Compassion, Poverty’s Lesson By Kenya Mitchell
Poverty. What a leaden word, weighed down by fascination, guilt, indifference, romanticism. Modernity’s enigma, poverty is a many-faced god inflicting some incomprehensible sorrow in retribution for a sin humanity hasn’t realized it committed. We here in the west make penance for our hedonistic ways by sacrificing our dollars on the altar of poverty, thinking, “if I learn about this thing, if I give all that I have to help, I’ll be a better person.” It doesn’t necessarily work that way. In one way this sort of “mindful tourism” amounts to slumming it, opening one’s eyes to the horror of destitution in other countries while effectively distancing a person from the atrocities happening to the poor across the tracks in one’s own hometown. On the flip side, seeing poverty in all of its manifestations gives one the opportunity to realize the simple truth that if one person somewhere suffers unnecessarily, we are all impoverished on some
level. Yet it is through this collective misery that people learn how to have compassion for one another and, more importantly, act on that compassion. This conundrum hounded me the most as I traveled this past six months through Mali, Europe and Brazil.
A knowledge hungry traveler will work to build on their curiosity, using anything from academia to anecdotes in the hopes of understanding the culture. However, once the traveler arrives, they often realize there are lessons to be learned about nations and their active force on humanity’s current state that aren’t overviewed in any $9.99 guidebook or $75 university text. Fascinated by the country, I started reading up on Mali a year before I went. After reading The Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2003) lists Mali as the third poorest nation in the world, I expected to see the most devastating scenes of poverty while studying in Mali with the Antioch Education Abroad program. We’ve all seen the images of impoverished people in Africa; fly covered children, overextended bellies aching for food. Individual accounts can be just as valid as empirical information, so I spoke with a lot of my African neighbors in Harlem. They warned me not to believe everything I saw in the media.
I found all of their words were true. It is true, modern conveniences are scarce in Mali, even in the capital city Bamako, the fastest growing city in Africa. Yet that lack of amenities didn’t detract from the spirit of the people there. As a rule, Malians used their traditional methods of craftsmanship coupled with a sense of community to transform their environment thereby enriching themselves. The working Malians mindset wasn’t necessarily focused on “playing catch up” as westerners might think but “get ahead” in their quiet way. They didn’t see themselves as “poor” per se, just desiring more modern amenities.
If Malians couldn’t buy what they wanted, they made it. Sustainable recycling practices are conceived and implemented by the individual actions of Malians, not bureaucratic organizations. Inventive blacksmiths channel centuries of know-how through modern tools to morph defunct engine blocks into pots, bicycles into wheelchairs powered by hand pedals. Those chairs were much more user friendly than the ones in the states, are fast enough to use on the street, which people commonly did. On farms, people widely made use of solar panels that are easily purchased at the Grand Marche. Villagers were figuring out new means of irrigation for rice fields in remote areas. The young were testing different methods to attract attention to their tourism businesses via the Internet.
On top of the work Malians do to modernize their lifestyle, the people are willing to share whatever they have to help a neighbor. While in the city of Djenne my classmate, Nicco, and I wandered the streets, exploring the night. We weren’t even startled when a man leading his daughter home called to us, “Have you eaten yet? Are you hungry? Come to eat with us.” Invitations to visit stranger’s houses is normal, people offered us dinner all of the time, even though we were foreign. We always appreciated the generosity of people we knew really didn’t possess a lot, but were willing to extend what they had to us without any prompting on our part. If a Malian sees their neighbor cooking a meatless dinner, they will send over whatever they can to round out the meager meal. Sharing with everyone in the community is such a common practice that people use other people’s things without asking. When contrasted with western society’s tendency to encourage individuals to hoard goods, Malian community minded acts of generosity in the face of limited resources can only be described as courageous.
I won’t lie. Not everyone’s needs were met in this system. Legions of beggars composed of children, the handicapped, Muslim students and random people hounded shoppers in the Grande Marche. Panhandlers weave through street traffic, sticking their hands in open car windows. Sometimes I had to give people the “Come on now. You’re not hungry. Your butt’s bigger than mine,” look. More often than not I couldn’t resist the spirit of generosity floating in the air. Even though I had a feeling they were fed well, I always delighted in sharing all the coins in my pocket with street children.
Even worse off can be people of the slave class in Mali. Some “slaves” are only that in name. Their ancestors were slaves for a long time, hence their offspring are still considered as such as a sort of social joke, because their offspring have garnered wealth. Other slaves were just that- people bound to families who worked without monetary wages. Where I lived there were two females who took care of the household while everyone else lounged. The older one, close to my age, was resigned to her work. She took small pleasures out things like my expressions when she explained to me through Bamana and showing me ingredients, that I didn’t like a certain sauce because my foreign tongue could taste the caterpillars in it. The younger woman couldn't have been more than fourteen years old. She started her mornings on sitting on the porch, listening to children playing in the street on their way to school. All day she slouched over her chores, then hid in her room at night when everyone came home.
