Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Dirt Poor

Does poverty have a uniform? And not to be indelicate, but do poor people smell? Sometimes it seems that way although I've known my fair share of The Quality who can make the hair on your chest curl (not that I have any.) Knarf in the City blogged today about being marooned on a poorly ventilated/non air-conditioned bus which was made decidedly rank and more unbearable by the presence of a visibly impoverished family who - well - stank. He observed that just because you can't afford to buy new clothes first-hand doesn't mean that you can't buy a bar of soap. Is this always the case? Is this true for all cultures?

Now for the last 8 months, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I each taught 2 classes of impoverished children who were selected to study English on a scholarship-basis; needless to say, these students - who came from Rabat's & Salé's slums and poorer neighbourhoods - would otherwise never have had such an opportunity to invest in their own futures. And as onerous as it sometimes was to haul our asses into school for 6 hours of tuition on Sundays (and it was), it was also the most meaningful and profoundly positive experience both of us have had in Morocco. The kids were polite and sweet to the point of rotting our teeth and they were pathologically eager to learn as much as humanly possible in the short time that they were there. Their enthusiasm was boundless; their thirst for knowledge inspiring. In short, they put every rich-kid that we taught to shame.

But they also stank.

Not all of them but a lot of them. In truth, most of them. On the coldest of winter days (which aren't very cold by our Canuck standards) Mr. CinR and I were compelled to throw open windows and let the salvific fresh air waft through our lungs classrooms. It probably didn't help that our students seldom removed their winter coats until May (their own regular school rooms are seldom heated) so each student was a freestanding self-contained incubation chamber of some decidedly unpleasant odours. Re-entering a class room after break often triggered our gag reflexes. Having said that, the children and their clothes were, at least, superficially clean and always wore their 'Sunday best'; in fact, they often wore the same outfit every class probably because they only owned one set of decent clothes.

Why did they smell? Many of Morocco's poor rely on a weekly trip to the hammam (public bath) to get scrubbed and scoured and splashed clean and our classes fell on the afternoons of bath night. Interestingly, the intrepid writer at The Morocco Report - herself an English teacher - recently polled her students in order to find out what they perceived to be the worst job in Morocco. The unanimous answer: a hamman attendant. As she points out:

Imagine scrubbing the dead skin off human bodies all day long, sitting in wet clothes and sweat, pausing only for a sip of water or an orange, because for every body you scrub, you might get ten or twenty dirhams. Such is the life of a hammam worker.

Funny how going to a hammam is always touted as a must-do for the Western visitor to Morocco; this almost makes me proud of refusing to frequent these establishments. But imagine, if you will, earning possibly less than that and not scraping the backs of the Great Unwashed but rather working as a public toilet attendant. Now imagine that you are so poor - your meagre savings have been completely exhausted recovering your kidnapped daughter - that you have no alternative but to move your family of 5 into the public toilets. A temporary fix you say, and suddenly seven years have flown by. Seven years of hardship and public ridicule and ineffable frustration from not getting any satisfaction from the government.

A family living in a public toilet in Morocco have spent seven years requesting more hygienic accommodation. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and Aze Adine Ould Baja has had to endure the ignominy of having "Sidi toilets" as the official address on his identity papers.

... such was yesterday's BBC report about a family of toilet squatters who were barricaded from their 'home' (a home replete with a noxious zoo of various vermin and god-knows what airborne distempers) with cement and concrete. Why such draconian measures? What was their crime? - Mr. Baja had had the effrontery to go to the press seeking assistance in raising public awareness to their plight. Blocking access to the toilets was a bit of a double whammy: not only is a family now out on the street, but Mr. Baja no longer has the means to earn his bread - a living which had hitherto been less than $30.00 a month.

And Mr. Baja? - he just wants to get the hell out of Dodge. Of course, he has no money and no way of acquiring the legal means to emigrate so, instead, he's considering crossing the Straits of Gibraltar in the rusty hull of a freighter (which will probably be apprehended) or in a rickety fishing boat (which will probably capsize). He has run out of alternatives.

So kudos to the pinhead government bureaucrat who came up with that flash of genius. Ramadan starts in roughly 3 1/2 months - I'm sure he'll be doling out his fair share of alms to the poor with a totally clean conscience. Your Mother Theresa Humanitarian Award is waiting for you at the door.


Blogger knarf said...

I don't think that we in The West have any concept of how squalid conditions can be in the rest of the world.

I can't believe that humans can treat other humans that way.

For the sake of those poor innocent children, you'd think something could be done...

6:05 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Hopefully something will be done now that this story has hit the papers. But for every Mr. Baja & his family, how many else are out there unseen & unheard?

6:13 p.m.  
Blogger taamarbuuta said...

Excellent post and thanks for the quote. I had that same set of scholarship students over here; and going into that class after the 15 minute mid-class break was excruciating at times.

On another related and decidedly lighter note, did you know that people in the countryside sometimes wash their hair with Tide? And that apparently, the popularity of moustaches in Morocco is related to the state of teeth?

9:30 p.m.  
Blogger Okie said...

I was born on a farm in Missouri, we hand-pumped water (until we got a faucet in the kitchen) and carried it to the cookstove and heated it in a double-boiler and took our baths in a metal bathtub sitting next to the woodstove in one of the bedrooms. In the winter we were toasty warm drying off next to the stove. Can you imagine how cold it would be taking a bath (or even just washing off completely) inside a small shanty in the winter? There was one girl in my first grade class, it was her third year in first grade. She wore the same dirty calico dress each day, and she smelled so bad the teacher wouldn't get close enough to have a conversation with her much less help her. I figured she didn't have running water at home because she was scared of the faucet water when we washed up before lunch. By state law she was passed on to 2nd grade the next year, without learning to write her name or the alphabet or numbers. I brought paper and pencil to the playground that year and taught her those things and a few more words so she was very teachable. Her father was a farm-hand and they most likely lived in a small shack with no plumbling and electricity. Thank you for teaching those children despite their outer appearances. People are more than their circumstances, who knows which ones will be successful later on because someone cared????

5:30 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Thank you for sharing your comments Okie. Ever wonder what happened to that little girl?

9:01 p.m.  
Blogger Okie said...

I moved from Missouri long ago, but do wonder what happened with her life, she must have married because I read her father's obituary in a newspaper online and her last name and residence changed. Hopefully she had a much better adulthood than childhood. It couldn't have been much worse.

2:50 p.m.  
Blogger zippideedoodle said...

So you think: (1) Moroccans stink, and (2)it's their government's fault. Time for YOU to get out of Dodge and have that long awaited cocktail that you can't live without. Drink up and have a good time...elsewhere.

9:15 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Zip: Did you even read my posting? Where did I say that Moroccans stink? I believe I said that some, among the poor I have taught, do smell. That's not an indictment against the country but a fact about a specific group that I identified. And where exactly did I say that it was the Moroccan government's fault?

10:01 a.m.  
Blogger knarf said...

Even ~I~ understood what you were trying to say...


4:35 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...


8:34 a.m.  
Anonymous Racquel said...

I believe Cat's point is that there is a show of an unequal distribution of wealth. The haves-not are more likely to stink and somehow, the ones who were responsible to them aren't doing their job. That's just the point. The entry didn't mean to discriminate any race or group of people.

10:27 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To zippideedoodle: Perhaps YOU should read someone's blog first before you comment. It seems everyone else understood Cat's point.

7:44 p.m.  

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