Dec 3, 2009
“If you have come to help me you can go home. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together.” Australian Aborigine Woman
Before I came here I was filled uncertainty and fear about going to one of (or the) poorest countries in the world. I agonized over what that would mean and what that would feel like. I can testify that it is real. Nobody is exaggerating. Poverty is real and virtually all Americans live rich compared to how people live here.
Being here reminds me in a way of the most interesting and disturbing temporary job I have ever had. For one week I worked as a transcriber with a company that was doing employee interviews at a nuclear research facility. I was literally in the room with nuclear weapons manufacturers. They were nice and normal people. Mostly, people complained about office politics in the interviews. Although nuclear weapons continue to freak me out, it was a beautiful lesson about how there is no true enemy—not even nuclear weapons manufacturers who, as it turns out, are more stressed out about Bob in the Compliance Department than they are about nuclear warfare.
Experiencing the country of Niger, even for six weeks, has also been a beautiful lesson—but a lesson about something else I am afraid of: poverty. Poverty is real and it isn’t okay. No mother wants her baby to die. No woman (or young woman) wants to develop fistula. No one wants to have AIDS. No one wants to have lost multiple family members to Malaria. No man wants to feel incapable of feeding his family. Nobody would rather have a life twenty years shorter because of where they happen to be born. And from the women I know who have been pregnant there is a consensus: women don’t want to be pregnant for the majority of their adult life. Niger is a “people live in less than a dollar a day” country and that has a lot of ramifications regarding quality of life.
But it is paradoxical. Niger should be sending people the United States for Nigerien Peace Corps. Niger doesn’t just need us, we need Niger. There are ideas here and ways of life here that we would be better off knowing. The family structure is largely intact and rural life is hard (no doubt) but community firmly exists. I guess it’s the irony of going somewhere to teach and instead finding myself very deeply a student. Life is so different here. In some ways it is a thousand times harder, yet in other ways it is easier. I will probably never be able to explain what I have seen to myself let alone those of you who are reading this blog. This paradox does not mean that everything is fine. Everything is not fine. But pity is not the answer. Fear is definitely not the answer. Only looking at things through dollar a day lens is not the answer. The annual United Nations poor country competition is not the answer. It is more complicated than that. Thus sayeth Monica, expert of all things Nigerien after six weeks.
Discussions of poverty often end (or begin) with some variation of a “but they are happy” argument. “It’s too bad that people are living in poverty, but they are happy so at least there’s that.” It is true that in Niger smiling and laughter exist (thankfully). However, the “but they are happy” observation is perhaps better located in a discussion of what really makes us happy as human beings and not as a terminal argument in discussions related to poverty. We know from personal experience that an excess of material goods does not equate happiness. We also know that the human spirit is capable of finding joy in even the most trying set of circumstances. The resilience of the human spirit does not mandate a passive approach to human suffering.
So what is the answer? I obviously don’t know and there isn’t one anyway (to be sure) but I will say that in Niger, there is a feeling of gratitude and that is something I think we could learn a lot from in the United States.
I think many of us in the United States (myself included) fall more into a category of greed. Let me speak for myself. Instead of gratitude, I have often I just wanted more (things, clothes, space, higher ceilings, better thread counts) and I’ve only been grateful that I don’t have less. The knowledge that I am (comparatively) filthy rich makes me afraid of poverty. Afraid it could happen to me. This makes me feel greedy and scared—like hoarding while feeling guilty about it. There is beauty in this, though, because when poverty declines it benefits us all. Poverty isn’t just about poor people. We are all impacted by the realities of each other. What is the saying? Until all of us are free, none of us are free. Thus seethe Monica, expert on United States culture since 1979.
posted by Monica at 5:04 AM