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Thoughts On Poverty

Ah, I'm writing up a storm here in Mombasa this week. I guess that I have the opportunity and something to say as well.

I talked to my parents tonight, so I decided to write a little something about poverty, something we'd talked about. I've mentioned it before, but it takes awhile to get your head around this sort of poverty. It's a little different than what one can imagine thinking about from the comforts of the US.

It's hard to describe poverty here in words. When you first see it, there is this strange phenomenon that occurs. I think of it as the Disney Effect--it's like being at Disney Park, there is all these strange buildings and sights and you think that surely it isn't real. People don't really live in those mud huts. Those ladies aren't really gathering water from that fetid pond for drinking and bathing in. Those kids walking around in rags and barefoot aren't really inhaling glue from that bottle.

Then the effect starts to wear off. This takes some time; actually walking around in the midst of it can hurry along the breaking up of the illusion. You start to realize that people really do live in those huts. When you're invited inside, and there's this dirt floor, no electricity, very dark and smoky, you realize that this is a home, and that a large number of people in this country live in such homes. Then, there are the patients who come in barefoot with septic ulcers on their feet, and you realize that there are people who can't even affort as basic of footwear as flipflops. You have patients who come into the clinic for treatment of malaria or measles who don't even have the 200 shillings ($3) for the standard charge.

Seeing people walk around barefoot is an interesting example of this strange effect. At first I was shocked that I saw so many people without footware. Then somehow in my head, I had this subconscious decision that perhaps these people were walking around barefoot because they want to. See, that's how your mind deals with the idea that some people can't afford shoes and there's nothing you can do about it. You don't have the thought actually cross your head that they might like to walk barefoot, but somehow it gets in there. Only in the last week did I take a second look at it and think, my God, those people are walking around barefoot, and I doubt they prefer it that way.

Walking around Mombasa's center can be very revealing. This can be so much fun: there are little stands everywhere, people selling everything under the sun, and thousands shopping in the streets. There are spice shops, vegetable markets, and all sorts of shops for clothes and shoes and everything else. Yet everywhere, part of the very fabric of the city, is poverty unimaginable by most people in West. If you look carefully through the crowds, you start noticing the beggars lining the walls, first a few, then dozens, then more. You start noticing the street kids looking so dirty and ragged you almost can see them in some movie role based on, well, their lives.

Walking around in the bush is no different. If anything, there is even more poverty. The area around Kokotoni is one of the poorest in Kenya, and it shows. I had one child so sick from measles he could hardly move, and we almost turned the baby away because her family couldn't pay, until I ended up paying. Later the mother and child came back. The baby had recovered very well, but the mother had a bad case of malaria and needed to be admitted. Only her husband didn't want to spend their cash on that, so they went off to their fates. Again you see poverty in so many instances, children with terrible wounds and infections on their legs  because they have no shoes and because their families wait until it is nearly too late to bring them in. You see whole families living in tiny unlit huts. You see men, even boys, crushing stones in makeshift quarries into gravel, selling bucketfuls for 10 shillings each (16 cents); they might manage to crush five bushel buckets a day if they work real hard. That is reality here, a hard reality. Even the staff at the clinic has it rough; the nurse and pharmacist make 4000 shillings (less than $70) a month, and I make almost as much in each biweekly paycheck that the daktari makes in a year.

Again, one comes across the Disney Effect: this time, you see this sort of poverty enough, and it almost loses its effect on you. I remember one day I was showing the daktari and his friends my flashlight, a LED lamp that cost me about $20 in Target. They mentioned that it must have been an expensive flashlight, and I responded without thinking that no, it wasn't that expensive of a lamp, just 1500 shillings. Well, that's a lot of money here, a couple weeks of pay for many people. Whoops.

So, thinking about how to deal with this poverty is daunting as well. Corruption is much too common here. Just this week, there's a big deal about the previous dicatator/president Moi being sued by a businessman who gave him a 50 million shilling bribe, didn't get anything for it, and wants his money back. The interesting thing is that I read the article, and there wasn't hardly any mention at all that Moi accepted the bribe. That isn't what is making waves. So, rampant corruption will have to end, because it neuters the government's ability to fund roads, education, and all the other things that could end poverty.

I'm also a big believer in enabling people to save themselves. You can pour billions and billions of dollars into a problem, but if people don't stand up and take charge of their own lives, then it is a waste. I support organizations such as the Heifer Organization that requires people to be in charge of themselves. Something I struggle with here is a kind of apathy that people have. They know their government is corrupt, but hardly a word is said about it; there is almost an amused dismissal of it. Plenty of people are unemployed, but it's easier to blame situations and people than to be innovative, to work towards changing a situation. Of course, it's easy for me to stand on the side and say this; so, I am strictly making an observational point.

So, a final thought: this is but one tiny corner of the developing world. Not only that, but Kenya has an immense amount of potential, and many places aren't so fortunate. It's a little overwhelming to consider how much poverty is in the world, how many people live their lives hand-to-mouth. I think I said before; it's easy to arrive somewhere like Kokotoni wanting and expecting to make such a difference, and it takes experiencing it to realize just how little you really can do; there is just that much need out there.

Until later, keep safe.


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