The International Herald Tribune
February 28, 2008
By Robert F. Worth – The New York Times Media Group
SANA, Yemen— By day, they sweep the streets of the Old City, ragged, dark-skinned men in orange jumpsuits. By night, they retreat to fetid slums on the edge of town.
They are known as ”Al Akhdam” – the servants. Set apart by their African features, they form a kind of hereditary caste at the very bottom of the Yemeni social ladder.
Degrading myths pursue them: they eat their own dead; their women are all prostitutes. Worst of all, they are reviled as outsiders in their own country, descendants of an Ethiopian Army that is said to have crossed the Red Sea to oppress Yemen before the arrival of Islam.
”We are ready to work, but people say we are good for nothing but servants; they will not accept us,” said Ali Izzil Muhammad Obaid, a 20-year-old man who lives in a filthy Akhdam shantytown on the edge of this capital. ”So we have no hope.”
In fact, the Akhdam – who prefer to be known as ”Al Muhamasheen,” or the marginalized ones – may have been in this southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula for as long as anyone, and their ethnic origins are unclear. Their debased status is a remnant of Yemen’s old social hierarchy, which collapsed after the 1962 revolution struck down the thousand-year-old Imamate.
But where Yemen’s other hereditary social classes, the sayyids and the judges and the sheiks, and even the lower orders like butchers and ironworkers, slowly dissolved, the Akhdam retained their separate position. There are more than a million of them among Yemen’s fast-growing population of 22 million, concentrated in segregated slums in the major cities.
”All the doors are closed to us except sweeping streets and begging,” Obaid said. ”We are surviving, but we are not living.”
The Akhdam have not been offered the kind of affirmative action programs that the Indian government has used to improve the lot of the Dalits, or untouchables, there. In part, that is because Yemen never had a formal caste system like India’s.
As a result, the Akhdam have languished at the margins of society, suffering a persistent discrimination that flouts the egalitarian maxims of the Yemeni state.
Even the recent waves of immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia, many of them desperately poor, have fared better than the Akhdam and do not share their stigma. The Akhdam who work as street sweepers, for instance, are rarely granted contracts even after decades of work, despite the fact that all Yemeni civil servants are supposed to be granted contracts after six months, said Suha Bashren, a relief official with Oxfam here. They receive no benefits, and almost no time off.
”If any supervisor wants to dismiss them, they can do that,” said Ali Abdullah Saeed Hawdal, who started working as a street sweeper in 1968. ”The supervisors use violence against them with no fear of penalties. They treat them as people with no rights.”
The living conditions of the Akhdam are appalling, even by the standards of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.
In one Akhdam shantytown on the edge of Sana, more than 7,000 people live crammed into a stinking warren of low concrete blocks next to a mountain of trash. Young children, many of them barefoot, run through narrow, muddy lanes full of human waste and garbage.
A young woman named Nouria Abdullah stood outside the tiny cubicle – perhaps 1.8 meters by 2.4 meters, or 6 feet by 8 feet, with a ceiling too low to allow her to stand up – where she lives with her husband and six children. Inside, a thin plastic sheet covered a dirt floor. A small plastic mirror hung on the wall, and a single filthy pillow lay in the corner.
Nearby, a single latrine, in a room approximately one square meter, serves about 50 people. The residents must carry water in plastic jugs from a tank on the edge of the slum, supplied by a charity group.
Abdullah said she and her family brought in no more than 1,000 Yemeni riyals a week, about $5. She begs for change, while her husband, Muhammad, gathers metal and electrical components from trash heaps and sells them.
Like most people in the shantytown, they have no documents, and they do not know how old they are.
”We are living like animals,” Abdullah said. ”We cook and sleep and live in the same room. We need other shelters.”
When the winter rains come, the houses are flooded, she said. On the cold days in winter, the family burns trash to stay warm.
The death rates from preventable disease are even worse than the nationwide average in Yemen, where overall infant mortality is already an appalling 1 in 9, and maternal mortality is 1 in 10. Most of the women among the Akhdam start having children in their early teens, residents said.
Part of the problem, many members of the community say, is that most of the Akhdam have internalized their low status and do not try to better themselves, find real jobs or seek an education. Much of their meager income goes to buying qat, the plant whose leaves many Yemenis chew for its mildly narcotic effects.
”They do not even push their children to become soldiers,” said Muhammad Abdu Ali, the director of the medical clinic in the shantytown and one of the Akhdam. ”They have given up on changing their situation.”
In the past two years, members of the Akhdam have begun to organize, creating a political front to lobby the government and seek development aid from charity groups. Earlier this month, hundreds of Akhdam demonstrated in the city of Taiz to protest their mistreatment, and afterward a government supervisor accused of stealing money from Akhdam street sweepers was fired.
But efforts to help the Akhdam have sometimes backfired. International donors have mostly preferred to work through Yemeni mediators, who have often misused or stolen money intended for the Akhdam, said Rashad al-Khader, a Yemeni lawyer who has been representing the Akhdam for seven years.
The Yemeni government has occasionally built shelters for the Akhdam, but has not provided them documents for those shelters or the land, Khader said. And it has done little to help
them improve their access to health care and education, despite a series of election-year promises to the community, according to Akhdam leaders.
Some Akhdam have found ways to improve their station. Hawdal, after working as a street sweeper for 20 years, became a supervisor, and now lives in central Sana with his wife and five children in two rooms that are relatively clean, a world away from the slums at the city’s edge.
He has sent all of his children to school, unlike most of the Akhdam, and one of them made it as far as ninth grade.
But Hawdal acknowledged sadly that all of his children had since dropped out. He was running out of money, he said. But that was not the only reason.
”They had no hope of doing anything except street sweeping,” he said.