15 July 2012
“I just caught up on your blog. As you may or may not know, I’ve had trouble dealing with poverty emotionally from a young age (like the day trip we took to NYC back in the day.. as we were arriving back at the car I was crying because I didn’t know how to make sense of all the homeless people we had seen that day). Of course I’ve had some time to make sense of it since then, and had a little more exposure to poverty in our culture and maybe one or two others. I felt some of those issues resurface as I was reading your post ‘The hand-out dilemma.’ I think your analysis of it, and your ability to separate yourself enough from it to make a rational analysis of it is very valuable. I was reading your posts from most recent to less, so a few posts later I read ‘Family, connected.’ The contrast between these two posts is noticeable: one is, as you define it, begging. The other is a gift to good people. I’m glad that’s a part of your experience over there, to balance the other out. Red Sox just scored a run. Now we’re only down 7-3.”
I was struck by his statement that, “your ability to separate yourself enough from [witnessing poverty] to make a rational analysis of it is very valuable.” Here is my response to him:
Hello Little Weasel,
That was a very thoughtful and unexpected email. I’m glad you enjoyed the posts and that they made you think, feel etc. It’s sort of weird, the issue of living somewhere with so much poverty. For starters, this part of TZ is the most affluent part – people have better houses, eat better, have more access to services (via Moshi and Arusha), etc. So to be honest I still don’t feel like I’ve been exposed to the truly grinding poverty that many people in this country suffer. When I visited an HIV support group with KEDA, then I felt like I had experienced some. But I’m not as exposed to it as I could be.
It’s also interesting how ex-pats deal with living here. Most of us are here to help the poor people. But our lives are so separate from theirs – we will never ever know what it’s like to be them, truly, even if we get the challenges they face. Obviously, throughout the developing world, foreigners live in varying degrees of comfort and integration, from Peace Corps volunteers who are very integrated to UN staff who have a very cushy lifestyle of comfort. Everyone has a different way of dealing with being here, and it’s fascinating. But everyone has a way out; everyone has access to things that locals don’t. And of course, this is something that gives a person pause. We have to reconcile ourselves to that fact. To accept (or not) that we have a lot more comforts than the Tanzanians around us, regardless of what strata of the ex-pat community we occupy. It’s tricky. Should we feel bad that we live such a comfortable lifestyle here (to clarify – compared to living in the US, not especially comfortable and definitely not easy. Compared to a typical Tanzanian, pretty darn comfortable and easy)? And yet to be in such a different place, we do need some things that are familiar to us. And I don’t think Tanzanians begrudge us our nice things; I think that for the most part they just accept that that’s how it is for ex-pats. We just plain old come from richer countries.
Also, the poverty isn’t the only thing you notice about society here – you also notice the patience, the different way people interact with fellow bus passengers, the very different, and much less cuddly style of parenting, the aspiration to leave the country because that’s the only way to get money, the view of white people as walking ATMs, etc etc. There’s a lot more to notice and experience than just the poverty, and I think because of that, it’s not like you’re constantly thinking, oh these people are so poor – you’re thinking all sorts of things!
And when you arrive, I think you’re expecting people to be poor, so it doesn’t come as a shock. Not to say that it doesn’t affect you, but that you were at least expecting it. Rather than having to deal with an initial shock, you can get on with dealing with all the things I’ve mentioned above. Maybe that’s just me, but I bet that’s the case with a lot of people. I mean, we’re all people who have thought about poverty and Africa, or we wouldn’t be here doing aid work.
And however I personally have dealt with these things, I still read the news about people who are suffering, refugees, war victims, and so on, and it still makes me cry sometimes. Because I just don’t understand how we can live in a world where these things are possible.