04 May 2015

poverty can really mess you up.

"What are you doing? Stop that! Leave me alone! You don't understand at all, do you? What's wrong with you? GO AWAY!"

This is me, yelling on the street at Tanzanians. Way. Too. Often.

These are not my finest moments. So what gives?

I am going to be honest. For too long this same terrible thought would creep into my mind: so many of the Tanzanians I encounter in Mwanza are just terrible people. They are terribly mean, terribly ignorant and terribly annoying. What is wrong with them?

Whoa. Hold on a second. What is wrong with me? How can I possibly think such terrible thoughts?

Sometimes it's as if I don't even know who I am anymore. I mean seriously - who is this crazy white guy yelling at random strangers on the street? Is that really me? Or those Tanzanians harassing me - is that really them?

After being stuck for too long in the thinking that "these are just terrible people," I feel like I finally had a breakthrough. I was praying about my struggles and seeking clarity on my emotions and behavior, when suddenly I found myself feeling like a victim. Quite literally I was repeating, "I am the victim. I am the victim. Many of the Tanzanians I meet on the street are harassing and abusing me. I am the victim."

But then it occurred to me: I am not the victim, and they are not the perpetrators. All of us living in Mwanza, Tanzania are being crushed by the same dreadful thing: poverty. And being immersed in a culture of poverty does crazy things to you. I mean straight up cray-cray.

From my perspective, poverty drives the locals to desperation, causing them to say and do things they otherwise may not. (For example, stealing my phone on the public bus, reaching into my pocket to grab my wallet while buying produce in the market, or telling vendors to charge me more money because I am white.) It also limits their broader understanding of the world and its people, producing an ignorance of other cultures and ways of behavior. (For example, constantly yelling "white person, white person, white person!" and "give me my money!" and making fun of and laughing at me.) 

Poverty also brings about the worst in me, the expat. It continuously tests my frustration, draws out my anger and strikes at my ego. (For example, formulating nasty come backs in the local language in my mind before anyone has even said anything disrespectful to me.) Some great missioner I am, huh?

All that to say that being immersed in a context and culture of poverty can dramatically affect your thoughts, words and behaviors. That applies to the local who has always lived in it as much as it does to me who entered from the outside. While our perspective of the poverty may be a bit different, it nevertheless produces in all of us an extreme fatigue and fundamentally alters our behavior.

The irony of course is that it is when we are pushed to the edge of our limits that we gain a newfound clarity and perspective. Our night guard has already modeled that for us, a man with very little things yet a profound joy and reliance on God. And for as much as living in poverty has challenged and even brought out the worst in me, it has also led me to new levels of spiritual growth and maturation that would not have been possible any other way.

But the "aha" moment (or kumbe moment as we say in Kiswahili) came when I stopped thinking of myself as a victim in a foreign culture and started recognizing the damaging effect of a life immersed in poverty. It affects all of us. 

Poverty can really mess you up. Guess that means I should keep working to eradicate it.


  1. I've thought about this too, after going through an eerily similar cycle of thoughts and feelings when I lived on the south side of Chicago, and I don't think that poverty causes this. Poverty can be an excuse for treating people in an inhuman way, especially if it is combined with an ideology which teaches "they're the reason I'm in poverty." But there are many impoverished places in the world where people simply don't treat others this way, even wealthy-looking outsiders.

    For example, northern Mexico. Here is a region so impoverished that the villages rely on a giant drum of water to be dropped off from a truck every day for their drinking water. When a friend and I went backpacking in the mountains down there during spring break one year, I thought, "We are in trouble. We look like wealthy Americans, with our backpacks and hiking gear, which is pretty much what we are." And we weren't hiking in any designated park, just through canyons with impoverished villages. But to my shock, almost every truck that passed us, usually a decades-old beat up truck, stopped and asked if we needed a ride (we obliged several times). The guys riding on donkeys smiled and waved at us, as did the sunburnt guys drinking beer all day in the villages. And when we needed a place to spend the night, the first farmer we asked said we could certainly sleep on his land, offered us cigarettes (this calmed my nerves considerably), and invited us into his tiny two room dwelling that night, where he lived with his wife and eight children, for homemade tortillas and coffee. My take away from all this was that in northern Mexico, unless you run into the 1% of the population involved in drug cartels, you are basically among the nicest people on earth, despite being some of the poorest in the western hemisphere.

    I strongly believe that it's not poverty itself that brutalizes people (makes them brutal - the original definition of 'brutalizes'), it's the psychology that may or may not go along with it. I think this is true of most material conditions in general, especially living standards. If you think, "I don't deserve the condition I'm in," you amplify whatever discomfort exists a thousand-fold. This works both ways, as it can be a torture for you to think, "I'm here to help these people; I don't deserve for them to treat me this way." And there can be truth to this thinking - you might be right about this, and they might also be right that it's somehow all Westerners' fault that they're so poor. The point is, as Shakespeare said, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." In the case of the south side of Chicago, it was the constant preaching of local demagogues like Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright that taught people to blame every discomfort in their lives on another group of people, and made them treat those people so hatefully you almost couldn't help but laughing, while blinking back tears.

    My last advice is that, while you're a great human for having gone over there, you're not a superhuman, and there's only so much of this a person can take (and some people can take a lot more than others, for whatever reason). You should not let your pride prevent you from getting out if you need to. One sees a similar thing with teachers at inner-city high schools who see their job as kind of a mission to help awful students, and maybe even see what they do as a kind of penance for past racial wrongs committed by their society, but eventually the awful verbal mistreatment and physical threats to their persons drives them to a point where they flip out and say or do something that gets them into serious trouble. Know your limits, and don't let pride stop you from saying, "enough is enough."

    1. I have never felt that Tanzanians blame Westerners for the poverty in this country, so I don't think the so-called abuse or harassment that I experience is a conscious attack on me for that. Rather it seems to be, as you alluded to, the psychology that accompanies poverty. So when I say that poverty can mess you up, I largely refer to the psychological effect of poverty on people. And while it often is not pretty, there are of course countless examples like the one you referenced in northern Mexico: overwhelming hospitality and the value of the relationship above all else.

  2. I suppose I should make clear that I don't think every inner-city high school student is awful to their teachers, nor every person on the south side of Chicago mean-spirited, just as I'm sure not everyone in Mwanza is giving you trouble. Sadly it only takes one despicable act or threat to get in a person's head, and repetition doesn't help. Sometimes I wish I could go back and give it another try up there, and I've considered the idea of teaching at an at-risk school, but one most know one's limits and where they're best suited.