In a world where poverty is measured in terms of material wealth, I have found myself asking myself this question again and again in recent years.
I think of the man living alone, in England, in a one bedroom flat with no more than a table, chair, bed and a few kitchen utensils to his name, yet with regular social gatherings with friends he can rely on he describes himself as completely content and wanting for nothing.
I think of the Andean mountain village community in Ecuador who struggle to raise the $2 per child charged by the school to provide their children with a bag of sweets and biscuits on the last day of term before Christmas, the only Christmas present those children will receive. The children make no complaint, they are no different from their peers. They live a life of daily adventure, exploring their environment, taking risks European parents would quail at, getting all the attention they need and want from their parents and extended families, with no shortage of food or clothing. Just no Christmas presents. To all intents and purposes theirs is a life of poverty, and even though they know they don’t have money to spare they only recognise themselves as poor when someone draws it to their attention.
I think too of the Mongolian nomadic people who could lose their whole livelihood when a harsh winter follows a dry summer, a combination that can kill off all their livestock. A harsh life that can be seen in their eyes, in a climate where the relatively rich (in livestock) can be brought into utter deprivation due to the circumstances of their climate. For this reason many have moved into the capital city where there is only a little evidence of wealth in a country that is innately poor.
And then I see the home of a quartz miner in the mountainous deserts of Namibia: an old North American pick-up dragged high into the mountains, its wheels long gone, the interior seating beyond sagging; a mattress laid out in the flat bed of the rear of the truck, tent canvas spread out to cover the mattress and an area beyond that servers as a kitchen and eating area. A home has been constructed here. Inside it is clean and tidy. Nearby is a pit toilet, dug into the ground with three walls and a door for privacy, but no roof – a roof is hardly needed in a country where there is no rain. A huge water cistern stands on a trailer nearby. There is so much apparent hardship in this life, living conditions that some have described as appalling. The ground is barren, no food will grow here. When they have enough quartz to trade the miners drive into the nearby town, like the pioneers and gold diggers of the American West, their route worn as tracks through the rocky landscape, where they trade gemstones for money, food and water. How much choice do they have about their lifestyle? To me it seems hard and lonely – the miners are all men and most if not all seem to live alone in this barren land. It’s not a lifestyle I would choose but what would they say if we were able to ask them about living in poverty? Would they consider their lifestyles as deplorable as we might in the West? They work hard and their basic needs for food and shelter are met.
As one of the last remaining traditional African tribes, the bare-breasted Himba women who live in the wilderness areas of Namibia’s Kaokoland trade posting for photos in exchange for basic foodstuffs such as sugar, salt and rice. Or at least those who live near the more well-used roads do. Those who live deeper into the wilderness know more the suffering of hunger, when the rivers rise and close the roads during the wet season, preventing the tourists, the people who pay for their photos with packets of food, from driving the flooded roads. The land is all but barren, crops are scarce. Some of the Himba have chosen to abandon their traditional lifestyle, moving instead into towns and villages, often selling the jewellery and crafts for which their people are known. Such transitioning is hard but that is no doubt better than experiencing the pain that can be seen in the eyes of the women when they look at their flaccid breasts that are not making enough milk to feed their babies as they beg you to take their photo so you will give them food.
How poor is poverty? I make my own judgements on these situations, based on my own experience of living in a relatively wealthy country, although I am by no means relatively wealthy within that country. What I see is that poverty and wealth come in many guises but, materially speaking, sometimes even the relatively poor can seem relatively rich, while sometimes the relatively rich are also insanely rich, in a world where material wealth often doesn’t bring emotional happiness or spiritual contentment but where severe poverty destroys lives and human potential.