Bou Lifa is a small village 5 kilometers away from the city center of El Kef in the northwest of the country. Few are rich in Bou Lifa. However, the Othmani family are likely the poorest. Salah Othmani, 55, the head of the household sells beer cans at 70-100 millimes on his bicycle to make a living. Othmani works hard to feed his family of three: his unemployed wife Farida, and their 10 year-old twins, Rayen and Rania, who have suffered from eye allergies since birth.
This year, like many other families throughout Tunisia, the Othmani’s were faced with a nearly impossible choice; to celebrate Eid with their children, or meet the costs of the new school year.
Thousands of students are thought to drop out of school every year for financial reasons. For the country’s educational NGOs, September is typically the hardest time of the year, as aid workers strive to return dropouts to school and ensure those from low income families remain.
2016 has been harder than most, with the school year following almost immediately upon the heels of Eid, giving families little time to manage their expenses. In previous years, families had between two weeks or a month to manage their savings and receive their monthly salaries before the academic year began. It’s a problem recognized by the national electricity company, who extended a 400 TD bonus to all its employees to help them cover the transition, sparking resentment among those receiving financial support from social services, who only received 40 Tunisian dinars from the Ministry of Social Affairs to help pay for the period.
The Othmanis spoke to Tunisia Live from their inherited home of one kitchen and a single bedroom. The construction of the restroom sat outside unfinished. The Othmanis explained the economic difficulties they faced while trying to reconcile the needs for Eid and their children beginning the school year. Rayen and Rania, the 10 year-old twins, spoke joyfully of Eid, unaware of what their parents had sacrificed for them and the difficulties they now faced in finding the means to pay for their schooling. “I cannot wait to go back to school and learn more French,” said the girl, Rania. Her brother Rayen boasted of having “eaten more meat than ever”, and expressed his excitement over returning to his science class.
“We have to pay back our neighbors for the sheep now, and the school supplies,” said Farida, 44 “and we need to think about where to get money for the medication as well, before it is too late.” Typically, the beginning of fall sees a worsening in the twins’ allergies, increasing the amount of medication the family needs to control them.
Many members of the Tunisian civil society argue nothing in Islam forces the buying of sheep for Eid. Professor and sociologist Slah Ben Fradj, said that buying a sheep “under the name of religion is an excuse,” as most people choose to give way to social pressures rather than prioritize their children’s health and education. He also noted that Tunisia is, “midway to modernism” with tradition often remaining the determining factor in how family choose to manage their expenses.
He explained how the question “What would people say (about us)?” often determines how families plan their expenditure at often crucial times of the year. Furthermore, because celebrating Eid affects one’s reputation, many choose to increase their debt rather than risk the humiliation of letting the celebration go unmarked. The Othmanis explain how it is difficult for many parents to exclude their children from a celebration the rest of the country enjoys. Salah Othmani said the main incentive that drives him to work is to see his children live an ordinary life. Slah Ben Fradj, the sociology professor, said it was only natural for families to “value their kids’ opinions,”forcing many even further into debt as they seek to satisfy their children’s expectations.
However, shortfalls in government funding of education at such a crucial time also impacts upon the choices families must make. The Othmani explained how, despite the government promises to help poor families with school supplies, the government offer of a few bags and books falls short of the school’s requirements. This year, a teacher bought the Othmani children their uniforms. However, other requirements, set by individual teachers, will still need to be paid for.
The national institute of statistics predicts an increase in the number of families living in debt. Statistics professor at the University of Tunis, Ridha Chkoundali, claims the number of families surviving on loans has grown to 90% this year. Ridha explained how “spending and consumption surpasses the average Tunisian salary.”
In such difficult times, however, communities have also shown solidarity during Eid celebrations by buying families a sheep or sharing their own for those in need.
Nourjahen is an intern in the Tunisia Live newsroom. A graduate of the US Department of State's, Yes program, Nourjahen is fluent in English, German, Arabic and Fren