I had my first taste of real African poverty the other day and this is something I want to discuss-poverty. We all know what it means to be poor, and for most of us, we’ve read about it and imagined what it must be like. I was the same way, although I had also witnessed it on many occasions while traveling around the world. Now, living as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I experience on a whole new level.
Even in the USA, we have poverty, but it is a different kind of poverty because, even at its most raw state, there is some sense of security. This may be in the form of social programs, such as welfare, and even though these programs are far from perfect, they still provide some sense of if-I-hit-rock-bottom-something-will-be-there-to-help-me.
I recently lost one hundred dollars, the details of how I won’t go into here, which may not seem like a lot of money, but for a Peace Corps Volunteer, is the amount I live on for half a month. Back home, I would have pouted about losing money, but my life would go on relatively unaffected. Here, I had a scary taste of reality, of real life poverty. Our stipend does not allow for much saving, or much losing of money for that matter, and when the money I was meaning to live on for the next couple of weeks was gone, I went to my bank and withdrew the last remaining $50 from my account. That was it. No more. I was not getting my next month’s living allowance for another couple of weeks.
I felt something that I have never felt in my life. It was the feeling of being poor, completely poor, utterly poor. I could not spend more than that little amount over the next few weeks because if I did, I would starve. If something happened, I would suffer. It was a feeling of completely helplessness. And it was scary, in the same way that having no water during the dry season is scary. It is something we take for granted as always being there, available, in some way.
Part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is living among the locals, like a local. I realized that this is the closest I will ever come (hopefully) to experiencing poverty like they experience it. Poverty means poverty. Nothing. No programs or people to act like your lifeline in case of need. I was completely on my own. No security. Like the poor in Rwanda.
Now, I do admit that this is not completely true in my case, because I do have some security- my family, friends, and savings at home. But I am here and those are thousands of miles away, difficult to access and therefore, removed from the situation. In my life in Rwanda, I am alone with no security. That is why I say, this is the closest I will come to experiencing poverty, because I will never know what chronic poverty that I sometimes witness in Rwanda, without even those distant lifelines, is like. I can only use my experience to imagine, relate more deeply to the situations, lifestyles, and feelings those living in poverty.
I can’t decide where Rwanda fits in on the spectrum of poverty I have witnessed in my travels. Sure, there is even a spectrum within Rwanda. Inequality exists here like it does everywhere else in the world. I often wonder though, “How does Rwandan poverty compare to that in the Dominican Republic? Or South East Asia?” In the Dominican Republic, I visited families of students who were attending the school where I worked. I sat in broken chairs in the dirt under the awning of their front porches while they prepared coffee by balancing pots on a piece of tin roofing laid over a fire in the muddy backyard of their little shacks made of scrap metal. I sat with a family in Indonesia negotiating a ride back to the city in a chair next to their molding bed in a shack with no walls while I batted at mosquitoes and flies swarming around my head. Also in the Dominican Republic, I traveled to a sugarcane plantation to visit the family of a Haitian colleague and saw the bare mud shack that housed him and his large family while the kids ran around naked or in dirty rags with big bellies from malnutrition and disease. I wonder “How does Rwandan poverty compare to Haiti, the poorest nation, the so-called armpit of the world?” Surely those examples of poverty are similar to the people living in mud and thatch huts that I see in remote villages in the Rwandan countryside. Or the people in VSL (Village Savings and Loans) groups who work all week just to save a mere 15 cents. Even in America, we have our own cases of poverty. We were students struggling to pay for university and living costs during university and leaving university with huge, unfathomable debts.
I can’t rely on indicators released by huge organizations because I believe they mask the situation. These indicators are huge generalizations that are so far removed from reality. They don’t consider the extremes cases, which are the most important, and instead merge everyone together into one group, give one number to describe them all, and compare those numbers to formulate conclusions about poverty. No, I can’t use those indicators to answer my question, which must use the individual cases as a guide. I have to rely on my own observations of poverty and I have yet to reach a conclusion from all I have observed here and around the world. Which poverty is better? Which is worst? Where does each case fit in on the spectrum of poverty?
No, that is a lie, I have drawn one conclusion and I will share it now. Although all these countries may be poor, by worldwide standards, in money and material items, they are rich in many others things. I am sitting in my house, listening to the sounds of the family with whom I share a compound. I hear song, chatter, laughter, and some yelling from the bright interior of their house, pouring through the open door and traveling across the compound in the night as they prepare their meal and sit together to share it. Today, the sound of drumming and chanting filled the neighborhood. Bijoux, the 10-year old girl from next door, wrapped her arms as far as she could around her big mama, resting her chin on her mother’s belly, and held on while they exchanged greetings, looks, smiles, and love. The other day, the neighbors came over to help harvest the beans from the garden outside the back gate of the compound. A teacher at the local secondary school spent an hour of her free time helping me to translate an important message to the students concerning the upcoming life skills course (to begin this week), explaining “I have no children of my own, but I have an entire school of children to look after.” I guess what I am trying to say is that, in these parts of the world, love, laughter, family, community, sharing, kindness are much more important than money. Money matters here, of course, and there is not much of it, but helping out your family or neighbor is so much more important so whatever little amount of money is shared. Maybe that is their security- family and community. Maybe that is what I will never quite understand (or at least not yet) and where I will never quite fit in (or at least not yet).
I’ve had a lot of time here in my village to think, and although I have spent many hours pondering many things, one of the things I have pondered is life and what I want in it. The obvious come to mind- education, career, health, husband and kids (at some point), but then the not-so-obvious appear. Perhaps one of the benefits of being so far removed from the social, cultural, and societal pressures of modern America is that these wants of life are allowed to appear and last long enough to be acknowledged and perhaps make a lasting impression, instead of being quickly bashed and overshadowed by what is considered “correct” or “popular.” We grow up dreaming of becoming a millionaire (by being a princess and then a famous actress, of course), owning a mansion (that we have designed in our heads to a square foot, and always, always, with a secret passageway), and having lots of money (to buy expensive cars, clothes, and jewelry). We imagine dining in the best, most expensive restaurants (Caviar and champagne every night), and being invited and attending famous, amazing events and parties (like the Grammy’s or Academy Awards). Even when we realize the unlikelihood of that dream coming true, we still have it in the back of our minds and secretly hope and wish against the odds (maybe by winning the lottery).
I recently realized a void in my imagination. That childhood dream no longer exists in my head. It has evaporated completely and been replaced by a new dream. My new goal in life is just to be happy and healthy, with happiness not necessarily defined by wealth. I don’t want any more than my share in life. I can not imagine living with more than my share and forgetting everything I have witnessed, experienced, and learned here. No, I don’t want to live like a poor Peace Corps Volunteer all my life, with two bowl, two forks, and one pot, but just my simple share is all I ask. In life, I will only take my share, and hope that everyone else gets theirs, and maybe work to ensure they do.