Rym Hamdi, a wizened but still energetic 60 year old, rushed out of her dazzling white house, threw her arms around me and kissed me several times on the cheek. Mohamed El Hadi Ben Abdallah, a director at the National Solidarity Fund explained it was my camera that had excited the old lady.
Two years ago, President Ben Ali had made his second visit to a site in Ben Arous, a suburb of Tunis, to see if his directive of a year before, to completely upgrade the living conditions of one of the poorest communities of the area, had been carried out fully. He saw rows of spanking new houses, fitted with running water, electricity and sewerage. One of the new occupants was Rym Hamdi. She wriggled through the throng around the President, gave him a bear hug and planted several kisses on his cheeks. Someone took a photograph.
Later the photo became part of a poster displayed all over the country. As a result, Rym has become one of the most famous faces in Tunisia. "From that time onwards, she loves everyone with a camera," explained Ben Abdallah who was showing me around projects built through the National Solidarity Fund, popularly known as '2626'.
Rym told me that she and her four children had lived in abject poverty until one day, "April 7, 1997" she remembered, President Ben Ali himself suddenly appeared in the area. "He promised us that in one year we would live in good homes, have electricity, running water, a sewerage system and have some means to increase our income."
"We had dreamt about this for so long that most of us were convinced it would remain only a dream. But miracle of miracles, one year later, the President came back and asked us if the dream had come true. 'Yes!' we cried and I hugged him and did not want to let him go."
For Rym Hamdi, 2626, the campaign to eradicate the last vestiges of poverty in Tunisia, means that she can spend her retirement years in relative comfort and have some share in the economic boom that has swept the country. For her grandson, the well-appointed little house is the norm. He can only go up from here.
The campaign began in 1992 when President Ben Ali, making a series of impromptu tours to remote areas of the country, was appalled at the condition some of the most marginalised people were living in. Without strong intervention from the government, there was no way these people could be integrated into the economic mainstream or see any improvements in their living conditions. The President decided to...