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.