I’ve thought a lot about poverty since arriving in Madagascar this past July. Every day when we step outside our home we are confronted with textbook images of material poverty: dirty kids with tattered clothes, trash and feces (both animal and human) lining the roadside, dilapidated single-room homes made of sticks, mud, and scraps of metal.
But we have also been here long enough to grow somewhat accustomed to the poverty. The same kids whose clothes are falling off now run up and say “Salama!” (Hello) with big smiles when we pass by. We unconsciously step around the trash and are slowly getting to know our neighbors that live in these homes. The initial shock of poverty has given way to an uncomfortable familiarity. We know its not “right”, but we see firsthand how people can and do survive with so little.
There are many good books that deal with poverty that delve into the challenges and propose solutions. The comments below are merely my (Josh's) observations about some of the manifestations of poverty that I've seen from our first 5 months in Madagascar. This is by no means a complete list. I won't surmise as to the causes of poverty here and will save this and the discussion about solutions for a future post.
Poverty is a lack of choice. I previously mentioned that Malagasy eat rice three meals a day. For the very poor, rice is all they eat. They don’t wonder what to make for dinner tonight - the decision is made for them. Choice doesn't exist when income is <$1 per day. Wealth and steady income gives the opportunity to make choices. We (the wealthy) are sometimes overwhelmed with choice: where to live, work, travel, what to buy, how to spend time, etc. The lack of choice often means a lack of opportunity to make change.
Poverty is a lack of convenience. There is a watering station just around the corner from our house. Most Malagasy homes lack plumbing and those without a well must visit the station whenever they want to cook, clean, and/or wash. Kids regularly push water-jug laden wheelbarrows down our street and women carry water-filled oil-cans with kids strapped on their backs. Needless to say, this is extremely inconvenient. Wealth allows us to dedicate relatively limited time to basic necessities of life. Consider air travel, automobiles on paved roads (I will never complain about CA roads again!), washing machines, dishwashers, stoves/ovens, down to the simple things like individually-wrapped food packages(!). These are conveniences that ultimately give us the gift of time. We, in turn, have the luxury of seeking whatever diversion that compels us.
Poverty is a lack of respect. Caleb and I recently attended the finals of the Malagasy Football Championship that was played in Mahajanga. Upon arriving, we were ushered to the front of a long ticket line and bought tickets straightaway. Minutes after arriving in the standing-room-only grandstand, we were invited to sit in a roped-off area near the mid-line. There are many similar stories where we have been treated very differently as foreigners. (As far as I have seen, wealthy Malagasy are generally treated similar to "vazaha", aka white foreigners, which leads me to believe that wealth is more significant than race when it comes to respect.) The poor wait for medical care, wait in lines for nearly any public service (ex. paying bills), are overlooked and ignored in many public settings, and are treated very differently than those with money. Not unlike how a homeless person might be treated in the US. I’m still not sure how to handle this gracefully - I was glad for Caleb's sake that we didn’t have to stand for the entire game, and thankful that we weren’t standing in the packed crowds when a fight broke out where we stood minutes before. A key motivation behind Eden Projects, Sarobidy Maternity Center, and Sarobidy Creations is to restore dignity to people through jobs, health, and most important, through hope in Christ. We are so glad to be a part of this incredible mission!
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this complex topic. Please leave a comment below or send me an e-mail. I am certain that my perspective will change throughout the remainder of our year in Madagascar. Please continue to pray for our family - that we will be used by God to share God's love through action and word and to do a small part in restoring this broken world!
Just for fun, here is a short clip of some kids that live in the neighborhood showing off acrobatic skills. Still trying to get my kids to try it!