Why You Should Stop Romanticising Poverty
It was 12:30am and I was keeled over the toilet of an airborne plane, throwing up the half-digested Red Rooster chips I’d forced myself to eat just an hour earlier. I wasn’t just feeling physically sick; I was plagued with enough self-doubt to seriously contemplate if I was also mentally sick. What the actual fuck did you get yourself into, Madi? I mindlessly traced the patterns on the cubicle walls with shaking fingers, too busy having a meltdown to realise how gross and inconsiderate it was to hug an airplane toilet for an immeasurable amount of time. Oh well.
So there I was, an 18-year-old white girl on a flight to Kenya where I would volunteer for the next three months. It sounds questionable, I’m aware. With the commercial exploitation within voluntourism coming to light, it was more important than ever for a wannabe-volunteer like myself to recognise that there was a right and wrong way to go about volunteering. But I wasn’t pursuing this endeavour to fulfil a well-intentioned ego trip of being a white saviour. I’d carefully chosen a small grassroots organisation that was run by the locals for the locals. I wasn’t foolish in thinking I was going to “save” anyone. What I wanted was to not be so naïve anymore; I wanted to understand a world outside of my own.
Going into this, I hadn’t the slightest idea what Kenya would be like, or the impoverished people I would be working with. I had never heard nor participated in a conversation about Kenyan culture before. And while I did my best to research in advance, the internet was woefully inadequate. So when friends, family, and strangers alike threw their opinions around, I had no authority to dispute them.
Their whirlwind of advice and judgments were made up out of combination of what news they’d read, what TV they’d watched, and what recounts they’d heard from a friend’s friend: all sources of which weren’t necessarily realistic, balanced or objective. Nonetheless, all we had were misconceptions.
One in particular stood out as particularly illogical:
“I reckon those poor people are actually a lot happier than us,” they’d contemplate. “Simplicity is peaceful. Money often comes at the price of our day-to-day wellbeing.”
As if the mental health of an office burn-out and the impoverished is a fair and justified comparison. This isn’t to say that the weight of deadlines, a mortgage, taxes, the insecurities from and drains of social media, as well as the general complexities and busyness of our everyday lives aren’t a heavy burden to bear; but it’s not survival we fight for, it’s growth. And that, I learned from my time in Kenya, is a precious commodity limited mostly for the privileged to explore.
When the people I had talked to argued that those who live below the poverty line were happier, they must’ve imagined that the poor either didn’t know what they were missing or that they wouldn’t trade their “simple” way of life for the complexities of a privileged society.
So on March 19th 2017, with apprehension in my eyes, mud under my feet, and the acrid smell of garbage in my nostrils, I met the impoverished students I would teach for the next three months. It took less than three seconds for the children to notice me. The younger ones squealed and threw themselves into my arms, while the older ones bounded over and waited impatiently to shake my hand. I was the shiny new toy in their relatively small playground.
It took a month before the novelty of my presence wore off. If I were only there for that one month, it’s quite possible I would’ve walked away feeling like I was leaving the happiest bunch I’d ever met. But while the first month had shown me their highs, the stability of my presence in the following two months granted me insight into their everyday reality. It wasn’t feasible for them to drink more than two cups of water a day, they ate beans and rice for almost every meal, and at least three quarters of them hadn’t left their 40x20m gated compound in some years.
Near the end of my stay, I sat down with Almasi, an outgoing 16-year-old girl who served as the Vice President to the school’s women’s empowerment club, and asked her how she’d come to live at the school.
“My father was from Uganda. I never met him and I don’t think my mum wanted me,” Almasi revealed, looking down at her hands. “I don’t remember either of them. Madam [the school principal] told me that she found me living on the streets by myself at three years old. I was one of the first children she took home with her and I haven’t left since.”
It explained why she loved scrolling through the pictures on my phone. School had taught her that there was big world out there, but her situation didn’t provide her the opportunity to explore it. It’s quite possible that Almasi’s mother was faced with the dire conditions in which survival was such an uncertainty that feeding another was a continued impossibility. In more fortunate circumstances, Almasi could have had a family.
The effects of radical poverty reached further than just familial ties. Over the duration of my stay, there were these moments of stillness when one of the children would let slip how emotionally shaken they were by the situation they’d found themselves in.
During recess one day, a solemn girl named Victoria sat next to me, picked up my hand and began tracing the lines of my palm. I watched her slowly fall deeper into contemplation as she mindlessly traced all the patterns she could find. After a few minutes, she softly mumbled what had been bothering her.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday. I turn 10.”
Naturally, I burst into enthusiasm.
“Two digits, huh. That’s so exciting, what are you doing to celebrate?”
She didn’t respond. In fact, she hadn’t looked up the whole time. She just kept playing with my hand.
I was at a loss. This kind and gentle little girl was obviously familiar with feeling disappointed. And even if I were to get her a gift, sing her happy birthday and give her all the attention that I had received on my tenth birthday, there was still 119 other students in this school who likely also felt neglected, and not just on their birthdays.
After months of interacting with these children and watching them in their idle moments, I could see the melancholy that shadowed each of them. This isn’t to say that they never experienced moments of fun or joy – there was certainly a lot of laughter during class discussions or dance lessons – just that while they continued to experience a deficiency in biological, psychological and safety needs, it would be quite difficult for them to achieve a state of self-fulfilment, otherwise termed as happiness. Here they lacked purpose, direction, autonomy, privacy, creativity, and most importantly, stability. There was nothing about their situation that made me think that poor people are necessarily happier.
Now, my experience was quite isolated – only three months – and I only had extended interaction with maybe 150 people there. I don’t claim to say that my insight gives me the authority to dictate that all the radically poor are unhappy and that everyone above the poverty line doesn’t consistently struggle to achieve a state of happiness.
But while money can’t buy happiness, it can certainly buy the opportunity to do more than just survive.
Photo by Annie Spratt