KAI RYSSDAL: The incumbent president of Mali is expected to have won a second term once the votes are counted from this weekend’s election. It’ll be a neat trick if that’s what happens, because the Malian economy is basically non-existent.
Sixty-four percent of that West African country lives in poverty. Per capita income last year was $470. Do the math. It works out to a $1.29 a day. Best guesses are more than a billion and a half people worldwide live on that amount — or less.
Matthew Algeo went to one of the most impoverished corners of Mali to find out how they do it.
MATTHEW ALGEO: In a parched field on a blistering hot day, Sumantike Dumbya is hacking away at the hard earth with a crude hoe. No trees shade him as he carefully plants seeds, which, if Mother Nature cooperates, will grow into cucumbers.
After planting several rows, he lowers a bucket into a nearby well, hauls up water, and douses each seed.
This is Sumantike Dumbya’s life: In the field by 6 every morning, planting, watering and — Inshallah, he says (God willing) — harvesting. His plot is smaller than a basketball court, and everything is done by hand. Besides cucumbers, Dumbya also grows eggplants and onions. He sells the produce at a nearby market for the local currency, known as CFA [say-fuh]:
SUMANTIKE DUMBYA [translator]: If you have good luck, you can make 50,000 CFA. If you have no luck, you make only 15,000 CFA.
That works out to between $30 and $100 for the year. With that money, Dumbya buys an inexpensive grain called millet to feed himself, his two wives, and 22 children, including his late brother’s family. Yet Dumbya is lucky: At least he has a small piece of land to cultivate. All Mousa Traore has is a rickety two-wheeled cart and a bedraggled donkey.
TRANSLATOR: This is his donkey.
ALGEO: Does he have a name?
TRANSLATOR: His name is John Guinea.
John Guinea, it turns out, is also the name of one of Traore’s friends. Before dawn every morning, Traore hitches his cart to the donkey and parks along the main road in his village. If he’s lucky, somebody will need to move a load of mud bricks or some buckets of water that day, and he will earn $2 to buy some millet for his wife and eight children.
MOUSA TRAORE [translator]: But this is not very frequent. Maybe two or three days in a week I can make this.
Traore spends the rest of his time foraging for wood, which he cuts and sells. In Mali, wood is a main fuel source for cooking and heating. It’s also a reliable source of income. When the millet runs out, wood is what keeps families fed. When he’s not working in his field, Sumantike Dumbya says he forages for wood:
DUMBYA [translator]: I put the wood on my bicycle and go in the village of Senou, where I can sell it for 1,000 to 1,050 CFA.
That’s a 40-mile roundtrip — for about $2. Foraging for wood has become an environmental problem in Mali. The nation, which is already half desert, is now being deforested at the rate of about 4 percent a year.
Neither Sumantike Dumbya nor Mousa Traore can afford to send all their children to school fulltime. Technically, elementary education in Mali is free. But supplies must still be purchased, and even pencils are too expensive for some families. So, on many days, Traore’s children pass the time sitting in the shade and teasing poor John Guinea. They put some feed on the ground, just beyond the reach of the tethered donkey.
In Bamako, Mali, I’m Matthew Algeo for Marketplace.
RYSSDAL: Tomorrow, Matthew gives us a glimpse of the other side of the fence.
ALGEO: My wife and I have an annual income that is roughly 6,000 percent higher than the average Malian’s. To equal this standard of living back home, we’d need to earn more than $2 million a year.
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