The story of Ghalia Mahmoud published in the August 17th edition of the Washington Post took me by surprise. I had hardly finished the article when questions began to fill my head and my heart started to flutter with excitement. Was it because Ghalia, previously a maid, had succeeded in becoming a TV host? Or was it that the Washington Post was interested in telling her story, deeming it worthy of publishing? Or was it tied to my glimpse of the World Bank report on Food Price Watch a few days earlier? It reported that the high level of global food prices and continued price volatility, posed a constant threat to the poorest segments of the population in developing countries.
Ghalia Mahmoud, a 33-year-old Egyptian, was working as a maid, until the founder of a new TV station – Channel 25, named in honor of the day the revolution began in Tahrir Square – gave her the opportunity to present a TV show. The show teaches Egyptians how to prepare dishes they can afford; a meal costing less than $4. Ghalia instantly became a symbol reflecting the everyday reality of most Egyptians who no longer felt invisible and could watch programs which actually represented and addressed their daily issues and dreams.
For Ghalia, whose primary concern was to feed 15 people in her immediate and extended family on a meager income of around $200 a month, she is now helping an entire society to overcome hunger. Stories of ordinary people do not usually interest publishers. This story of an ordinary Egyptian woman, however, caught the attention of the international press. Perhaps the interest stems from the fact that her story – a human story – teaches a lesson in life that is outside the purview of studies, statistics and analyzing.
On the one hand, Ghalia succeeded in instilling a sense of hope in the hearts and minds of millions of viewers; the hope that one can change one's fate and improve one's living standards. She also proposed solutions to dealing with the reality of poverty. She was able to reach out to a large segment of her society, listen to their questions and suggestions, awaken and engage them in the process of change in their country. Through her "low-cost” meals, she has made it clear that she is one of the people, who could understand their suffering. Like them, her wish is to feed her family and children. She also helped her people to understand that there is no shame in being poor; but what is truly shameful is surrendering to poverty as an incurable disease. She was able to communicate that learning and developing a skill are attainable and could also help them to overcome their precarious situation. The main message is that we may not eat meat everyday but we will definitely eat every day!
Ghalia also represents a large portion of women in her society who stand to be the primary bread winner for their families. Yet, discrimination against women prevails and job opportunities remain limited. Despite this unfortunate reality, the message conveyed by Ghalia is that women can indeed raise their productive abilities, improve their incomes and promote their social status. It may seem that these objectives may be difficult to reach through a TV program on the preparation of “inexpensive” meals. However, the show helps to convey the message that change is possible and the future is full of hope as long as every person feels she or he can make a difference.