A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Have you ever drunk water out of a pesticide bottle?
Have you ever drunk milk out of a Clorox bottle?
Do you think this is improbable?
It is not; I have done this many times during the 18 years that I spent living in my home village in Taiz.
It was normal for us to reuse everything, including bottles, clothes, the remains of car spare parts, and any other manufactured product.
A feeling that you will never get except when leaving the village is the normalization of poverty, which makes you numb to all that happens around you without feeling the unfairness, despite the many forms of unfairness experienced that you have seen in people’s eyes over decades.
If you have a little bit of milk, which is made into buttermilk in the village, that will be enough to build a whole meal around. You could add dry bread, or even asida, a porridge made from flour, hot water, and salt. This has been the case for decades, even centuries.
In this world, a can of beans is seen as a luxury, while a can of pineapples or peaches would be the best gift you could give when visiting an ill friend. Once they have been used, the cans cannot simply become waste, except in the homes of people who are well-off; instead, most people will repurpose them.
This familiarity with poverty has made people unable to differentiate between one government and another, or one regime and the next, with the only measure of a better government being the price of a bag of grain, a tank of oil, margarine, or sugar.
We used to get through these necessities until there was nothing left, with the metal containers of margarine being used as homes for pigeons, to plant flowers and other beautiful plants, or to make cars for children. The wheels of these cars would be made from shoes that had been completely worn out, and they would be molded using a heated metal can used to cut a circle out of the shoes.
Many of the people in the village never had spools of thread, for example, and most of the thread that was used to sew or repair clothes was that which had been used to sew bags of flour, sugar, or salt shut. These were strong materials that would stand up to the wear and tear of daily life and the rough roads in the village.
The roads needed plastic shoes, the sort that are often used by people around the world as bathroom slippers or for vacations on the beach. This did not, however, stop local companies from creating plastic shoes for residents of rural areas. No one would ever throw out their shoes after they were torn the first time; the fate of these shoes was to be continuously repaired using a knife that had been heated on an open fire. It was as if we were reliving the times of wars in the distant past, when arrows were pulled out and the wounds were cauterized using swords heated over a fire.
The life cycle of the shoes did not end there, and there were people who passed through the villages collecting the plastic shoes that were beyond repair or use, taking them to a plastic factory in the city to be melted down and used again. It was a good deal to trade in your old shoe for a small piece of candy. The grandmothers would also gather the worn-out shoes for when the shoe collectors came, selling them for pieces of cheap chocolate.
Shoes were not the only things that someone could collect and take to factories to recycle. There were also collectors of metal cans, soda cans, and brass. These were regular visitors to rural areas, and they would be welcomed with hospitality whenever they came. There were no restaurants in rural areas, but their passing through the village streets would be enough for them to be invited to share a meal, or, if they went to pray in a rural masjid, they would receive hospitality and would be allowed to sleep in there and given the necessary bedding.
As for glass juice bottles, they had many uses. Some were used to make lanterns. We would make a hole at the top and put in a metal rod with cloth, made of cotton or some other rough cloth, wrapped around it, with tobacco, so that it could be used as a light source.
We could also use these bottles as containers for homemade margarine or for milk from sheep or cows; this was due to the scarcity of milk. The cows and sheep of the village are not as generous as one might think, and most people would gather milk over two or three days to make buttermilk. This buttermilk would then be used for a few or more families in the village. The plastic bottles could be used for decorative floral arrangements.
I would be euphoric whenever I got a quarter of a liter of milk in a Clorox bottle as a reward for guarding the qat plants all night. In that moment, I would feel very lucky.
Everything had a use. Pineapple cans, for example, were used as a standard of measurement for traders and the residents of the village, and they would use this measurement to buy basic necessities, like sugar, rice, grains, flour, and artificial fertilizer. Some would use scales, but most people would use these cans, and this unit of measurement was called a nafar.
