Everyone expects you to write about poverty if you travel to Africa. How do people live there, having no food and no shelter? How is it, washing your clothes by hand every day? How is it, having to fight a monkey over every precious banana? What does well water taste like? How to get rid of stomach tapeworms?
The reality I faced, mainly in Kenya since I spent most of my time there, poverty is not only about lacking money or food.
A few months ago I slept outside a bus station in a small town in Scandinavia. ’Slept’ is used figuratively here: it was cold, I had to wrap my legs in a sleeping bag and put on a jacket, so I mostly stayed awake and spent a few hours reading books. All this happened because I did not find a ride out of town and the station was closed between 1am and 4:30am. I was too cheap to find a hostel. I figured I could sleep one night like a hobo because I’m cool like that. Throughout my travels I’ve slept in many bizarre places for the sake of cheapness, and spending a night or two in the street like a homeless person in no way made me feel inferior to the people around me. In the morning, I would wake up and go for a coffee in Starbucks or buy myself a huge hobbit breakfast. There are people who do not even buy food. They are called dumpster divers and I will tell you this story some other time.
Homelessness and the philosophy ‘less is more’ found their way into subculture and artistic movements: hence all the squats and underground art projects in major European cities. The point is, homelessness often equals poverty and is viewed as a curse, homeless people being pretty much ostracised and considered marginal elements in Western society. When in fact, it can be a rational choice for people who simply have other priorities at a certain moment of their life, rather than having a house and five meals a day. Let us admit: the distracting need to eat, drink and sleep is sort of a physical discomfort we have to put up with, but over the centuries Western society managed to turn these unavoidable discomforts into indicators of privilege and social status.
On my recent trip to Barcelona, I met The Epic Bank Squatter. ‘Do you know that there is a guy here who lives in an ATM booth?’ my friend asked me. We later passed La Caixa ATM booth on our way from a bar at night: the guy was preparing his bed. ’This is revolutionary,’ I exclaimed. ‘With all the crisis and unemployment piling up, this guy, by sleeping in the bank, is rebelling against the banks that screw him over. Soon everyone might end up sleeping in banks because of the failing economy!’ Of course, the next day I bought a sandwich and went to talk to the ATM dude about life.
There he was, sitting on the pavement as usual, leaning against the clean windows of his adopted home, with an ancient tape recorder next to him, a pile of bags and (disturbingly) an array of toy puppies around his donation bowl. ‘How long have you been living here? What happened to you?’ I asked in Catalan and took a bite of my sandwich. The guy spoke back in Spanish, seemingly very much prepared for a full-blown interview. He turned out to be a foreigner who could not get a job in Barcelona because he did not have any valid documents, and the social workers were, in his words, ‘giving priority to black people and those latinos’. Now you probably imagined that this was yet another tearful story of expired visas and illegal immigration… except, the Epic Bank Squatter is from an EU country. His ID had been stolen, and his embassy did not provide any free assistance to get him home or renew the documents. Now, all this happened 3 years ago. For the past three years, the Epic ATM Squatter has been sitting at this very sidewalk playing music on the old tape recorder, sleeping in the ATM booth and looking poor. ‘Why wouldn’t you hitchhike back to your country or ask your relatives for assistance to get you home? Sure that there you can get your ID back easily and return to work here again?’ I asked. ‘Well, you know, I like Barcelona more than my hometown. It is warm here all year round!’
I still gave him a sandwich and wished him luck. But what kind of luck can you wish to a guy who already has it all? Dammit, he’s more settled in life than I am! I imagine that when he was a little boy he wished something along the lines: ‘I want to live in a warm place, not waste my time on work and play music’.
Now people in Africa, they do not really have a choice. I am talking about the countries torn apart by warlords, such as CAR, Congo, or Somalia, where even humanitarian assistance from abroad gets delivered through the hands of lawfully or not lawfully elected murderers.
But there are also countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, etc. where economy is doing pretty well, and wildlife reserves bring a stable foreign income. People do not starve, but rather live in very poor conditions. The place where I stayed was situated right next to the biggest dumpster in the province. All human-produced waste from nearby towns is being dumped there on a daily basis, and it is no wonder that many people’s life flourishes right on top of it. Entire families build their houses out of garbage, cook on the trashy fire, gather around the newly arrived trash containers to grab food supplies, recycling materials and any other handy things. It is their routine, and most of them never knew it differently. Moreover, most of their children will never know it differently.
The worst thing about poverty is not its mere existence and all accompanying signs of it. The terrifying thing about poverty is that people get used to it, and pass it on through generations. They get used to the vicious circle of growing up in trash, giving birth in trash and bringing up their children among the same mountains of garbage. They do not see any way out of it. Some of them have old TV sets in the house, they are aware of the world beyond their dumpster, but this world never seems attainable or remotely probable. Most of these children grow up in the permanent state of ‘I give up’.
The wonderful organization I volunteered with, along with some other NGOs and CBOs in the area, works in community development and youth empowerment. And while all these words ending with -ment definitely make it sound more complicated than it actually is, the simple truth is that everyone needs encouragement. For small children, small encouragement will suffice, for big adults, big encouragement is necessary. It doesn’t matter if you sleep on a handwoven mat made out of plastic wraps, or you laze your tender ass on silk sheets, or you sleep in your average middle class bed. Everyone needs to be aware of their options.
Children growing up in garbage houses must be aware that besides the obvious choice to stay here and carry on, they have an option to discover their potential, develop their talents, combine them with education and foreign aid – and make a glorious escape from the life they were born into.
It would be nice if we could send some complaining children with first world problems to an African village for a month or two, to fetch water from the well, milk the cows and eat ugali (substitute for bread in these lands, looks like baked brain, tastes like your socks). It would also be nice if we could send some street children from less fortunate parts of Africa to spend a month or two in Western countries, to decide how they like this crazy rhythm of life, rat race and socially awkward individualistic society, if they want to work towards this life of commodities and comfort. It would give us all a better perspective.