Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Enigmatical Poverty

Malawi is consistently ranked among the 5 poorest countries in the world. If you look up Malawi in the encyclopedia, ironically its entry follows that of malaria, you would find the per capital income to be 596 US dollars. I used to always be skeptical of numbers like these. Aren’t things cheaper in poor countries? The answer is a tentative yes, but once the shock of 7 cent mangoes wears off, you begin to see the hidden costs. Anything imported is more expensive, and since Malawi manufactures so little, a lot of things are more expensive. I recently saw an old computer, which in the US would be sold by the pound, selling for 800 dollars. If I were to make an estimate, let us call it the fruit-adjusted-guess-jesse-is-not-qualified-to-make-estimate, I would say Malawians live on about 1000 US dollars a year. Most Americans would call this impossible, and I would have too until recently. With this sort of budget forget about a car, a telephone, electricity, internet, or running water. Forget about having more than one room for that matter. Look down at the grocery bill. See the occasional staple that it is too cheap to really be considered in a food budget? That is all you eat, and to make it simple, cut it down to corn flower, wheat flower, beans, salt, and veggies (don’t worry, you will grow most of those). What really struck me was the absence of “essentials” that, as a member of the American middle class, I had been raised to think were a basic right. Things like health care, food, education, books, pens, and art supplies. These were the things your parents never said no to when growing up. Many of the teachers and MCV workers we meet live in one or two room unelectrified huts, sometimes, with their entire extended families. By any definition this lifestyle should be representative of poverty, but somehow in Malawi it isn’t. I didn’t dawn on me for some time what element of poverty was missing from the teachers and professionals at MCV. I finally realized it was the psychological element of being poor.
I associate poverty with feelings of inadequacy, a feeling of being destitute, and a position at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The teachers and MCV workers live simply and without excess, but they have jobs, and are therefore very well off compared to the average villager. Their houses have doors, they have metal roofs instead of thatch, and they have enough food. Most of the people that work at MCV are big shots back in their villages. They own business, are landlords, and are the epicenter of supports for their entire families.
Fraction, the man who runs the sewing department at MCV is quite the industrious fellow. He owns several houses, a tea house, a small shop, and recently started a bakery. He excitedly showed this all to me one afternoon after I had stumbled into his tea room. The entire complex is housed within an area no larger than a suburban garage. Someone working minimum wage in the United States would have far more money and live a more luxurious life than Fraction, but still, Fraction would be wealthy and the minimum wage worker would be poor. What I have come to realize most about poverty while in Malawi, is that it is relative. The wealth of a person is not determined by the absolute amount of money they have, but by the amount of money they have compared to other people.
When I came to Malawi I became rich even as my standard of living decreased. Here I live on 3 or 4 dollars a day in a one room house which, occasionally, has electricity and running water. In this United States I would be poor, but on this budget I still spend more money than most Malawians. I don’t have a car, but I also don’t have to consider the cost of a matola (see earlier post) before I hop on. I eat a rather simple diet, but because I am not exposed to richer foods I rarely want for them anymore. When I go out to eat and get a simple plate with chicken and rice, I can honestly say that I enjoy it as much as a more elaborate meal in the United States. I think my satisfaction with my rather simple life in Malawi stems from the fact that I am rarely exposed to those who have more, and frequently exposed to those who have less. I feel rich for the same reason that Fraction does, because I am doing well by comparison.
A consequence of my relative affluence is that when I walk into a room everyone else becomes poorer. If I take my laptop into the teacher room to do grades, everyone there becomes acutely aware of what they do not have. After several occasions where I (or other American teachers) brought expensive items to school, I noticed a distinct change in the mood of the room. The other teachers began talking about how they wanted those items. Even days later, I would overhear conversations between the teachers expressing dissatisfaction that they could not afford the things we could. Since I noticed this I have become very careful of flaunting my wealth around other Malawians.
