When the push for survival is a full-time job
Every day is a fight for pennies.

At sunrise, Adolphe Mulinowa is out hauling 10-gallon cans of sand at a construction site. It takes him an hour to earn 5 cents. Then he hustles to a roadside with a few plastic bottles of pink gasoline, which he hawks alongside dozens of other street vendors.

"Patron! Boss man! Gas! Gas! Gas!" Mulinowa barks as a battered Peugeot shudders past, kicking a spray of loose rocks at his face.

The car does not stop. Mulinowa, a short man in his mid-30s with sad, reddened eyes, squats down again beside his bottles. It is a scene repeated many times in the four hours it takes to sell them. Mulinowa pockets an additional 40 cents. Then, as the sun goes down, he heads to his evening job hawking used shoes and live chickens. A few more pennies.

After a 12-hour day, he returns home to his wife and six children with his earnings: about 70 cents and a bag of cornmeal swinging from his hand.

"We beat the belly pains today," he says in a tired mumble. "Tomorrow, more hard work."

Up and down the teeming streets of Goma, there is no real work as it is known in the West. There is only what everyone here calls se debrouiller — French for getting by, or eking a living out of nothing.

Decades of war and disease, followed by a volcanic eruption that entombed nearly half the city beneath a rough crust of lava, have reduced work to a mishmash of odd jobs and scheming. Civil servants survive on bribes. A lawyer moonlights by making pastries. A single mother of four turns to prostitution in her living room, decorated with pictures of Jesus and Mary.

They are among the poorest people on Earth, surviving on less than a dollar a day.

In the United States, an individual who makes less than $9,310 a year is considered poor. The World Bank sets its poverty line at $730 a year — $2 a day. Half of sub-Saharan Africa's 600 million people live on about 65 cents a day — less than what an American might spend on a cup of coffee.

It is never enough. In Goma, near the heart of Africa, an average family of seven spends about $63 a month, two-thirds of it on food. With every dollar, they make a choice among competing needs — food, rent, clothes, school and medicine.

Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

Two years ago, Mulinowa's little boy, Dieudonne, or "God's gift," came down with a fever, cold sweats and shakes. Mulinowa knew that it was malaria.

He took the 3-year-old to a muganga — Swahili for traditional healer — who sprinkled him with water, squeezed the pulp from some herbs into his mouth and sent him home. Two days later, the boy was dead. Mulinowa knows that with 20 cents for medicine to fight the fever and chills, he might have saved his son's life. But he didn't have the money.

Neither did the families of three other children in the neighborhood who died about the same time.

"I do not want this to happen to my Annissette," Mulinowa says of his 2-year-old daughter. "That's why we work from dawn to dusk."

In some ways, the Mulinowas are better off than many Congolese. The family's wooden house, resting on an old lava flow, has a tin roof and some wooden furniture. The walls recently were whitewashed with paint from an aid agency. Their neighbors live in mud huts or houses fashioned from rusting galvanized sheets.

In a town of debrouillards, Mulinowa has learned to exploit tiny advantages. He has figured out that, because Goma has dozens of gasoline vendors, his chances are better two miles away at the Rwanda-Congo border. There, drivers have to slow down and are more likely to notice him.

His family also improves its odds by spreading out during the day, hoping that at least one member will earn enough to buy food.