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Thursday
Apr032008

Dirt Poor

sand-from-hand.jpgA number of people have asked what it was like to see "extreme poverty". There are two ways to answer this question: from the practical perspective (as is "what does 'extreme' mean?") and from the emotional one (as in "how does it FEEL to see it?") While there's still much processing for me to do, I'll address the issue here as best I can.

First, let's talk about the practical aspects of being dirt poor. By the way, I'd define dirt poor as being so poor that you value as a precious resource the dirt under your (invariably bare) feet. Mali, depending on whose stats you use, is either the third or fourth poorest country in the world. (According to the UN, Mali is a poster-child for "LDCs" -- Least Developed Countries.) What does being at the bottom of the economic scale look like in practical terms? Well, for starters, it doesn't look like anything after about 6pm. That's because you have no electricity to power light bulbs. One of the reasons people in Mali suffer from such poor education is because they must work for basic survival during the day and can't read at night. For a person who reads voraciously, and almost exclusively after 9pm, this was a shocking concept to contemplate.

No electricity also means no refrigeration. Few if any Malians can go to the market on Saturday and stock up on a week's worth of meals. Rather, they must go to the market every day for their food; without refrigeration, yesterday's tomato is rotten by tomorrow. Malians -- more specifically, Malian women -- spend the bulk of their day on the process of food collection and preparation, starting first with getting the daily water supply at a communal well, moving on to firewood or charcoal collection, then on to the market for the day's sustenance. After food prep, basic hygiene, and some rudimentary farming or craft work, it's dark again.

Dirt poor also means that "dirt" is an active part of your life. For example, the preponderance of Malian homes and buildings are built of mud bricks. They are crafted during the rainy season and left to dry in the sun. When complete, they are stacked, much like legos, and mortared together with more mud. It also means that you are scratching your own food out of the soil. Most Malians measure wealth in the size of their garden and/or the size of their goat, cattle or camel herd.

I won't even go on to the details of health care. Let me just share one little fact to serve as a microcosm for the big picture: Mali has only one endocrinologist and one eye surgeon for the entire country -- a country with over 13 million citizens. Yes, you read that right. While we have some health care issues in America, it is certainly an eye opener to understand how lucky we are to even have problems in our system to deal with. Mali's problem is that there's no system to have problems with!

I think you get the point on the practical implications of poverty in the region. It's dire. So, let's move on to the emotional implications.

It's easy to develop a guilt complex as a Western tourist if you insist on seeing Mali through Western eyes. There's simply no debating the fact that we have an embarrassment of riches. A little queasy feeling starts in your belly about your last impulse Target run when you see an entire village of people without shoes. That said, the more I observed, the more I began to understand that it's not all about the money. The reality is most of the people we encountered on our trip weren't bitter or despondent. Rather they were thankful for having something and hopeful for a brighter future. While they had a clear understanding of the benefits of "modernization", they were equally reluctant to achieve those benefits at the expense of their culture, independence, family structures or pride. What else to make of the emotional stress of poverty I've yet to crystallize, so I will leave further observations for later posts.

Reader Comments (2)

That shot of you on a camel is priceless...welcome home!
April 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterK8
Wow, the photo here is so nice, i am impressed with the women in your coumtry, they are all so beaufiful.
By <a href="http://www.airjordans.cc/"> Michael air Jordan </a>
April 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael air Jordan

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