“I feel bad for that girl,” I told my professor’s nephew, Yacouba. “She’s depressed because she wants to go to school with the rest of the kids. There are only adults around here that are too busy to play with her.”
Yacouba laughed at me. “You Americans have crazy ideas. Not everybody can go to school. School is not free.”
“Yacou, in America school is free. Everybody goes.”
Yacouba expressed amazement. “If this is true, then who works? Somebody must work.” I explained to him that household technology like stoves, washing machines and vacuums frees up Americans to channel their energy to other pursuits. He was shocked. Until that point Yacouba had believed that having someone toil away was a necessary evil so that some people could live better, just another beast of burden.
This is a pervasive belief that goes unspoken among the ranks of the well to do. However history does not support the logic of this belief. The careful maintenance of class structure in society lends itself to crime, mental illness, environmental pollution and physical illness. So many Malian children suffer from Polio. I ask the pharmaceutical companies who can afford a primetime slot for new computer generated commercial that lists all the horrible internal bleeding side effects for the fiftieth allergy nasal spray on the market, why is this so when we have a cheap vaccine? I’ve seen so many working appliances in garbage heaps in New York City alone. I believe that when Malian women save the time it takes to start a fire by turning on stoves, when their children don’t have to beg because their handicap prevents them from helping in the home, Mali will have a cultural revolution.
It’s a technological revolution that Malians want. People I encountered during my stay in Mali generally expressed hope about the future development of their country. Complaining about misfortunes in life is distinctly un-Malian. People would rather pontificate over ideas about how to bring what they need to their country. Malians who aren’t born into well to do families (yes they exist in Mali) are united in the desire to bring America’s comforts to Africa. Although some Malians pass the time drinking tea, most use the highly caffeinated beverage to keep work productivity high. Judging by the amount of concentrated energy individuals channel into reshaping their world, it is evident Africa is going to change under the hands of Africans, not foreigners who want to mold the land in their homeland’s image. That happened once in history, to disastrous results. Well aware of the ramifications of foreign intervention, Africans accept assistance, but on their own terms. Even more heartening, is how the people there continue to break past their economic inequality with the industrialized world, enriching themselves with ingenuity and cooperation.
Reshaping my miseducation about Africa was something I strived towards for many years. Brazil was a journey of a completely different nature. In the past, I swore up and down that I had no desire to go to Brazil. Nightmarish stories about violence there turn up in anecdotes by people who are close to me. Most of the storytellers were all Brazilian, some of the sweetest people I ever met. So when I was given a chance to visit some family members and Nicco this past Carnival season, I reasoned, it can’t be that bad. People think Africa is completely a war zone and it wasn’t. The same has to be true with Brazil.
My thinking wasn’t too far off the mark. Brazil is no third world country. Being cosmopolitan is a Brazilian obsession. You see it in the soap operas that run all day long, women wrapped in sheik outfits, languidly pouting. Ladies on the street imitate that level of pageantry as best they can, whether they find the dress at H Stern or the neighborhood dress shop across the street from Bob’s Burgers. To appear well to do people only frequented certain neighborhoods, bars and restaurants. For a stylish accessory, they wear their emotions on their faces, unafraid to share whatever lurks in their hearts. People make out unabashedly on the street. Rival fans playfully insult one another’s teams while watching soccer together. Emotions meet feverish pitches, so there is an undercurrent of danger in the streets.
The anecdotes in America don’t even compare to the ones I heard in Rio. People don’t trust anyone around them. Most residential buildings are gated. People are cautious about whom they allow in their homes, even if it is a friend of a friend. When I got there, Nicco told me an acquaintance of his who had his necklace stolen by a kid who jumped up, snatched it off and ran away. Nobody blinks if there’s a fight. If it’s a passionate screaming match, it’s good entertainment. Violence is met with quick strides to safer places on the sidewalk. That’s life. Have to protect one’s self.
My Portuguese is horrible, so I got with that attitude while keeping quiet so people didn’t recognize me as a tourist right off the bat. In Rio I typically only traveled with my host, Nicco or both. I didn’t flash a lot of money, didn’t bring a lot of money really, and whenever I needed something I only asked nice looking middle aged women or bus drivers. Caution didn’t get in the way of fun though. Some days I spent stuffing my face during family dinners. Nights Nicco and I went to parties or clubs with friends. We were ultra cautious then. Not once did we consider that things could be so bad a mishap could occur without warning or provocation in broad daylight.
