Nawal Mohamed Khalil: farming, “a miserable life”

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Nawal Mohamed Khalil: farming, “a miserable life”

"We work all day long, just to feed ourselves", says 47-year-old Nawal Mohamed Khalil of Dondeed village, Dakahlia province, Egypt. She and her husband are landless farmers and can barely afford the high rent they have to pay as leaseholders, as well as providing for their family. "The leaseholder has to meet the needs of two families – the leaseholder's family and the landlord's family", she points out.

Nawal describes some of the ways in which farming has changed since her childhood. Her parents used to rent two acres from a landowner who owned "most of the farming land in the village…" and used to "take as much maize and wheat as he wished from the field". From the age of seven Nawal herself was hired to work in the cotton fields during the harvesting season. "It was slavery and there was no money," she says. "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."

Another change Nawal notes is the replacement of natural fertilizers by chemicals. "Nowadays, everything coming from the land is mixed with chemicals," she says. "If you don't put chemicals in, the seeds won't grow."

Nawal maintains the government does not care about "the miserable life of Egyptian farmers". Among other things, it no longer buys farmers' produce, having "left marketing to the private sector". Another major problem for Nawal, when she sells vegetables in the nearest town, is harassment from the local authorities. "The municipal staff…damage our stuff, they come and throw it away," she says.

Nawal is highly critical of state-run health services. About government hospitals she says: "When you go there, you find nothing. It is better not to go." And the village medical unit is "…useless" in her opinion, as "it has just one young and inexperienced doctor, who prescribes one type of medicine for all illnesses".

She is equally concerned about the quality of education offered by government schools and says that the best students are going to private schools. "The private teachers are taking the cream (a lot of money)," she says.

Nawal's oldest child, Osama, now 29, is uneducated. "Osama did not like the school and he left school when he was eight years old. Abo Osama (his father) also wanted him to help in the fields," Nawal explains. "We are farmers and we thought that our only son should be a farmer as well." However, her youngest daughter, Shardia, is in her last year of secondary school. "God help her, she wants to be a lawyer!" Nawal laughs. The shift in her attitude towards education is evident in her aspirations for her grandchildren: "I want them to be educated and to find jobs, to have good teachers," she says.

Despite the hardship of their lives Nawal says life in the past was even harder: "Our fathers died from exhaustion. We are more comfortable than our fathers, and our sons are more comfortable than us." But she is emphatic that the government should "take the side of the poor" and tackle the issue of unemployment: "…they have to do something for the younger generation, something that they can rely on."