This morning, as I sip my coffee and check my email, I hear a familiar sound coming from my neighbour’s yard. It’s a creaking, grinding, metallic sound; a sound that echoes in childhood memories of sticky summer days. It’s the unmistakable creak of a swing falling to the ground and reaching for the sky. I smile with nostalgia for a simpler time.
And then I frown. I realise: my neighbours don’t own a swing-set. Their property is devoid of large playthings for their children. I listen more carefully and realise that the rhythmic creaking I heard was in fact their chickens and roosters crowing in a particularly melodic fashion. I sigh.
This is one of those moments when it hits me.
The reality of poverty, inequity and suffering hits everyone at different times in different ways. It is present in thousands of little interactions we have every day. There’s no fluorescent sign reading “Caution: Suffering Ahead”. There’s no way that these small injustices can be compartmentalised or shoved aside. The repercussions of inequity aren’t binary or even linear – they combine and fuse in every way. To make matters even more confusing, they’re often invisible. The lady who sells me vegetables in the market may have a smartphone, or may be struggling to feed her family, or both. A man walking the street in clean, pressed clothes may have a well-paying office job, or may have only one suit to wear for special occasions, or both. Poverty is hidden for the same reasons that any other struggle is hidden: to preserve dignity and to prevent the discomfort of others. Moreover, just as people are not defined by any struggle they face, people are not defined by their poverty; they are defined by their infinite experiences, relationships and qualities. Reminders of inequity are therefore not the one-dimensional, visible human suffering we’ve been trained to expect through charity propaganda. They are more often experiences of systemic failures or small ironies.
A few examples that I’ve experienced in my time here so far:
- I am able to visit a VIP office in a government institution because of the colour of my skin and the money in my pocket. The computer in that office has technical difficulties because it is so infrequently used. I am reminded of the immense wealth gap in this country.
- During a cab ride in Accra, it begins to rain heavily. Kat and I try to roll our windows up. Hers gets stuck. The driver leans back and pulls the window up with his hand. He wipes the inside of the windshield with a rag as he drives because his cab’s fan is broken. I am reminded that working people can be so financially strained that they cannot afford to maintenance the tools of their trade.
- Late in the afternoon at my house, I notice an earthy, burning smell. I look outside to see our neighbour cooking supper for her family. She has not gone inside all day; she is constantly washing, sweeping, cooking, and otherwise meeting her family’s needs. If she had access to higher quality tools to accomplish these tasks, she would have so much more time. I am reminded that the time taken in meeting basic needs limits a person’s potential to work and rise out of poverty.
These everyday interactions with inequity are not glamorous, provocative or noble. They’re just visible symptoms of myriad unjust systems.
Moreover, these moments do not speak to the needs or desires of the people involved. Too often, we are presented with images of poverty where a direct solution is begging to be implemented. Give the homeless person a house; give the sick child healthcare; give the uneducated youth a school. The reality is that the needs and desires of people suffering due to poverty are not so easily seen or met. These images are just that: images, used to simplify uncomfortable complexities and appease western donors in search of moral vindication. It is much easier to consider poverty if it is presented with an apparent solution. The everyday injustices I have witnessed do not bring forth a cry for action, make clear the needs of the people involved, or inspire an immediate, self-evident solution. They just incite melancholy and frustration.
Finally, these interactions say nothing about the happiness of people in poverty. At some level of my subconscious, I had assumed that people in poverty would be visibly sad. I had assumed that their emotional distress would be a palpable force which could be channelled to drive action. I’ve definitely been proven wrong. One of the most striking things about these interactions with inequity is their incredible normalcy. For people dealing with inequity, this is daily life, not a tragedy. No one cries. Life goes on. This adds another layer of complexity to my already muddled thoughts. My personal definition of suffering is linked not only to physical pain but to emotional pain. If someone is in physical pain, but is happy, are they suffering? I don’t know. It’s a poignant question that makes me uncomfortable, and it’s not one I can answer for anyone else.
I can hear my neighbour’s child crying now. The chickens and roosters have quieted. I think about what that child’s life might look like. I don’t pretend to know anything about that child. I don’t know my neighbours well; I don’t know whether their kids go to school, I don’t know how much they have to eat, I don’t know whether they’re sick. Like anyone else affected by poverty, their suffering, if any, is not put on display. They’re just complex, multi-dimensional people living their lives. My neighbours are not the story of poverty, nor is poverty the story of my neighbours. All I know is that the broken windows in their small house are covered in plastic, they cook supper on an open flame, they defecate openly in their yard, and they do not own a swing-set. And this makes the reality of the inequity of our world hit me, hard. I feel sad and angry and disgusted and hopeful, but this isn’t about me. Behind my barbed-wire wall, I take another sip of my coffee, put in my headphones and get to work.
Disclaimer: This blog leverages my own personal experiences over the past month. These have primarily been in relatively urban areas of Ghana, in the Kumasi and Accra regions. In no way do my personal experiences speak for the reality of all developing countries or all people in poverty.