For carnival, Nicco and I traveled to Salvador to revel in the streets. On the second night of the week-long festivities, the music of Ile Aye had us carried away in dancing from the night until the morning. We were making our way to the bus stop to get back to our campsite when five adolescent boys came out of nowhere, yelling indecipherable things at us. Their pupils were dilated, their hands thrashed about wildly. Wonderful, I thought. These kids are coked up. As we backed away from them, Nicco began telling kid we didn’t want any trouble. Mid-sentence, a couple of them leaped on him, tearing at his clothes. The others pushed me aside. Without thinking, I pushed them back, reprimanded them in English, tore at their hands to get them off of Nicco. One boy pushed me back again yelling something to the effect of, “Watch out unless you want some of this.” The boys had surrounded Nicco, so I couldn’t see what they were doing to him. All I could make out was the ringleader of the boys swinging a broken beer bottle over his head, then bringing it down repeatedly, making a shower of glass on the sidewalk, then Nicco stumbling backward, the ragged ends of his purse strings hanging out of his collar, the kids booking it in the opposite direction. Crap, I thought, they cut his purse away.
I ran up to Nicco, hissing, “I can’t believe those kids just took your stuff. Your harmonica is in there.”
“I’m not worried about that,” he said pained. “They cut my hand.” In my panic I hadn’t noticed blood was seeping from his fingers at a tremendous rate. As he spoke a river of blood sprung up in his hairline, and ran down his forehead. As we ran to get napkins to try to stop the blood on the way to the hospital, journalists, complete with cameras approached us cameras in hand. The police rounded the corner in their sedan. People pointed them in the direction of where the kids had run. We ran to catch up with the cops so they could take us to the hospital. While all this was happening I thought, where were all these people when those kids were on us? Oh yeah, on the safer side of the street.
Dealing with a whirlwind of medics and police was bad enough. What was worse was facing the complete ramifications of the situation. In the taxi on the way to the campgrounds, we turned over the morning’s events trying to sew together the ragged ends of our understanding. I told Nicco that I thought the kids were on drugs and he agreed that they probably were. I couldn’t understand how kids could be on something so serious at such an early stage in their lives. Those boys looked like they were the same age as the Malian slave girl. Nicco told me that kids on drugs who are apart of gangs is common in Brazil. “That’s the worst part about this whole thing,” I said. “Those kids are suffering just as much as you are right now. Over time, you’ll heal from this experience. Don’t those kids have a chance to get better too?”
“I don’t think so Kenya,” Nicco admitted tiredly. “Kids like those don’t live past 22,” he said. What he said made sense. On February 23 The New York Times reported that Brazil ranks as the second largest consumer of cocaine. Bolivia produces cheap, low quality coke at a high rate, inundating Brazil’s borders. Too many young people were turning to drugs to help ease the pain of their impoverished life situation. On one side of the Atlantic Nicco and I had seen impoverished people full of hope for their country, eyes turning to the future. On the other side of the ocean, disillusionment with modernity’s promise to improve the lives of all pounced on us like a jaguar hiding amongst bamboo.
As far as I could tell, that robbery had just as much to do with poverty as it did with racisms role in that class designation. All those boys were poor and brown. It’s obvious that I’m foreign by the way I talk but I’m brown too. I could be wrong but I think that’s why they were more careful about hurting me. The callus attitude those boys assumed while perpetrating a violent crime led me to believe that they had committed violent acts before. The anger that energized their actions was bred out of then rationalized as justified retribution for too many centuries of violence, moral degradation and psychological abuse. I saw those boys’ actions as their way to lash out against the systematic oppression of brown people in Brazil for the perceived benefit of whites, the last legacy of slavery handed down like some sadistic inheritance from Brazil’s ancestors. I say perceived because the people who lead luxurious life styles must do so in fear. For well to do Brazilians, venturing outside is best done in cars with tinted windows rolled up at stoplights, breathing air chemically cooled by oil combustion. I can’t blame them. It’s dangerous! What a limited life we lead when wrought iron gates stand between us and our environments, whether we are in a cell or a gated community. In this way, poverty wraps its shackles around everyone, not just those without monetary wealth.
It can’t be denied that the hammer falls hardest on those with tin roofs. Brazil federal research institute, The IPEA, states that 70% of the poor are black. Higher education is virtually unattainable for poor blacks in Brazil. The University of São Paulo recorded only 9% of black students in its last census. This number is astounding considering that 50% of Brazil’s population is black, creating the largest group of African peoples outside of Africa. The most reliable way for people to climb out of poverty in a modernized society, education, is being unequivocally denied to Brazil’s poor. What are people supposed to do if they are not equipped with the know how to improve their situation?
