Making a living and moving out of the ranks of the poor

Date: January 1, 1970
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Elizabeth Scott may be a victim of the violence of poverty, but this Namibian woman is trying to break this damaging cycle by doing what is normally regarded as man?s work on the streets of Windhoek.

Elizabeth Scott may be a victim of the violence of poverty, but this Namibian woman is trying to break this damaging cycle by doing what is normally regarded as man’s work on the streets of Windhoek.

In her 48 years, Elizabeth Scott has experienced much, but little of it has been easy and the opportunities coming her way have been slim.

With basic education, a working life filled with poorly paid, informal jobs and no stable home environment, Scott has now found a temporary refuge and a more regular income selling The Big Issue Namibia, a monthly magazine sold on the streets of five Namibian towns by the homeless and unemployed.

Scott, whose cultural heritage includes Damara, Herero, English and German, had to leave school after Grade 9 (Standard 7) because her father, a foreman on a farm in eastern Namibia, could not afford to pay for her to complete her education.

“My mother died when I was 9 and I was one of 12 children,” she explains in her native Afrikaans. “I am just grateful that I got Grade 9 at least. Some people don’t even have that. Some kids grow up on the streets and that’s where they stay.”

After leaving school, Scott worked as a casual at a clothing store in Windhoek. Part-time cashier and sales jobs followed thereafter and, in 2001, she began doing informal house-cleaning work to make ends meet.

“It’s been difficult to get permanent work without a matric (Grade 12),” she says. “And being over 40, it’s also getting hard to find part-time work, especially in restaurants.”

But it was no bed of roses, either, doing domestic work, for which there is currently no stipulated minimum wage in Namibia. “One family was paying me N$400 a month for cleaning three full days a week. I left that job this August this year, because when I was sick for two days, they took off N$100 from my salary. I can’t work for so little money,” she says, adding that she wants to take her former employers to the labour court for unfair treatment.

The Big Issue Namibia has been a small light in Scott’s working life so far. She has been selling the magazine since August 2003 and is working towards her dream of owning her own house.

“The hours are good – I can sell the magazines when I want to and I am my own boss. I can make more money selling The Big Issue Namibia than I have been able to working as a cleaner,” she says of the project which aims to assist the marginalised enter mainstream society by providing them with a means to make a living, as well as offering counseling, skills training, art and writing, and literacy classes.

Vendors buy each magazine from The Big Issue Namibia depot for N$4 (R4) and sell it on the streets and outside shopping centres for N$7,85 keeping the profit and any tips their customers may give them.

“The money I earn by selling The Big Issue helps me meet my daily needs. I always have money for food now and for taxis to town every day,” says Scott, who is currently living with her brother and his family in a house in Otjomuise, on the fringes of the Namibian capital. She had three children with her ex-husband, with whom she divorced in 1988, but they live with other family members who support them.

“I am a member of a community savings group and each month I put money aside… I would love to have my own house one day. It’s not easy staying in someone else’s house. When I have my own home, I wan to start my own business, my own project, selling fruit and drinks from my house.”

These days, Scott spends most of her time selling the magazine, and she does only one day a week of domestic work for a family, which treats her better than her previous employees. “I was approached by these people when I was already selling the magazine, and they asked me if I wanted to do some extra work,” she explains.

Joining the team of Big Issue vendors, as one of the few women vendors, has been a testing experience for Scott. Only men sell newspapers sold on the streets of Windhoek and the prevailing culture does not consider this type of work suitable for women. “In the beginning the guys were very jealous of me,” she says of the male vendors, most of who are aged about 18 years. “They didn’t show me any respect and I was scared at first because they threatened me and tried to beg from me.”

But it appears that Scott’s straight-talking attitude, especially during the weekly vendor meetings, has earned her that much-needed respect. “Things are better now. They are not so abusive and they seem to accept that I am also just trying to make a living, trying to make the most out of my life.”

Sarah Taylor is the editor of The Big Issue, Namibia. This article is part of a special series of articles produced for the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information. 

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