Saturday, January 28, 2006

Life with the Urban Poor

There’re a lot of things that you get used to when you live in a third-world country for a long period of time. Bad roads and poor (non-existent) urban planning, the inability to find your favorite foods or necessary ingredients when you want them at a price you can afford to pay, bad communication and trash everywhere – these things all become part of the rhythms of daily life. But there’s one aspect to life here that simply refuses to leave me or any of my expat friends alone – the problem of the urban poor.

I’ve been spending a lot more time in the regional capital lately as the rainy season has slowed our frenetic rush to do field visits and we’re shifting resources to other aspects of the project and away from mine for the time being. This means that I have a lot more exposure on a day-to-day basis with the beggars and street children. Additionally, this is the extreme end of the “hungry season” in Madagascar – rice crops have been planted, but the harvest won’t come for another month or so, and the level of desperation on the part of many is palpable. Even those that weren’t begging two or three months ago have joined the ranks of the hungry, making the competition for what little money is passed around that much more vicious.

Being poor in a city is much worse than being poor in the country. First, people in villages are more likely to take ownership of serious poverty issues on an individual basis; the concentration of the problem in the city makes it too overwhelming and to easy to loose the human imperative behind these issues. Second, rural life lends itself so much better to gathering and scavenging than does life in the city. Sure there’re the garbage piles in a city, but watched girls going around town with a knife and bag, cutting edible grasses that came up between sidewalk cracks and on curbsides – not a lot to go around.

This has become center of many of the conversations between expats. This is hardly something we could ignore on a regular basis, but with the situation as it is now there’s hardly a moment of peace. So not only do we get assaulted in the streets as we walk by, but once we’re in the relative safety of the restaurant/office/home we were aiming for, the assault doesn’t stop: we turn to each other to gripe about the situation and to re-explore the well-worn paths of “well, what do you do to handle it?” Nobody seems to have a good answer.

Yes, it’s true that even as a volunteer my living allowance is plentiful almost to the point of obnoxiousness when you look into the faces of the child who probably scrounges up a few pennies a day and a lot of trash to live on. There a very popular “Country Kitchen” style restaurant across the street from the Peace Corps office that is frequented by PCVs and many “middle class” Malagasy. There is a local gang of street children that make their home outside that restaurant, as few as a few other “regulars” who wait at the doorway in hopes of something, anything. If a customer leaves a tempting morsel on his plate the more fleet-footed children will make mad dashes inside to grab it in an adrenaline-pumping rush to beat the cats and the waitstaff to the table. Sparing the scraps of a plentiful meal is unsettling like a particular New Testament parable.

It’s harder when I look into the eyes of my next door neighbor kids whose father begs daily from his wheelchair and whom I found picking through the trash bin the other day. I’ve never seen them do that before – hard times are upon them all.

So, do I give them food, money? That may help them get through this season, but what about next year when I’m not here? And that would only encourage the “white person as a source of financing” mentality. Could I give them work? I’ve searched my creativity again and again and I just can’t come up with something I could even pretend needing. It’s hard to ask somebody like that to clean your house, cook your food or was your clothes when 1) they’re so poor and 2) they’re unfortunately rather dirty and I don’t think my house would be any cleaner for the work. Plus, I already have a helper for those things. I don’t have time to supervise and train them…grr, but as a health worker I so should. Again, no good answers.

So for now most of us are trying to take a middle road – we talk to the beggars, we joke with them, we discourage their begging tendencies, and we try to be as generous as possible without building up expectations of money. We’ve all been here long enough now to know who the local beggars are. Many of the children are just as happy when we call them by name or stop to do the Chicken Dance in the street as when we give them food. Sure, it helps us recognize them as individuals and not just a mass of dirty hands and faces, but I think it works in reverse as well: this way they also see us as human beings and not just walking money machines. It’s not easy and, especially for a natural introvert like me, it takes special effort not to just run into the relative safety of our guarded gates. But if the tiny bit of purgatory I experience when I force myself not to run could possibly balance the energy I am rewarded with, then our God is truly a merciful God.

The children here keep teaching me (as they sing and laugh and play despite their empty stomachs) that generosity is not all about money and clothes and meals – sometimes it’s just stopping to recognize the person who’s asking. It’s not a solution – it’s a step. And meanwhile us expats will keep talking about what we can do to address this problem in a sustainable and socially appropriate way.

1 comment:

dowobeha said...


As I've travelled, begging and homelessness have probably been the hardest things to face. When I was in Nottingham, I had a very hard time dealing with the number of homeless people living in the city centre. I'd grown up in small town Iowa and villages in Alaska. I remember sometimes in Alaska, natives from the village would come to our house, and my parents would trade food and sometimes money for the ivory carvings that they brought. But I was very young then, and was not so aware of the issues that poverty brings to the surface.

Nottingham was a post-industrial city. Very different. Cambridge had fewer homeless people, but they seemed to be younger. There, when someone approached me for money, I would either say I didn't have any on me then (and I'm ashamed to say that sometimes I didn't carry money so that I could truthfully say that), or I would offer to take the person to the grocery store to get supplies. I was glad when they took me up on my offer and I was able to help. I kept thinking about volunteering at the homeless shelter, but never convinced myself to go that far.

During my travels to poorer countries, I had a much more challenging time. When I visited Israel in Easter 2000, it broke my heart to enter the gates of the old city in Jerusalem and walk past the rows of women in tattered clothes, holding babies, motioning their hands to their mouths. To see it in Jerusalem, to walk past where the Temple once stood, I was haunted by the hundreds of verses in the Bible that demand that we care for the poor.

I think the incident that most haunts me was from China. Sarah and I were travelling in Xian, and as we walked near the bell town in the city center, we saw the beggars on the streets. Many were terribly crippled and disfigured. One man barely had any limbs. He was so tiny. He lay on a small, wheeled wooden platform on the sidewalk amid the dust and the hot, hot summer sun. I bought a bottle of water, then walked to him, reached down and gave it to him. As horrible as his situation was, he smiled as I handed him the water, and I understood just enough Chinese to make out "Thank you."

As I walked away, I wondered what kind of government could call itself socialist, and let its streets and cities fill with such poverty and let those most in need fend for themselves. And I wondered what I could do to make a dent, to make a difference. I still haven't come up with an answer...