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Living on $1 a Day

Selina, her husband, and four children are among the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day -- what the United Nations calls 'extreme poverty.'
 
 
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At 8 a.m., after seeing her husband off to work and her children off to school, Selina Bonefesi puts on her entrepreneur's hat. Mrs. Bonefesi has a small business making fritters -- fried cakes made of wheat, salt, sugar, and yeast.

She'll spend the morning mixing, waiting for the dough to rise, and frying, cranking out as many as 300 of the tasty treats and selling them from her home to passersby. By the end of the week, between her household chores and running her business, she'll have logged more hours than a Fortune 500 CEO.

But she'll only earn about $1 a day.

Selina, her husband, and four children are among the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day -- what the United Nations calls "extreme poverty." Many of them are in Africa. Some live in rural villages, others in urban shantytowns; some can be found in the deserts of Chad, others in the jungles of the Congo. Yet Selina's family in Malawi is typical: they have limited education, little access to jobs or capital, and are ruled by an indebted government that lacks a coherent plan for helping its poorest citizens.

The Monitor visited with Selina to learn how a family of six lives on so little -- and to hear from them what would be most helpful from the richest nations in the world. Selina's message is quite simple. "Monetary help is needed," she says. "We want iron sheets on our houses. We want capital for our businesses."

In a typical week, Selina will make 1,125 Malawian kwatcha, or $9.09, in fritter sales. With the $5.17 that's left over after she buys supplies for her next batch, she'll purchase food and amenities for her family and tuck away $1.25 into savings. Her annual earnings, combined with her husband's earnings as a farmer, will give the family of six, after business expenses, about $453 to live on this year.

Selina married her husband, Bonefesi Malema, when she was 16 and took his first name as her last. Selina's fritter business is meant to be a buffer against hard times, warding off the insecurity that comes with each growing season. Selina says her contribution is only to "take some of the financial strain off my husband and to help his farming business." But this year, Selina is the main breadwinner.

The fruits of her labor are 150 small fritters and 150 large fritters, which will sell for about $.02 and $.04, respectively. Her customers are her neighbors, schoolchildren hungering for a midmorning snack, and people headed to the market three miles past her town. They all know Selina's house and yell out to her from the yard for service with a smile.

With the exception of the trip to the market to buy supplies, Selina's entire business -- preparation and selling -- is done within the confines of her house, allowing her to continue her primary role as the caretaker of her family. "Some women have had problems with their husbands when they engage in economic activities," she explains. "Those are the women who neglect their family duties."

Some weeks, Selina may be able to make two batches of fritters, doubling her take. But with nearly 15 percent of Malawians HIV-positive and life expectancy at 37.5 years, funerals often occur twice per month, and require donations and communal labor, dipping into her work time.

Selina has been in business for three years. In 2001, the Malawi country office of Care International, a private volunteer organization based in Atlanta, Ga., targeted the 10 most destitute women in Selina's village of 333, just outside the capital, Lilongwe, for a road-maintenance program. The women received economic and personal-empowerment training in exchange for their labor. Selina qualified for the program, learning how to save money with the group and start her own business. The women have now saved $125 for things like fertilizer to boost their husbands' harvests.

Three miles to market on foot

On a new day, Selina walks the three miles to the market. With the money that's left over from buying $3.92 worth of fritter supplies, she'll purchase fish ($.24), tomatoes ($.08), and practical items -- soap, lotion, and salt, for a total of $.51. Trousers and two blouses for her youngest children tally $.50 after bargaining down the price. Next week she'll give her son $1.25 to select his clothes but will spend up to $1.60 on her daughter, knowing the importance of an attractive wrap. She motions to the brightly colored cloth that covers her legs. "If a woman has more than one of these, then she is a real woman," she says.

