Saturday, September 15, 2012

What It Means to Be Poor

Once upon a time in Congo, the cook asked how much I’d bought my shoes for.

Seventy dollars, I told her, realizing right away how extravagant this sounded. This was close to two weeks’ salary for her, and comparable to what most people in the country cobbled together in two months. Feeling slightly guilty, I tried to put the price in context. You know, I said, people have more money in the US, but life is much more expensive. I told her about typical costs of rent, tomatoes, cell phones.

She wanted to know how much you could earn in a month as a housekeeper in America. When we did the math, she looked at me wide-eyed. If I got a job in the US, she told me, I’d be rich. I reminded her of the high cost of living, but she persisted. I’d sleep on the floor, she told me, and would live very simply. I’d save everything.

There was no point arguing. After all, knowing her, she was probably right. She’d managed to keep her three children in school after her husband had left her, taking several years’ worth of her savings with him, by selling homemade doughnuts on the side of the road, before she landed a much higher-paying job as a cook and cleaner with our organization. She routinely stayed after hours to finish up tasks that could have easily been postponed a day or two. When I asked her for the broom after foolishly tracking a trail of dried mud into my bedroom, she wouldn’t let me pry it out of her hands, but marched over to the room and swept it up. With her work ethic and selflessness, she’d certainly make more out of a low-paying job in America than most people would.

By virtue of being a white person in Africa, I’m inevitably perceived as being wealthy, and compared to most people here, I guess I am. But back in the U.S., I’m relatively poor, at least in terms of income.

Poverty is relative. The poorest households in the U.S. still have access to certain amenities – free public school, food stamps, electricity, television – that the poorest here, in Sierra Leone, do not. How you define poverty makes a huge difference. Materially speaking, I’m pretty poor, but I’m quite happy with my quality of life, and feel rich in terms of the experiences, opportunities and relationships I’ve had. When I went to visit the brother-in-law of one of my former Congolese colleagues who now lives in Seattle, he said that while he felt grateful for the opportunities being there affords his six children, he feels incredibly isolated from his extended family and homeland, the things he cares about most. 

I’m in Sierra Leone to learn about poverty in the Freetown slums, whose infamously poor living conditions have contributed to the largest cholera outbreak in the country’s history, which peaked a few weeks ago. A colleague and I visited a couple of the slums earlier this week, where a few friendly and no doubt curious locals led us through labyrinthine passages between squashed-in houses, past pigs rooting around in garbage and men huddled under tin-roofed porches listening to music. There are no toilets here; one of our hosts told us they simply defecate into buckets in their houses, which they later empty into the sea. By anyone’s definition, it would seem that the people living here are quite poor.

Yet according to a World Food Program report, people in the slums are wealthier than the national average; only 16% of Freetown slum residents qualify as “poor” or “very poor.” And indeed, as a recent Economist blog post pointed out, you see quite a few television sets while wandering around the slums, certainly more than you would in a remote village in the country’s interior. Again, how we define poverty matters.

And so we’re going to ask the residents of the slums themselves what it means to be poor, and what it means to be better off (“rich” might be a stretch, but we’ll leave it up to them to tell us). In the slums, as anywhere else, we suspect that people are trying to improve things for themselves and their children. By asking the locals about what they’re striving for and how one might expect to get there, we’ll hopefully have a better idea of how organizations like ours can help them to do it.


  1. IF you are interested in this question, how do people describe poverty on their own terms, you could start with the 44,000 stories collected that partially overlap with that quesiton: In my reading, most people talk about poverty in passing when their focus is more on seeking the opportunity to earn their own living. Also - if you wanted an infographic of how a person's wage breaks down in USA vs Kenya, check this out:

    1. Thanks for the links! From what I could see, the global giving site only offers brief overviews of those 44,000 stories. Are there more detailed versions somewhere? Your Kenya v. US wage breakdown is quite interesting - it would be especially cool to put the infographics side by side so that you could really visualize the differences. When I returned to the US after 9 months in DRC, I visited a friend who was staying on a libertarian pig farm (!) in New Hampshire and had a heated debate about the value of a strong government (having seen what life can be like in its absence).


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