials filed a police report against us because we put the soil under the cattle [to mix it with their excrement]. They ordered us not to shovel the soil and accused us of stealing the land's topsoil. OK, we are farmers and we used this method for a long time.  And if shovelling the land will damage it, we won't do it. We know that damaging the land will damage us. In the old days we used to shovel the land to put the earth under cattle, and then returning it, mixed with the cattle's excrement, to the land. It was a natural fertilizer that increased our land's production. Nowadays, everything coming from the land is mixed with chemicals, if you don't put chemicals in, the seeds won't grow.

Besides farming, do you work on anything else like keeping poultry or cattle?
I go to the market and sometimes go to Tanta4 market. We are all farmers here and we can't sell to each other, so we go to urban areas to sell our crops. I take the 5 am train.

How many days do you go there?
It depends on the vegetables we have; sometimes I go every day, sometimes once a week or once a month. We have to work very hard to collect the money for the rent of our land. The leaseholder has to meet the needs of two families - the leaseholder's family and the landlord's family.

Has anyone in your family travelled?
No, not a single one.

We need each other here. And how can the illiterate travel abroad. We only have one boy, Osama, and he is uneducated. He just likes to be in the village. If he will travel to work as a labourer abroad, then it is better to be here.

Is there any difference in services, education and hospitals?
Hospitals - God forbid. When you go there, you find nothing. It is better not to go.
There is no care in the hospitals, you can say that anything that is free isn't worth care (there is no provision of care when something is provided for free).

If anyone in your family got sick, what would you do?
We go to a doctor in the town.

Why don't you go to a hospital or health care unit?
They do nothing in such places. Osama got sick once and we went to the hospital. They did nothing for him. He came out half dead, and so we took him to a private doctor who saved him. We don't rely on governmental hospitals.

What about educating your grandsons, what do you think of education?
It is nice, they can go to school. But the same thing happens in schools - what is for free, isn't worth [the provision of] care. The private teachers are taking the cream (a lot of money). If they teach children a little bit in schools, they will be good.

Do you watch television?
Yes, I do.

What kind of channels you watch?
Religious channels; we can learn something. Al Mehor channel, I am addicted to Al Mehor.  I watch to know about other people's problems, and I find out that they have more problems than I imagined and we are in a better situation than the others. When I see these problems, I say our situation is a blessing.

What kind of organizations are available that can help people?
There are places like community development societies, government clinics and charities.
Do you have any of these agencies in Dondeed?
Yes, we have a medical unit, but it is useless. It has just one young and inexperienced doctor, who prescribes one type of medicine for all illnesses.

If you have a problem, who do you go to?
Thanks be to God, we solve our problems on our own. If you have a problem getting water, for instance, Abu Osama is the one who deals with these kinds of problems.

How does he solve them?
He goes to the officials.

Who is the poorest in the community?
The poor worker. If he loses his ability to work, he won't be able to feed his children.

What is the reason for their poverty?
God knows, sometimes because there is no work, or because he depends on his physical power. And so if he loses it, he won't be able to work.

So, what can they do to live?
The good people are [not] many, and if you're very poor, I will give you a hand.

Do you think people are still giving a hand to the needy people?
No, in the old days people helped each other, but that no longer happens.

I know that you know the people in your village. So, I want to ask you about other people. If a family experiences a problem like illness or drought, what will they do?
If somebody gets sick and doesn't have money, she will have to go to the government hospital. You know if she has money, she will go to a private doctor.

Do you mean that people were poorer in the past?
Yes, but they had more ethics and values than today. Money changed most people's souls nowadays. The one who has money is the one who can walk through life, and the one who doesn't will be left behind. What can he do? Nothing!

But what is the difference between the poor in the old days and nowadays?
In the old days, poor people were supported by those who had money, but now no one pays any attention to the poor.

Who was the poor in the past and who are the poor today?
I think there are no poor people today. We became equal to each other when Gamal Abdel Nasser gave us the land and said the farmer is like the landlord. We were all equal, but now… thank God… we are equal, we are in a good situation also. It is better than our situation in the past. Some of us used to work until sunset but we now work only until afternoon.

What are the most common problems in Dondeed at present?
There are a lot. We have problems with chemical materials, water, education, marriage – which became too expensive to handle. And everyone has become envious  and wants to buy stuff like her neighbours. If one person has bought a fridge or a washing machine, the others would also like to get one or two.

You think that poverty was more serious in old days but people were different, do you?
The number of people was smaller and there was no education. Education enlightened our brains a little. It [also] made us buy more things than we can afford – like the furniture for the bride. In the past we used to buy a bed, a cupboard and two dresses, but now we bring vans to carry it. All this from our sweat and blood.

You said there is a problem with chemicals.
We want chemicals to be available in [agricultural] societies; we no longer find them there. And sometimes we find cheaper chemicals in other places.

What about the problem of water?
The government cut off the water during the cultivation of rice and many rice fields dried up because of the lack of water. And if we don't bring ground water, our plants will die.

Do you know people who are too poor to find their food?
There are many of them.

So, what do they do in this case?
Whatever they can do! Some of them work as doormen.

Do they look for another job?
Yes, they do. Like one man, he works as a guard.

I'm sorry, I'm asking you while you're busy.
No, I'm not busy. It's our pleasure.

For future, how do you see the future after ten years?
God knows, those who will live will see.

I want to ask you about Osama and your daughters. Is he in a good situation now, or will he be in a better situation in the future?
We may have a happy day or a sad one. No, it will be worse. Everything is getting expensive these days. Everything has to be bought with money, and where will they get money from? I have to save.

What can we do to make tomorrow better?
What can we do! We have to dig the ground to get our children's food.

What is the role of government?
They have to take the side of the poor. They have to solve the issue of unemployment. We will meet God sooner or later, but they have to do something for the younger generation, something that they can rely on. We hope the young will accept bribes or do something illegal. If the government could just provide jobs for the young.

What would you like your grandsons to be in the future?
Ministers [Laughs]. To be above other people and not to be in need. I don't want them to live the tiring life we lead. I want them to be educated and to find jobs, to have good teachers. This is what we want. God save them and provide them with teachers who can educate them. We didn't have education.

Do you think education is good?
It is very good, it enlightens the minds of girls and boys. It makes them know how to live. In the past, we sat at home and saw our fathers die of exhaustion. They dug these canals. My father told me that he was taken for three days to dig this canal in the village and he had to flee at night. Our fathers died from exhaustion. We are more comfortable than our fathers, and our sons are more comfortable than us.

I can see you are very busy, so thanks for your time.

Do you think it will possible to come back to you later and have another chat for half an hour.
Yes, sure.

OK see you soon and good luck  

1/ A representative of the village elected by the villagers every five years

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

3/ Agrarian Reform Law No. 178, 1952, began the process of land reform in Egypt, immediately following the 1952 Revolution under Gamal Abdel Nasser

4/ City in the middle of Nile Delta, 30 km from Dondeed