Poverty, to some extent, is relative. In the developed world, too often is the word thrown around meaninglessly- by university students, who claim how ‘broke’ they are, spoken while wearing the newest clothing brands; by adults who live in mortgaged homes with refrigerators filled to the brim with food. So often, we use the word as a means of excusing ourselves from partaking in a certain activity or purchase. “I can’t buy the newest iPhone, I’m too poor!”, “I can’t go to the movies tonight, I have no money!”. We are detached from the true meaning of the term, only catching glimpses of its significance once in a while through our phone and television screens, or when it begs us for spare change on the streets. Poverty –true poverty- is a concept we know so little about, and yet a word which we use much too often.
While working in the informal settlement communities, my coworkers and I often stay to have lunch with the community members. This is considered an important part of forging relationships and gathering information and stories, as conversations flow more freely over platefuls of food when the mood is light. It is also a time when the communities’ minority groups –especially women- feel most secure to bring up some of their most pressing needs and concerns, topics which they may otherwise be too afraid to mention in front of their husbands.
During one such lunch meal, a woman from the community who had helped prepare the food for us and the attending community members rushed over to collect my near-empty plate. I handed it over, and thanked her for the meal. Wanting to wash my hands, I asked her where I might be able to find a washroom, and she walked me over to her home located nearby.
I walked in, admiring the beautiful drapes which hung around the main room, hiding the rusting metal walls behind them. “These are beautiful” I remarked. “Thank you,” she responded, “I sewed them all myself. Each one takes me about 8 hours to make”. Informal settlements are often regarded as unfavourable, insalubrious places - but for many people, they are home. They are places where they’ve grown up, where they have made memories amongst families and friends. A place they’ve decorated with photos of their children and hand-sewn drapes to cover the walls.
I followed her into the kitchen, and saw one of the women scrapping what remained of my food plate into a large bowl on the floor. “They must use the scrapes to feed the cattle” I thought. I washed my hands, as she continued to scrape more plates’ leftovers into the bowl. As I turned to leave, I watched as her daughter-no older than 4 years old- spooned the scrapes from the bowl into a smaller one, carried it into the main living area, took a seat on the bare, cold dirt floor and began to eat.
I’ve never been good at hiding my emotions, and the surprise must have shown on my face. The young girl’s mother gave me a shy smile, before turning back to the mount of dishes in the sink.
I realize now that poverty is not a term I properly understood. Because here, poverty is your daughter eating a strangers’ leftovers and not thinking twice about it, as otherwise she might go to bed hungry. Its’ living in a poorly built home built from scrap metal gathered from the nearest landfill, which you make to feel like home with photos of your family and hand-sewn drapes hanging on the walls. Here, poverty is making less than the $2.32 FJD minimum wage (less than $1.50 CAD) an hour, and being content that unlike so many other people, you were able to find a job.
So perhaps its a luxury in itself to think that poverty is relative. The more we continue to throw the concept around loosely, the greater will be our societal disconnect with the word’s true meaning and value.