A housewife’s dilemma – coping with the increasing cost of living
Kaieteur News – April 28, 2008
By Rustom Seegopaul
“Coducta, yuh gun stop me by de corna comin’ nah,” calls out Saleema Khan.
As she climbs out of the minibus onto the street, she thinks ahead of what she has to buy at the market – a mental list of the things she needs to buy for the house and for her family. These are the things that will have to take them through the coming week, and the list is already in her head.
As Saleema ventures into the market and hears the calls of vendors echoing through the passageways of the Bourda Market, she tightens her grip on her handbag, knowing that she holds the sustenance of her family for the coming week. She is careful with this money. With the price of just about everything going up, she knows she has to spend it wisely and that she cannot afford to be robbed.
She slowly walks from stall to stall, checking each stall’s prices before she makes a purchase. She is a member of the poorer class of Guyana’s people. Like most of the others within her demography, Saleema has a spouse with a low-income job, children to feed, and a house to run.
Prices of everything all around her are rising; from gasoline to rice, prices are higher.
The only figures that are not increasing are those in her husband’s paycheck. Yet, she has survived. By cutting corners and saving the little where she can, she has managed to keep her head above the water. But for how much longer?
How will people like Saleema and their families survive, with all of the rising prices?
The prices of oil and food on the world market are rising, causing the inevitable increases on gasoline and foodstuff, increases which are felt by the common man — the man in the street. These increases are due to a few reasons, chiefly the large demand for fossil fuels by rapidly growing nations like China and India. This results in the price of fossil fuels increasing on the world market in many countries all around the world, added to which crops are being used as fuel instead of food, and the changing weather patterns worldwide which have resulted in the loss of harvests, driving the price of food up.
Within the local markets of Guyana the prices of vegetables, rice, confectioneries, fruit, and even clothing and footwear, have all increased over the past year; and, according to vendors, these prices are projected to continue increasing.
In the local markets, the prices of tinned milk, oil, split peas, garlic and onions have risen consistently over the last few weeks by between ten and twenty dollars each week. Over the last six months the prices of these items have risen considerably, and local shop keepers and vendors project that the prices will keep on rising in the year to come. This, undoubtedly, is felt by the working class and all of the Guyanese population.
However, the prices of vegetables have recently declined in some areas; this is both a surprise and a relief for consumers.
Only a few of the small-scale groceries and shops have reported a drop in sales. It is the wholesalers that are really feeling the receding sales, mainly due to the fact that the man in the street will always need to buy his food on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping small shops with a supply of business.
One shopkeeper from Den Amstel said, “Every week price gone up.” However, these smaller shops, too, have felt the brunt of the increase of prices; people are not shopping the way they used to. According to a vendor at the Kitty Market, people are buying half the amounts they used to buy previously.
“People who de buyin’ two pint a rice now only buyin’ one pint,” the vendor says. “What you woulda buy fuh last one day now gun gah fuh las’ three days,” she explains.
On the other hand, wholesalers, who sell in bulk, are finding it hard to find a steady supply of customers who have this kind of purchasing power.
While the Government of Guyana has been trying to implement measures to help cushion the blow of these increasing prices, the effect is still felt by many of the residents of the country. The Government has introduced the “Grow More” campaign, restricting rice exports to Africa (to help ensure that poultry farmers have sufficient feed stock), removing Value Added Tax (VAT) on basic food items, zero-rating the Excise Tax on diesel, and reducing it on gasoline, among other things.
Despite this, the bus fares are set to go up again. This represents yet another increase that the Guyanese public will have to deal with.
Saleema started her own little kitchen garden almost a week ago with the little space she has in her already small yard. Against her better judgment, she spent some of her grocery money on seeds and fertilizer for the garden, having faith that it would help her save some money. That week her family went without potatoes.
She has cared for her kitchen garden with diligence for the past week, but it will yet be weeks before, and if, she ever reaps anything from it. In the meantime she continues to care for the garden, hoping that nothing happens to the plants, hoping that she will be able to reap something from her efforts.
She watches the sky fearfully every day and hopes that the weather remains good, so that her garden will be able to flourish. She also worries about the health of her plants, because she could not afford fertilizer. It is too expensive, and her budget does not allow it.
Like Saleema, others have also been trying to ‘grow more,’ but they are complaining, because of the lack of support.
“They tellin’ we fuh grow more, but watch de price a de fertilizer and herbicide. They in givin’ we no kinda subsidy. How we gun plant? Where we gun find de money fuh buy de fertilizer from?”
“Chocolate, mistress?” a vendor asks Saleema.
She shakes her head and continues along her search for the stall that is selling bora for the cheapest price. She knows that her two children love chocolate, and in truth she would have loved to surprise them with some when she got home, but she cannot afford to. This is one of the many small sacrifices her family has had to make to cope with the increasing prices.
How do these people survive? How do they supplement their meagre income?
While most Guyanese know that a single income is simply not enough to get by, many work more than one job, each with its own small ‘hustle’ on the side. Relatives who live overseas also supplement their income with an occasional gift of money or foodstuff. In 2007 alone, relatives sent US$424 million to their families in Guyana. This staggering sum shows just how many families have benefited from the aid of their overseas members.
Each person has his or her own method of making ends meet. One thing is the same for all of them — they are not earning enough money to survive comfortably.
Her thoughts drift to her husband, who used to be seen at the local rum shop only on Friday and Saturday nights. Since the prices started to rise, he, like so many of his friends, has been there almost every night, drinking away their ever-shortening supply of money.
Unlike her husband, many Guyanese all across the country have been cutting back on their leisure, whether it is going out drinking, going to a night club, or just eating out. The residents of Guyana have been packing leftovers for lunch or passing up on a night on the town in an effort to curb their expenditure in whatever ways they can. The increasing prices are being felt by everyone.
Saleema knows that she has a list of things to buy and a tight budget. Seeing a vendor selling bora, she remembers that she needs some bora for the house and asks, “How much fuh yuh bora?”
The vendors selling in the market also feel the increasing prices. The words, “Business slow,” are on the lips of most vendors, as they can visibly see the change in the amount of business they get.
“Business slow bad,” Annette, a vendor in the Kitty Market says.
Another vendor, Roxanne Ferrelle of Stabroek Market, says: “We ain’t getting’ sales no more. Sales very, very slow.”
“Two hundred a parcel,” replies the vendor. She asks for three parcels, pauses for a while, then asks for two instead. Two will have to do. As the vendor puts the bora into a bag for her, she proceeds to discreetly extract the amount required from her bag. She pays for the vegetables, collects them, and continues into the market.
She stops at another stall to look at some pak choy. As she examines the vegetables on display, she glances to her left and notices a well dressed woman, also doing her marketing.
“She mussie ain’t frettin’ pun de price,” Saleema thinks, “She rich an’ she pikney mussie eating good when night come.”
But the hike in prices affects everyone. Nikeesha Persaud, who is standing next to Saleema, feels the increases in her own way. Her family used to drive two cars, now they only use one. Gasoline is just too expensive for them to run two cars. She packs lunch and takes it to work, instead of eating out, and gone are the days when her family would eat out two or three times a week.
She cooks every day when she gets home from work. It makes her a bit more tired at nights, but still it helps with the budget. Guyana has become too expensive for luxuries like eating out.
Saleema turns to leave. She still has other things to buy. As she walks away, she glances at the sky and quickens her pace. She has many other things to do apart from her marketing. Dinner has to be cooked, and there are clothes to wash.
Such is the fate of the Guyanese working class. Prices continue to rise while salaries stagnate. How will the Guyanese people cope with the difficult financial times that loom ahead of them? What will they do, and where will they turn?