Africa was amazing. It really was one of those life changing, perspective altering experiences. Since I’ve been back everyone has been asking mostly about Kili. How hard was it? Did you make it to the top? You did! Congratulations, high five! Smiles all round! But you know what? What got to me most was not that I went to Africa and climbed to the top of the mountain. It was the poverty I saw at the bottom.
I don’t think I was meant to see it. Our guides were very careful to take us where we were meant to be, and not further. There wasn’t much opportunity for random wandering (except for at Stonetown in Zanzibar). I took the time to quietly slip out and explore the little town we were in. At first I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at. It seemed that people were glad, dressed in their brightly coloured clothes selling fruit on the side of the road, wandering about on their business. Everyone seemed happy, the sky was blue and it was warm. Life seemed good!
I bought fruit from street vendors and admired all the stores. Walked past little impromptu market places set up along the dirt roads, and admired the very low key wood scaffolding. I listend to the people speak and yell at each other around me in a language I couldn’t follow. I stepped out of the way of shiny cars and admired the taxi men on their motorbikes, all lined up waiting for customers. Everything was busy, and moving, and bright and happy.
Until it wasn’t. Until I realised what I wasn’t seeing. Which was the man with no legs begging on the side of the road, hoping I’d look at him. It was the incredibly dirty, incredibly skinny street children wasting time on a back street corner, who eyed me and my camera up as I passed. It was the guide telling me that he’s not able to afford to go to university, or buy a house or do anything more to improve his life other than by living day to day. It was the tourist shop vendor who was trying so hard to convince me to part with an extra dollar or two, so he could continue to run his shop and compete with the fat well paid vendor who bribed tourist operators to bring their hordes to visit across the way. It was the too small child who took such delight at having her picture taken, who left dirty little fingerprints on my legs when her mother wanted to leave, because it was clear we weren’t going to buy her bananas. It was the crowd of people huddled around a single tv on the dirt road after the sun had gone down, as we drove past on our luxurious bus. It was the fish market with the fish on plastic on the ground. It was the man who picked through the rubbish I left on the table hoping that I’d left something he could eat. It was the children minding goat herds and working the fields with their parents when shouldn’t they have been in school? It was the old man with open sores on his legs. It was the skinny teens walking along the road mid afternoon with plastic canisters on their heads, which I really hoped contained water.
I saw all these people live in a manner which I’ve never had to, which is to say, under the poverty line. So openly under the poverty line.
I came back to London and I was in such dissonant place. I wasn’t sure of myself, of how I lived my life. I’d never once considered myself rich, or privileged. But it has never been more clear to me than right now I live in that very cushy 1%. I’ve never lacked for food, or clean water. Education was right I didn’t even know I enjoyed. I have a job, a very cushy job that pays me a pretty penny, so I can afford any kind of medical care I might want or need. Anything I want I can buy, because everything I need has already been well taken care of. I have a roof over my head, more clothes than I ever wear, and access to a shower and a washing machine.
I live an easy life well above the poverty line, and how do you align that when you can remember the faces of so many that don’t?
Poverty in Africa is a problem and it’s heartbreaking. I’m sure what I can do.
I felt that throwing money at it wasn’t a solution. One, I don’t have enough money to solve all the things that need solving, and two, where would it go? I know that most kind of aid isn’t a long term solution. I also know that some aid runs the risk of destroying local economy – (a very high level) example might be something like a charity provides food to a community. Locals stop farming their own food, because it’s easier to accept the aid. When the aid stops, the local farming community is then non-existant. If I was going to support a charity, I’d want to it to do more good than harm, but it’s hard to tell from the outset whether this is the case. It’s also not clear whether the charity is fiscally + morally responsible, or whether they’re a bit corrupt and skimming.
There’s also the problem that throwing money at a problem doesn’t make me feel like I’m contributing. It doesn’t ease the dissonance I have, but rather makes me feel like I’m paying my guilt off. The problem with this though, is if I did something that I felt like I was contributing, would I be making a huge impact for a small number of people (say, like moving to Africa and volunteering in a orphanage) or would I be making a small impact, that allows other people to make a change for a large number of people (like, say a charity that does more good than harm, and is fiscally and morally responsible).
Really I think what needs to happen is change at a political level. Which is something that I feel that I would be relatively useless at. Not to mention that I’m not African, so my chances of being successful there are relatively nill.
And then I wondered about the poverty where I’m from, or am. There is poverty in New Zealand. And in the UK. There is poverty here in London, I see it all the time, but it’s less easy to look at. The people begging outside tube stations, the smelly men who ask you if you’ve got any spare change, the old lady who has plastic bags on her feet and is looking through a rubbish bin. I did a terrible thing the other day, and oh, all the shame I feel. I was thinking about this post, wondering what I could do, and a man was begging with his dog, asking for money. I looked away, and walked past him. I LOOKED AWAY. Shame shame shame shame.
If I have coins I’ve taken to giving them, how they spend it is their business, but I hope that they spend it on food or medical care. I wonder what the UK government is doing to reduce poverty, if there’s a way to volunteer with a shelter or food kitchen, or whether I could do something a simple as make half a dozen hot meals and deliver them to hungry homeless people (assuming that I could find some, and could distribute food in a safe way). Can I do that? What can I do?
I haven’t figured it out yet, and it’s weighing pretty heavily on my heart and mind. I fear that if I don’t find something to do soon, I’ll forget. I’ll forget how privileged I am, and I’ll lose the empathy I had for all the people struggling away in Africa. I’ll lose my will to help, to be better person, to improve lives other than my own.
What do I do? What can I do?
What is it you do?