Thursday, September 06, 2007

Thoughts on Poverty

What is the best way to help the poor? I (Rachel) have been thinking a lot about this lately. First of all, what exactly is poverty? It is more than a lack of money. I read this week that a person can be broke but not poor. There is a difference. Spiritual, emotional, physical poverty are all involved in a poverty mindset and worldview.

In the U.S. we can be cushioned from having to deal with the poor if we choose to. We can go about our daily routines without having anyone ask us for money, or food, or seeing any street people. Living in Mozambique is a different story. At many stoplights there are old women, or street kids, or the maimed coming up to our windows. And there are the con artists. One woman has an obvious abdominal tumor and says she needs money for surgery. However, she never gets the surgery because the money she collects goes for drugs. Others have figured out that people like to give food more than money. So they tell you what kind of food they want you to buy them as you go into the grocery store. Sadly, most of this is resold and the money used for drugs. And there are those who would rather beg on the street than work, because they make more on the street.

And then there are the people we are getting to know. A couple with three children moved here from another province to find jobs. But they have found nothing. He is South African so it is even more difficult. He has dreams of selling items on E-Bay but does not have a computer and internet café time is too expensive. They found a place to live rent-free in an unfinished house with no electricity or running water or furniture. It is better than the reed hut they had before. I’ve tried to encourage her to crochet small items that people need and can afford and have given her yarn and hooks and ideas. She hasn’t really taken my advice but made some handbags that she’s having trouble selling. So she is asking me for help with marketing. How can I really help her in a sustainable way? I could bring in lots of yarn from outside the country (the varieties are very limited here and expensive) and then buy everything she makes, but is that the best thing for her? What happens when I leave? She was a star student in the microenterprise course and is a trainer. So I encouraged her to hold a course with her neighbors and charge something for it. But the answer was that people think she is too young and doesn’t have the authority to teach them anything.

It’s hard to think about them when I go to bed with a full stomach and wonder if their children are crying themselves to sleep because they haven’t eaten for two eays. Then I had an idea—why don’t they at least grow some of their food? They have a large yard in front of their house and even though it is sandy, they can mulch and water and have something to eat. So I sent books on gardening and composting but then got the word that the owner does not want them growing anything in the yard. Hmm, can you find another plot of land? Or grow tomatoes in containers? Or …?

I’ve found that many Mozambicans will just accept these obstacles as their fate. So then they sit and wait for something to get better. I cannot really put myself in their shoes because I’ve never been in a place where I can’t find a job or a market for things that I make. I haven’t been part of a system that feels hopeless and weak. When I’ve had a need, I’ve had family with resources to fall back on. So I can’t really relate, but I can imagine what it must be like. I can pray that I will have compassion on the poor as Isaiah says. I can reach out and give with discernment. Jesus gave regularly to the poor and had a special fund set aside just for that. Never mind that he didn’t even own a pillow or a bed. So I know it is important to God for us to be generous and share. And I will continue to do that even though I know I will be conned sometimes and people will take advantage of me. I cannot write everyone else off because of them.

It is some consolation to know that our work is providing jobs for people who had none before. Granted, they don’t make a lot of money but it is a place to start. But we can’t give jobs to everyone and so I keep coming back to the questions of how I can really help my friends climb out of poverty. I’m learning that there are no easy answers. But I will continue to do what I know is truly helpful and trust God to guide me.