A can of beans could also be used for a number of things, including as a unit of measurement that was the equivalent to half a nafar, while the unlucky cans would be used as a wind barrier for the tobacco pipes on top of the mada’a (a Yemeni water pipe), an item that almost every household in the village had.
The most in-demand glass bottles in rural areas are the Vimto soft drink glass bottles, because they are the most popular. They are used to contain homemade margarine and honey. These bottles are preferred by honey sellers, and honey is sold in bottles, not in kilograms, with a bottle full of honey being more or equal to a kilogram.
Even the ashes left behind from the coal can be reused, and some people would use them to wash fabrics, or use them during special occasions. While celebrating national holidays, like the anniversary of the revolution or the national day, ashes would be mixed in with kerosene and molded into small balls that would be placed on the edges of the roofs of homes. At night, they would be lit; they were called tanseer.
As for food waste, it was very rare, almost non-existent. Whatever bread remained would be kept for later meals and leftovers. If it was difficult to eat, it would be a gift to the nearest cow, whether it was the family cow, a neighbor’s cow, sheep, or even cats and dogs. Even the water that had been used to wash dishes, which included scraps and pieces of food, would be given to the cows.
In the village landfill, there was nothing to be found, except for maybe the batteries used in flashlights. These batteries would not be disposed of until they had been to ensure that they were beyond revival, and if the people had found a way to reuse them, they would have.
There would just be some ashes, plastic wrappers from locally produced chocolate or biscuits, and some bags that were no longer usable.
To the reader, it is clear to see this is a beautiful image of the environment: but, at the same time, it shows a lot of need for the same comforts enjoyed by those who drown city landfills with waste.
What about cloth?
This is another story.
Clothes are used until they are worn out beyond repair. Throughout the life of an article of clothing, it is sewn and repaired until it reaches the point where it can no longer be worn. Then, it is divided for use for various ideas and needs. The ma’waz (a traditional lower garment worn by Yemeni men), for example, starts its second life as a pillow cover, a bed sheet, or as a school bag. This was the worst part of the school experience, where children would be ridiculed for having one of these bags, giving them either a thick skin or they succumbed to bullying. If they refuse to take the bags, they were beaten at home.
It is not rare to see a window covered with the remains of a ma’waz, a man’s scarf, or a worn bed sheet, and when food was given out, it was wrapped in the remains of a ma’waz or an old scarf. This was a sign that the food was well-protected.
Most Yemenis have probably lived through these, or similar, conditions, but one never appreciates their value until they see how strange they are to others. When talking to someone who is not from Yemen about fetching water from a source at the top of a mountain for 15 years, and that a single trip would take half of an hour, reaching two or even three hours during the winter, just to bring 10 liters of water, for the listener this would be one of the strangest things they had ever heard.
The rural areas have stayed the same. There might be some changes due to the flow of cheaper goods into the country in general, but the war has exhausted the simple people of the rural areas, taking them to conditions much worse than the conditions they had been in. Tens of thousands of expatriates have returned from Saudi Arabia due to the economic measures implemented there, which has only increased poverty. The non-payment of the salaries of employees in large sectors has also impacted these areas, while remittances to rural areas, whether from laborers in the cities, especially those in the southern governorates, or from Saudi Arabia, have significantly decreased.
Many of the people living in rural areas have a frugality that stays with them, even if they leave for the cities or travel abroad. They try to get the most use possible out of everything, doing things that later become stories for their children, who will never know the details of village life. Even then, their eyes continue to tell a story from another time.
Rural life continues to provide the first lesson in dealing with difficult conditions. It provides a means of support that many rely on to bear difficulties in their lives, especially when having to leave this life behind.
Ghamdan Alyosifi, a journalist who holds a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Mass Communication, University of Sanaa. He worked as a reporter for several Arab media outlets, including Okaz and Elaph, and was the editor-in-chief of (Rai) newspaper. He managed the website of the National Dialogue Conference and spoke about Yemeni affairs in TV channels as well as international conferences. In addition, he wrote in various local and Arabic newspapers.
All photos are courtesy of Nasr Yaseen