When Selina returns at dusk on tired legs, her children run to meet her. They tug at the parcel she has balanced on her head and unveil four doughnuts. While the treats cost a total of $.16 -- about half the cost of dinner -- any mother could understand why she splurged. "I bought them so that when the kids are coming to meet me and calling, 'Ma! Ma!' I can have the pleasure of giving them something to make them even happier," she says.

With the fish and tomatoes, Selina will make a special porridge supper. Usually they will eat porridge garnished only with dried pumpkin and bean leaves, picked from the surrounding area in season and dried for use throughout the year. Greens from their garden also provide some variety to their meals. But because the diet is generally bland, Selina says, "I do struggle to get a little tomato for flavor." If they ever find themselves with extra funds, Selina and her husband will treat themselves to luxury items: a liter of milk for $.38, a loaf of bread for $.50, or half a pound of beef for $2.50.

The family has precious few belongings, all bought from the local market -- a pail for water, a handmade lamp, and some plastic chairs that they hospitably lay out for visitors not accustomed to sitting on the hard-packed dirt. Several years ago, after a particularly fruitful harvest, Bonefesi bought his most powerful possession: a bicycle worth $50, which is used to transport tobacco from the field. He also enjoys a radio he bought for more than $4.

Living on One Dollar a Day

Bonefesi farms both tobacco and maize on his three-acre holding. He laid out a whopping $67.87 for fertilizer this year and will struggle to see returns on his investment. Bonefesi will pay an entrepreneurial neighbor with an ox cart about $2 to bring his harvested maize to the house. He treats the crop in his storage shack with a chemical solution to keep away termites, which runs him another $1.62. Bonefesi hopes to receive $21.25 for each of three 110-lb. bags of maize that he harvested this year -- $63.75 total.

While tobacco requires more input than maize, it's an export crop so the reward is greater. Bonefesi will shell out $2.42 for tobacco seeds, $.81 to use a tobacco press, and $4.04 to transport the goods to the auction house. He will be content if he receives around $100 for his one bale of tobacco.

The income from Bonefesi's farming activities will total $197.07 and will yield $118.29 in profits this year. With this, Bonefesi can pay for the $75.14 in annual family expenses that Selina's earnings do not cover, including school uniforms and fees. This does not leave much margin for investment in business, or for emergencies like funerals, illness, or a low return on crops.

Fortunately, the sale of 15 of the family's chickens will add $36.36 to the kitty, as well as protein to Selina's dishes. They don't eat the eggs -- they would rather let them mature into full-grown birds. This year they could save about $175, some of which they will put aside for harder times.

Children help out

While all the children pitch in to help in the fields or by selling fritters, Anne, the oldest daughter, bears the brunt of the household chores. While her 19-year-old brother, Sifiledi, attends 11th grade, she stays home to help her mother. Anne completed 8th grade, the last free year of public school, but her parents cannot afford the cost for 9th grade.

They do, however, consistently pay Sifiledi's yearly tuition bill of $29.09 and a per annum of $6.46 for school supplies and smart pink-and-blue uniforms for the three school-going children.

Bonefesi proudly tells of Sifiledi's ambition. "He would like to work in the government in the rank of official," he says. They hope that if he continues to study he will achieve his dream. Anne has ambition, too. She would like to be a nurse. While the children will hope to earn more than their parents, the majority of teens will remain in the village as farmers and housewives.

Selina and Bonefesi's economic situation is like many families in Malawi, where 65 percent of the population of more than 11 million live on under a $1 per day. The couple talks about the realities of their village, which sits close to the international airport. It has a murky well filled with gray water, distant hospitals, and scarce and expensive fertilizer. "We do struggle to live a good life like others but we fall short each and every day," Selina says.

While Selina and Bonefesi will continue to work diligently at their businesses, Bonefesi wants Western readers to know: "It is good to live in Malawi, but poverty is the real struggle. If there are other countries that are willing to help, let them help us fight poverty. Poverty is the biggest enemy we know."

Xanthe Scharff is a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor .