The people the banks forgot

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Zambia: After a decade of economic advance, Africa is sliding back into poverty and people are suffering again. There are no jobs, little food and infant mortality is rising

THE name is written Misisi, but it is pronounced Missus. The land on which the shanty town is built once belonged to an Englishwoman called Mrs Cook. It is now divided into two compounds. The other, naturally enough, is called Kuk.

If there is a comedy to its name, there is precious little to smile at about life in Misisi, one of the poorest suburbs in the Zambian capital Lusaka. The fine dust blows in swirls around your head as you cross the railway line which separates the place from the more prosperous Kabwate estate. Only this is not dust. It is dried human excrement which floods the compound when the pit latrines overflow in the rain. It sinks into the ground and the fierce heat cooks it and powders it for the wind to twist in clouds which clog your eyes and nose and throat.

It is a long way from Birmingham to Lusaka. But the geographical distance is nothing beside the psychological one. In Birmingham, the finance ministers of the most powerful countries in the world gathered yesterday in preparation for the summit of their heads of government next weekend. In Misisi live the people whose future turns on the financiers' dry statistical deliberations.

Theirs is a netherworld beyond the imaginings of those who have never left the comfort of Africa's holiday highways. It is not the sights, for you have seen them on the television. It is the smell, a combination of baked sweat and urine. It is the sense of intimacy, the nearness of the walls, the tentative touching hands of the curious children and the unwavering gaze of their parents.

This is a world of desperate enterprise. Everywhere by the sides of the dirt tracks the people of Misisi try to scrape a living by selling to one another. Small boys sell dried caterpillars and locusts from raggy bags on ramshackle tables. Old women sit in the dust with tiny amounts of wild fruits set out like dusty jewels on old cloths. Those with a little capital have bought big bags of sugar or mealie meal which they have sub-divided into the minute packets which is all that can be afforded by people who buy only enough for the next meal, if they can pay for one.

There are no jobs. A handful of the men once worked in the copper belt to the north, but the mines have been shut down in the process of privatisation. With the mines went the housing, the schools and the clinics they provided. Their state equivalents never existed, or have closed under government cuts, or have had fees introduced which exclude the children of the poor.

This is the new baseline for ordinary people in Africa. For them, life has gone backwards since I was last in Zambia 10 years ago. The story is the same throughout the continent. For one billion people, development is being thrown into reverse. After decades of steady economic advance since colonial times Africa is sliding back into poverty.

The children around me were almost all younger than they looked: almost half of all African children are so malnourished that their growth is stunted. Infant mortality is rising: one in five of the children around me in Misisi now die before the age of five. Last time I was in Zambia the average life expectancy, I recall, was 56. Today it is 42.

School attendance is falling. The story is the same in health. People buy medicines, if they can, after diagnosing themselves because they cannot afford the clinic fees. I met one man whose child was ill. What was his greatest worry? He paused to think. "That I won't have the money to buy a coffin," he said finally.

What is the cause of all this? It is Third World debt. When individuals go broke we eventually draw a line under the debt and declare them bankrupt. Not so with nations. "Countries never go bust," in the words of Walter Wriston, who once led the banking giant, Citicorp, to become top lender to the Third World in those halcyon days when interest rates were lower than inflation and the poor world was told they would be mugs not to borrow.

But the world economy shifted. And nations which could not go bust have fallen into an abyss of economic degradation in their attempts to keep paying just the interest on the ever-mounting debt.

The Western world sent in its financial policeman, the International Monetary Fund, to ensure that the poor nations could keep paying. Strict "adjustment" packages were introduced to reorientate Third World economies towards debt repayment. Under structural adjustment programmes (aptly known as SAPs) poor countries have: cut subsidies on the food staples relied on by the poor; taken land from small subsistence farms for large- scale export crops such as mange tout or cut flowers; devalued their currencies, lowering export earnings and increasing import costs; slashed spending on basic education and primary health care; cut jobs and wages for workers in government industries and services and privatised public industries for sale to foreign investors.

"And still the debt is such that every one of these people owes the West $950 [pounds 594] each," said the feisty Zambian woman, Mulima Kufekisa, who had taken me into Misisi. She heads up the SAP monitoring project, which the Zambian bishop's conference has established, with funding from the Catholic aid agency Cafod. "So Zambia spends five times as much paying interest on debt as it does on education - and three times as much as we spend on healthcare."

But there is a powerful resilience in Misisi too. It was there, most memorably, in Alice Noalia who each day dons her nurse's uniform to work in a church feeding programme for 185 of the area's most malnourished children and 83 orphans. She works without pay.

She and her children live off a single bowl of the maize porridge - nshima - a day. "Life is hard," she said with devastating understatement. "Five years ago, before the SAP, everything was quite OK. We could afford bread and eggs for breakfast, fish or meat relish with the nshima at lunch, and vegetables for dinner. Now we have none of that, not even a cup of tea before bed."

All this has nothing to do with structural adjustment, Mr Gedion Njoko, the head of the World Bank in Zambia, insisted when I went to see him. It is the result simply of poverty and poor economic management by the Zambian authorities. "Who was paying for her three meals a day before?" he asked. His question was a purely economic one. It seemed, to him, to have no ethical dimension.

That is why next Saturday tens of thousands of activists - in what is expected to be the biggest Third World action since Live Aid - plan to throw a human chain around the Birmingham conference centre where the G8 leaders will meet. To remind them of the ethics that lurk beneath the economics. I would, I promised Alice, join them.