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Surviving on one dollar a day

DAROU SALAM DIOUF, Senegal - The tiny bundle of currency - one 500-franc Central African note folded carefully around two 100-franc coins -- equals about $1.40.

But Khady Mbaye clutches it in her right hand with seemingly all her might, as if she were gripping a handrail on a flight of icy steps.

What would be a pocketful of loose change for millions in the world, enough to buy a cup of coffee, is for Mbaye much more. It is a solution to the riddle posed to her each morning when a shaft of sunlight falls through the window of her cinder block home:

How will she survive today?

More specifically, how will she feed and clothe her 14-year-old daughter and herself, buy feed for her goat and two chickens, a bar of soap every month for washing, seeds to plant vegetables and make, as best she can, ends meet?

On this day, Mbaye, a thin woman with wrinkled skin dressed in a tattered T-shirt, skirt and flip-flops, spent eight hours stooped over in a field picking tomatoes - at 20 cents per basket - to earn the money clasped in her hand, enough to buy two servings of rice, vegetables and fish.

Not all days are so kind. The day before, she earned just 60 cents. And the two days before that there was no work to be found, so she returned home empty-handed.

For the week, she is on target for her average income, about 50 cents per day.

More than 1.1 billion people in developing countries wake up each morning faced with the same riddle of survival, forced to find some way to get by, like Mbaye, on less than $1 per day.

From 1981 to 2001, the proportion of people living at this level of extreme poverty dropped by almost half, to 21 percent from 40 percent of the world's population, thanks to rapid economic growth in East and South Asia, where 500 million people were pulled up from this lowest rung of poverty, according to a survey by the World Bank.

But Africa is slipping further behind. During the same 20-year period, the survey found, the number of people on the continent living on $1 per day nearly doubled from 164 million to 314 million in sub-Saharan Africa, an increase from 42 percent to 47 percent of the continent's population.

Hobbled by conflict, endemic diseases like AIDS and malaria, rapid population growth, lack of investment, and irrelevance in the global economy, sub-Saharan Africa is stumbling deeper into poverty.

During the past 20 years, the per capita gross domestic product of the continent shrank by 14 percent. Despite having about 10 percent of the world's population, its share of world trade is now less than 2 percent.

The forecast for the next decade is equally dismal.

"Population growth rates have outstripped economic growth. On current trends, the number of poor is likely to rise ... to 404 million people by 2015. What is more, 40 to 50 percent of the people in Africa are under 15 years old and that percentage is growing," said K.Y. Amoako, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, during a meeting of the commission in May in Uganda.

In Mbaye's windswept West African village, some of the forces working against sub-Saharan Africa are clearly visible. Less clear are easy solutions.

Darou Salam Diouf is about 100 miles northeast of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, one of the world's poorest nations.

Few resources

Senegal is often considered to have the best chance for development because of its history of stable democratic rule. Since independence from France in 1960, however, Senegal has limped along without much economic spark, relying on peanuts, fish and tourism.

A poorly educated population, few natural resources, poor soil and limited rainfall have helped keep more than half the population below the poverty line.

"After 40 years, there's no water, no roads, no electricity in some villages. That is not acceptable," says Laba Toure, an economist with the United Nations Development Program in Senegal.

A collection of drab cinder block homes awash in sand, Mbaye's village appears from a distance like a city that has been unearthed in an archaeological dig. There are few trees, no grass and no paved roads. It has no running water, electricity or telephones.

Like many villages in this predominantly Muslim country, Darou Salam Diouf was established as a religious community, a place where students could come for religious instruction in return for working on the village farm. Since its founding in 1956, the village has grown as former students marry and start their own farms.

Today the village has 402 residents, nearly all of them employed in agriculture, teasing tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and other vegetables out of several hundred acres of sand dunes within earshot of the Atlantic Ocean.

A long-running drought, however, has made the job harder. During the past four decades, a nearby lake has dried up, as have three of the village's wells. The one operating well has water for only a few hours each day.

Without roads, the vegetable dealers who struggle to drive across the sand to reach the village at harvest time pay less for their vegetables, knowing few other dealers will bother to make the trip.

"We know the work we are doing is not the work that will get us out of poverty, but it is the work that we know," says Modou Diouf, 57, one of the members of the Diouf family who runs the village.

Many young Senegalese men leave for the United States or Europe and become street vendors hustling watches and sunglasses. Poor young women turn to prostitution. Few people have bothered to leave Mbaye's village, however - not for lack of frustration, but because they are afraid of the dangers of the outside world.

"One man left the village several years ago, and when he bought a ticket he was cheated and returned home. Since then, everyone has stayed in the village," Diouf says.

Mbaye lives in a one-room cinder block structure topped with a corrugated metal roof she shares with her 14-year-old daughter. Inside is a double bed, two chairs, five metal cooking bowls, a tray with five battered coffee cups, a basket full of clothing, one burlap sack filled with rotting cabbages and a lone stereo speaker.

By her own admission, Mbaye is among the poorest residents here.

She moved to this village as a young bride. Her husband, a former religious student, had a plot of land he could farm. She gave birth to four daughters, and a son who died at childbirth.

Although she has always been poor, Mbaye says her life unraveled two years ago when her husband grew ill and died. To pay for the funeral, her husband's family, who had legal ownership of all his possessions under traditional law, sold a water pump he had used to water the family's crops.

The piece of machinery sold for the equivalent of $70, enough to pay for the funeral and burial. But Mbaye's finances were so precarious that the loss of the pump left her destitute.

Shrinking harvest

Unable to water her farm without a pump, she grew fewer vegetables, earned less at harvest time and was forced to look for work. But the more she works, the less time she has to farm, so her harvests grow smaller and her debts grow larger.

She recounts this story matter-of-factly, without complaint.

"It's God's will," she says

To escape from this cycle, Mbaye would need to buy another water pump - not easy when her earnings are enough to pay only for her day-to-day needs.

For the first time, Darou Salam Diouf is expected to receive assistance to help alleviate some of the poverty.

The United Nations Development Program donated a machine in March that mills millet and other grains, performing in a fraction of the time a job that takes women in the village up to five hours to do by hand. Money raised for the service is being used to give small loans to women who want to start businesses. One woman recently started a small business selling soap from her home.

Mbaye, however, is unlikely to benefit from this project. Unable to tend her farm, she no longer has the money or time to grow her own millet. She is so poor that she would not qualify for a loan to start a business.

But Mbaye doesn't think of herself as trapped. Tomorrow is another riddle. She will wake up at dawn, plod off toward the fields, her hands empty in search of the next dollar.

"God willing, I will go to the fields tomorrow and pick tomatoes," she says. "But if there's no work, I will go to my farm and see if the coconut trees are ready for picking."

For today, however, Mbaye will sleep on a full stomach. Her $1.40 bought a small sack of rice, some vegetables and a fish, which she cooks over an open fire and shares with her daughter before they fall asleep in the same bed.

"Tonight," she says, "I will spend the night in a house without any money."
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