In Brazil’s cities the windows of favellas open up to views of glass condos. That’s like making a poor child’s bed right next to $100 under a glass case, then telling them, “Now sleep here every night, but don’t ever break this glass to get the money.” Yeah. Sure. Desperation inevitably clouds the mind. That’s $100 to help pay the rent, could buy new clothes, maybe give mom some money for a nice dinner, or what the hell, $100 isn’t gonna pay to fix all the problems, let’s just get high again to forget it all for a little while. How can an uneducated child think their way out of a situation like that? I understand that anger as a brown person who has experienced harsh bias at different times in my life. The only difference between those kids anger and my own was that I knew dishing out the same sort of hate towards people who looked like they might be benefiting from the status quo doesn’t make the situation better for anyone. I asked myself as we neared the campground, “What does make it better?”
Not too much seemed like it would be better when we arrived back at Camping Ecologico with Nicco all bandaged up. Amazingly, things got better as soon as we were among the community of campers. The just working class families came to our aid without hesitation. In a world where criminals assert themselves without fear of repercussion, people have to protect themselves and those they saw as needing help. Whenever we shuffled our way through the tents they would ask how everything was going, offer assistance. Try this herbal remedy. Here are the leaves. Do you need a ride to pick up medicine? Drive carefully with her on that moto. Do you have enough money? You sure you don’t need to borrow some? Ah, the comfort that is neighbors offering support. The campers shared with us was intangible, yet just as nourishing as any Malian dinner. Their demeanor said, “Put that weighty sadness down. We’re here to carry a bit of your pain.” They took care of us on a level we would have never received in a hotel, no matter how luxurious. That’s when I realized the secret to solving poverty is hidden in the life of poverty itself. People coming to one another’s aid during tumultuous days.
Sharing as a solution to this problem? That’s just crazy Jesus freak talk, right. Who wants to give up a good hunk of what makes their lifestyle good for somebody else’s benefit? Who says we have to give anything up? Truth is that there is enough abundance for everyone in the world, we just haven’t figured out the best system to get everyone’s share out to them without wasting resources. Capitalism is not the way, that’s for sure. The Green Revolution has come and gone, but how do we ship rice from India to Ethiopia if Ethiopians don’t have the money to create a high enough demand that will cover the cost of shipment? Throwing money at poverty won’t resolve the issue because the creation of money helped feed the problem of poverty. Right now we need the trees more than the paper.
It would be teddy bear huggin’ nice if all people shared like they teach us in kindergarten. Unfortunately, right now humanity isn’t strong enough to get to the point where people can trust enough to take care of one another. We all are busy looking out for number one. Somebody is going to get jealous of the new car you worked a year for and try steal it. A nation is going to see another nation has a resource they want, so they’ll war over it. For rival businessmen, cooked books make better dinner than steaks. When one person feels lack, they overcompensate for what they feel is missing, leaving those around them feeling like they’re missing something. What a sickly, cyclic thing poverty is. Just the simple desire for individual ownership puts one in a precarious mental situation. How did we get to a point where people decide who has access to basic human necessities including land and food? What happened to the Native American idea that resources don’t belong to anyone, they are just there to be used by all? If a group of people thought this way at one point in history, this belief can be fostered again.
It’s easy for me to reach this perspective on collectivism now from the comfort of my home. Thinking the problem could be resolved by just asking people to disburse their excess wealth would be shifting the blame to the rich. In Mali I’m considered a rich person, so in essence I’m blaming myself, right? The grand irony is that I’m not exactly living in a tin roofed shack, but according to the American standard of living, I live well below the poverty line. I’m not ashamed to reveal that. If destitution is a home complete with a laptop, stereo with hundreds of CD’s, queen sized bed, carpeted floor and a fully stocked fridge, I’ll take that sans complaint. Admitting that makes me even question what “true” poverty is.
Here in the states we have the richest poor people in the world. When I was homeless in New York, I regularly saw an overweight man who slept in the park wearing gold chains and a diamond ring. I noticed him because I over heard him bragging about how he would never sell it. Somebody special had given him that ring. His portly stature was evidence that he rarely felt hunger hunger. Fried chicken and French fries purchased anytime he scrounged up enough change does not a make a balanced diet. Yet this fellow was as bereft of nourishment as any war refugee. Why? Healthy food cost more in the city. The different diseases are all the symptom of the same cause. Selfishness. Greed. Poverty did not spring forth as some pestilence with no cure. It’s not even “the way the world works.” We must remember before the creation of “civilization,” people lived together, worked together and shared what they had. It is heartening to see people in developing nations continue the traditions of unified community, using it to break past their economic inequality with the industrialized world, thereby enriching themselves with ingenuity and cooperation. At a time where our own country is on the brink of economic collapse, a time where we will have to look past our petty biases to make a New America, it is a tradition that, if adopted, will serve us well.