In the teachers room the other day, Moto, a fellow teacher, divulged his master plan to become a janitor in the United States after he heard that janitors have cars. I began to think of how Moto’s life might be different if he carried out his hairbrain scheme. In Malawi Moto is in the elete; he has a college education and has a respected profession. He enjoys his job and associates with other intelligent people near the top of the social hierarchy in his village. If Moto became a janitor in the United States he would be at the bottom of a society and loose, what I think, are far more valuable things than a higher standard of living.
Americans may have expensive jewelry and caviar, but I don’t think Malawians are any less happy than their counterparts in the United States. When I visit isolated villages the people seem happy. They probably know there are those who have it better, but it doesn’t matter. Their world is the one around them, where they have friends, family, and everyone eats the same corn mush day after day. There is also a relaxed and jovial atmosphere here, one which I rarely experience in America. The stress knot which had gained permanent residence between my shoulder blades during college now only flares up when I am trying to check my bank statements using the glacially paced internet. Visitors to Malawi will expound endlessly about the kindness and generosity of Malawians and I suspect that these vary qualities may be a result of poverty.
Everyone here lives perpetually without a buffer to the turmoil of life. If someone in Malawi looses their job, it could literally be days before they run out of money for food. Parents of a boarding student we know recently failed to send their weekly check for food. Within two days the student was out of money and going hungry. This constant vulnerability has spawned a sense of community and generosity which defines Malawi. Whenever a teacher at school looses a family member (unfortunately a rather common occurrence), a collection immediately begins to help the teacher pay for funeral costs. If you loose your job or livelihood, you are immediately welcomed in by a family member. When Jes and I went to visit the home of fellow teacher Mr. Piyo (he is probably around 30 years old), he excitedly introduced us to his mother and father who share the room next to his. Such an arrangement in the United States could vary well bring out homicidal tendencies, but in Malawi Mr. Piyo can’t imagine living without mom and pop. When I told Mr. Piyo that such arrangements were rare in the United States, he said he thought that was sad. Mr. Piyo and the other teachers at MCV live a life of relative comfort, but unfortunately there are many in Malawi who are not so lucky. Poverty does exist here with the worst kinds of consequences. The constant deaths resulting from illness strike a particularly big blow to the psyche of Malawians.
In this blog I did not mean to discount the poverty of Malawians, I meant only to articulate how the use of Gross Domestic Product and Per Capita Income are incomplete measures of wealth and poverty. I have noticed expats and volunteers in Malawi frequently discount the recession of the developed world because their economies, even if decreasing, are still magnitudes more wealthy than countries like Malawi. I think we need to resist such sentiment. The fear of losing what you have, of moving backwards, is very real. It is what has made the economic disaster in Zimbabwe so horrific. Zimbabwe was once the wealthiest country in Africa, but is now rounding out a decade of negative growth and inflation that has left the country’s moral in shambles. Zimbabweans I have spoken to describe the country as having an atmosphere of despair that you can viscerally feel. I doubt the knowledge that they are still better off than Malawians would be of much comfort. Being poor anywhere is a painful experience and we should acknowledge that there are components of poverty that are not buffeted by living in a wealthy country. We cannot call everyone in America rich, same as we can not call everyone in Malawi poor. There are parallels, and a common human denominator that must be acknowledged.


  1. Jesse, awesome writing. This is why we all need to travel, or work/volunteer abroad......If the average non-travelled American could experience this, our world, here in the US, would have hope for focusing less on things, and see/experience what really counts in this life and world. Thanks for sending this out. I want to send it to everyone I know. Much love to you Jesse......Donna

  2. Hi Jesse
    this brendan your cousin I think it really explains things and how we need to donate things to other people who are poor.And they need money and tools and lots of other things they need and wich we have extras of, but we haven't exactly done any thing for them or given the tools and things they need. So I think you see the whole picture not just the smaller portion that lies unless you see the picture. And you'll help other people understand the whole picture like you did with me
    Sincerely Brendan F