Akhdam: A look into lives of Yemen’s untouchables
For hundreds of years, a group of people living mostly along Yemen’s coastal areas have been regarded as lower than dogs. Reporter Amanda Fisher and photographer Leslie Pableo visit the communities of Akhdam to find out whether government assurances of equality are more than just lip service.
Published: Thu 23 Jan 2014, 12:15 AM
Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:19 AM
The American Civil Rights movement was victorious decades ago, apartheid consigned to the ranks of history, and India’s caste system outlawed. We are living in a generation where the international law of human rights supposedly reigns supreme. But, close to home, thousands of Yemen’s marginalised “untouchables”, the dark-skinned Akhdam people (‘servants’ in Arabic), sweep streets and beg for money by day, slinking back to their slums at night.
View of a Sana’a Akhdam slum. -KT photo by Leslie Pableo
As we drive to our first slum, I am struck by how salubrious everything appears – until I step out of the car. We are greeted by a dense fog of sewerage and humanity, looked upon as alien by suspicious eyes. As we get closer, cracks begin to show in the rows of low-slung Arabic dars. Broken windows into shattered lives.
The first woman I talk to, Saad Al Waisai, tells me the community — who prefer to be called ‘the marginalised ones’ — were forced to relocate to this outlying area of town by the government seven years ago to make way for new roads. An inspection of her squalid three-bedroom home reveals no furniture, beds, bathroom, running water or appliances, save – oddly – for a broken washing machine sitting in the hallway. The stark rooms measure about nine metres squared, each sleeping between nine and 10.
“The old house was big but the government gathered us and put us in a small house and put us with two other families.”
We have visited on Islamic New Year, which explains why so many people are milling around outside in the mid-afternoon sun. We are surrounded by dozens of curious residents, making it difficult to tell who lives in the house and who is an interested onlooker. The community numbers about 1500 similar houses, with between 15 to 30 people living in each.
Saad’s teenage son – one of her 10 offspring – has been the main breadwinner for the household since her husband died five years ago, somewhere between the age of 40 and 50; they don’t really know. The man’s death certificate shows he died from kidney and liver failure, one of the realities, Saad says, of a life drinking the fetid ground water.
Saad’s son sweeps the Sana’a streets each day from 6am to 5pm, hauling in a wage packet of 27,000 rials (Dh460) each month. Today is a rare day off.
“It’s a special day here and I get to be with my family.”
The rest of the family asks “rich people” for money, scraping together between 300 to 500 rials every day to supplement the income.
Is it difficult to make ends meet? With the characteristic philosophy of those born with nothing, Saad tells me: “As long as your bed is, stretch your legs”, adding “we haven’t got any choice”.
She says rife government corruption means the aid donated by international charities hardly ever reaches them.
“If an organisation gives us aid, the government takes it from us.”
The daily diet consists of rice and water. Meat is not an option.
“Almost every day we are suffering from hunger.”
The living conditions almost certainly contribute to widespread poor health. Another woman, Samer Rasid, who lives in one of the rooms with her husband and seven children, shows me an ultrasound scan. Several weeks ago she learned she has an ovarian tumour.
“I had been sick and I thought it was serious.”
She had been bleeding vaginally for a year before she got to hospital. The diagnosis is one thing, but now she says she cannot afford the cost of the medicine needed to treat the cancer.
“I’m worried about myself, but I’m more worried about my children,” she says through tears.
“I have no food (but) my mother is still strong and can go outside and ask for money.”
She says if something does happen to her, she hopes her mother will take care of the rest of her young family.
Education does not appear to be offering much of a golden ticket, either.
“(Our children) go to school, but it’s useless. They go and come back without any education.”
Yemen’s Sawa’a Organisation for Anti-Discrimination is a local organisation fighting for better rights for the marginalised communities. Executive manager Ashwaq Aljobi tells me while the official estimate of the population is about 1.5 million, his organisation, through field visits, estimates there are more than 3 million. He says the men in these communities, situated primarily in Sana’a but also in Abyan, Hodida, Hajja and Taiz, usually have multiple wives – married young, producing many children, and causing rapid population expansion.
Just how these Arabic-speaking Muslims came to reside in the country is up for debate, though they have been there for centuries. The organisation says it is likely they are ancestors of the Al-Ahbash tribe, originating from modern-day Ethiopia, who took control of Yemen in 525AD assuming native Yemenis as slaves. This prompted resistance groups which toppled Al-Ahbash and forced them, in turn, to become slaves – where they have stayed.
While the plight has probably been one of the longest humanitarian issues in the country, it is by no means at the top of the agenda for a government fighting wars on many fronts.
Orgsnisation head Fouad Alalawi says the Akhdam are a minority in the country of about 24 million, which kneecaps their progress.
“When their issues are compared to other issues in Yemen, the government gives priority to issues relating to the majority...such as displaced people from internal wars, refugees from African countries and others like Syrians, as well as (dealing with the threat of) terrorism...so their historic exclusion remains constant, (while) the government does not absorb them officially, only in the cleaning sector.”
The government denies there is any policy of discrimination toward the group, and has even said the reason they are not significantly represented in any other occupation than cleaning is because they are unreliable.
“One day a Khadem (singular form of Akhdam) may wake up to find that his car won’t start, so he will spend the day fixing it instead of going into work,” the assistant deputy mayor of Sana’a, Mohammed Al Eryani, told the UN humanitarian news agency IRIN last year.
Alalawi says the fact hygiene work in the country, such as street sweeping, is the almost exclusive domain of the Akhdam makes them feel unfairly treated by government, as well as private industry.
The government has little interest in the group and “their presence among this group is confined to election seasons,” Aljobi says.
And while others in Yemen may feel for the community, few are doing anything to actively change preconceptions – one of which runs in the form of a popular saying: “Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by a Khadem”.
Aljobi says while some Yemenis have praised the peaceful protests of the Akhdam community and recognise the community’s rights, “if we come to the truth, those people themselves may refuse to allow their children to play with children of the marginalised or allow the marginalised to live in their neighborhoods or to inter-marry”.
He says the only way to break the cycle is to make education for the marginalised community’s children compulsory – a fundamental mission of his organisation. While the Akhdam community has the same equality of access to public education as the rest of the population, he says most do not make education a priority.
“The spread of poverty and illiteracy among this category to a great extent make them content with educating their children to the first grades only, then the head of the family pushes his sons to work, beg or go to neighboring countries in search of (a better) living.”
Instead, the largely uneducated population are sitting ducks for Yemen’s many criminal gangs or, worse, terrorist recruiters like the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a stronghold in the country – a frequent target of American drone strikes.
“As this group suffer complete social isolation, reinforced by building housing units separated from the community and limiting them in specific sectors of work, education will bring good qualifications through which they can get jobs in new sectors that may bring some sort of integration of this group and contribute to its development...Without a focus on education for this group we will continue moving in the mirage,” Aljobi poetically states.
Back at the slum, Saad does not have much to believe in.
“We believe in God to save us from this life…but the Yemen government is useless.”
I ask Saad what she sees when she looks into the future. “It’s dark. We have no hopes, we have no dreams. We expect only death.”