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What it's like to live on $1 a day

A Malawi family budgets 16 cents for doughnuts

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.

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."