22 December 2014

poverty of things versus poverty of ignorance.

There was a time when I warmly greeted the notion of living more closely with the poor. Having less. Living simply. Surrounded by those consumed only with meeting their basic human needs. And I was going to use my skills to help them achieve their goals and reduce the amount of poverty in their life.

How romantic it all sounded. Or how foolish.

Eleven months in Tanzania has taught me a whole freakin' lot. One thing I have come to discover is that there are (at least) two distinct forms of poverty. I will call these (1) poverty of things and (2) poverty of ignorance. The experience with each has been so different.

Prior to this year I only considered the poor as the former: a group of people with few material resources and limited access to meeting their basic human needs. After all, this was the type of poverty I encountered during volunteering activities that fit neatly into my schedule and would briefly remove me from my privileged bubble in the United States. This was even the kind of poverty I met during a short-term international immersion trip to Swaziland, having visited just long enough to taste the smell of poverty but not long enough to understand its various dimensions. This was the sort of poverty that I would see on the street, feel sorry for, and pass by with a bit of a heartache. "I feel bad for you," kind of stuff.

poverty of things: mud brick house, thatch roof, goats sleep in the center room (the smell confirms it)

But like many things, a glance does not provide the full picture. Immersing myself a bit more deeply in the reality of the poor has opened up the latter face of poverty - that of ignorance.

I expected to move to Tanzania and have my heart broken every day by the materially poor people living all around me. Heck, I even wrote about the experience of our first heartbreak in Tanzania. I also expected to struggle greatly because of the newfound material poverty in my own life: frequent outages of electricity and running water, preparing all meals from scratch, limited discretionary income for dining out or vacations, etc. But honestly, like most expectations, reality proved to be quite different.

Truth be told, seeing widespread material poverty has been kind of…well...easy. And taking bucket showers when the water goes out? It becomes normal. That may sound cruel or shocking, but I have found the poverty of ignorance to be far more personally challenging. So what am I talking about?

As I see it, poverty of ignorance stems from a lack of education and a lack of diverse experiences. To put it bluntly, it is not knowing anything different or any "better" because...how could you? Let's look at some examples of how I experience the poverty of ignorance on a daily basis.

I experience it when...I am called mzungu ("white person") ten times in rapid-fire succession by a thirty-something Tanzanian man. Dude, what? Or when a Tanzanian grandmother can only respond with mzungu after I say shikamoo to her, a respectful greeting for the elderly. Seriously, lady? The ego in me wants to yell back kiafrika ("African") at the top of my lungs. Imagine walking down the street and every time you see a Chinese person yelling, "Chinese person!" Speaking of which...

I experience it when...I am called mchina ("Chinese person") every other week, because it is a reminder that these particular Tanzanians have no idea what they are saying or an understanding of the world and its cultures. Honestly though, does this Irish face look Chinese?

I experience it when...countless Tanzanians tell me that the United States is a country in Europe. Though I would enjoy easier access to real-deal gelato. Yum.

I experience it when...I hear nearly every Tanzanian child say "good morning" in the evening and "good evening" in the morning. Years and years of English classes and they don't have a clue about the words they are speaking. My attempts to correct them have proved futile.

I experience it when…I board the daladala or walk through the market and all of the Tanzanians start talking about me, making fun of me, assuming that I do not know any Swahili. When I remind them that I do, they are stunned and tell me they only said those things because they thought I could not understand. Uh...what? Does that really make it acceptable?

I experience it when...child after child is taught to yell "Give me my money!" at all the white people they see. Some kid yells this at me everyday - in English. Announcement to all Tanzanians: this kind of behavior does not inspire charity.

I experience it when...Tanzanian men ask for help finding an mzungu wife. Why? Because it makes them look cool. Has a certain badge value. I simply tell them that no white woman wants to leave her comfortable life in the U.S. or Europe and live with them in the shaghala baghala that is Mwanza.

I experience it when...every third day I am unable to pull in or out of our home because a Tanzanian kijana ("youth") has decided once again to park their pikipiki ("motorcycle") directly in front of our gate despite the abundance of parking space anywhere else.

I experience it when...I buy fruit in the market and after paying the vendor says, Nipe soda. ("Give me soda.") Man, I just paid you! Go buy your own soda.

I experience it when...Tanzanians shout "How are you?" in the most obnoxious, high-pitched voice imaginable as an attempt to imitate (read: mock) our American accent. It's just not cool.

Most of all, it's just a feeling that, like so many blog posts, feels impossible to convey.

I often lose sight of the value of education, of being taught to think critically and to imagine. I forget the importance of diverse life experience, of cross-cultural interaction. Each teaches me volumes about myself and the world around me, and how to interact with others - whether they be from my own culture or another.

Most of the poor that I encounter on a daily basis in Tanzania lack that education, lack those diverse experiences. Their life experience is no doubt valid, challenging and beautiful in its own right. But a sense of the global earth eludes many. An understanding of different cultures and how to respect them is absent. There just isn't the opportunity.

Aside from the few Tanzanian elite who can afford to send their children to private schools abroad, all attend the same broken education system. Countless end with the equivalent of a 7th Grade education (and then they become teachers which only perpetuates this vicious cycle). Notions of innovation, imagination and creativity are absent. Instruction is administered through fear, and dialogue education is the enemy of a system built on the paddle and the chalkboard.

Outside of the classroom, experience is lacking in diversity. If you are among the poorest of the poor, you cannot afford to travel, to experience new lands and cultures. And chances are, those from other lands and cultures are not coming to visit you and your not-so-much-of-a-gem neighborhood.

So you are left with limited and lousy education, living among people with the same background, life circumstances and world perspective as yourself.

And you get your local and international news from a country that intentionally shuts off the national electrical grid so you can't watch TV or listen to the radio and learn about the crimes your own government is committing.

The intent of this post is not to badmouth Tanzanians or speak ill of the culture. Rather, it is to muddy the waters. Poverty isn't just one thing. It's not just about possessions. Life in a developing country has taught me that poverty goes much deeper and is more complex than that, and that those other dimensions have, for this expat, proved to be most challenging.


  1. Another great post. In the UK, we often bad mouth our education system, but we really don't know how lucky we have it. My husband and I were just talking the other day about how education isn't just book learning - the ability to think critically isn't something you're just born with, it is a skill that is taught, even if not at a school desk. I continue to love your honest posts about your experiences in Tanzania. How long are you guys staying?

  2. This post is really informative to all kind of people. I am very happy to see the post. I will request you to give more information about this. I have gotten many knowladable speech form here. I have also website where you can get some knowledge which may be for your welfare. Visit here…..
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  3. here is the entry i referred to above: http://buckaroothandi.blogspot.nl/2014/03/obstacle-or-opportunity-case-of-online.html

  4. Thank you for your very thought-provoking article! I am an ESOL teacher in USA SC

  5. Your article is an excellent example of how we need to be reminded of the difficulty our immigrant students face when stepping to a new culture.

    1. My wife and I often remark that we have a newfound appreciation for the challenges that immigrants in the U.S. must face.


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