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Living Below the Line, my initial reflections

I’m taking the 5-day “Live Below the Line” (the poverty line) challenge to raise awareness about extreme poverty across the world and to try to glean a sliver of insight into that experience. Essentially, the challenge is to spend 5 days feeding yourself with $1.50 a day – the U.S. equivalent of the extreme poverty line in order to give a glimpse into the lives of 1.4 billion people who have no choice but to live below the line every day – and who have to make $1.50 cover a lot more than food.

Day one of the “Live Below the Line” challenge isn’t even over yet and I’ve already encountered an aspect of living on $1.50 a day that I should have thought of but never had before. I had planned out two pieces of fruit and a bowl of koshry for the day. Koshry is an Egyptian fast lunch served in large and cheap quantities from local foul and falafel stands, comprising of macaroni, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, onions, chickpeas, and peppers (I always get it without macaroni to make it gluten-free friendly). However, after eating my apple for breakfast something did not sit right and I threw up while walking to school. The culprit remains unidentified and thankfully I felt much better afterwards and went to classes. Yet that was my allocated breakfast. When thinking about living below the line, I had always associated food and drink, and understanding the hypocrisy of living in our nice apartment and going to university because it stretches so far beyond the reality of those who must actually survive on $1.50 per day. But sickness disrupts the fragile equation. Being sick engulfs so much more than an inconvenience. Grappling with illness and poverty has occupied my mind before but always intense and life threatening illness or small ones that without treatment become life threatening. A mere stomach bug, and even blimp of one like mine this morning, took away 1 of my meals today and I cannot replace it. That made me stop, breathe and think about the ramifications of missing meals, missing work, needing to care for a dependent or loved one, and how quickly it must all torrent out of control.

Now Egypt has unique components that make this challenge special. I can definitely find cheap food. From local fruit and veggies stands produce is cheap and just requires clean water for a good scrubbing. Outside of cooking at home, my options are limited to grab and go sandwich shops, where the variety is foul, mas’a, and fried foods, and koshry. Then of course there are all manner of unsubstantial foods sold all around, such as chips, sweets, and candy bars. Depending where in the city I am, more specifically what kind of building I am in, some tap water is safe. Over the last month, I’ve been easing into drinking tap water from my apartment. Before that it was all bottled or boiled water. Most Egyptians do not have this same concern but even though I can drink the water in my apartment that does not mean the water in the local cafes like me, a lesson I learned the hard way from drinking fresh juice from a glass washed in local water, rather than a plastic cup or bag few months back.

Another reason living below the line is special in Egypt, though I will not witness it, is the cultural tradition surrounding the religious practice of Ramadan. Every night during Ramadan, Egyptians gather on the street at large tables welcome to everyone to feast for free. This month of fasting during the daytime actually results in feeding Egypt’s malnourished consistently for at least that period. My Egyptians speak of the beauty of Ramadan, of seeing a community lace together on the streets, around food, religion, and individuals. As one Muslim pointed out, Islam heavily emphasizes taking care of the community, in particular the hungry, and how misplaced it is to only truly carry the burden of hunger and eliminate it from the streets during the one-month. If Egyptians can support one another during Ramadan, then why stop there? I hope to come back to see Egypt’s unique celebration of Ramadan.

Tomorrow I have fewer classes and I plan on cooking rice with a cheap veggie or two, rounded out with boiled water, just to be sure not to tempt an upset stomach two days in a row.


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