13 July 2015

all poverty is not created equal.

When Ashley and I told people nearly two years ago back in the United States that we were moving to Tanzania, a common response was, "There are plenty of poor people in the U.S. Why do you have to move halfway across the world to help people when there are so many in need right here?"

And of course it is true - there are far too many people living in poverty in the United States - more than 45 million people, in fact. We were called to East Africa for a variety of reasons, but an article I recently read reiterated that which I already felt: poverty in the U.S. is not the same as poverty elsewhere. Did you know that if you live at the poverty line in the United States of America then you are among the top 16% of income earners in the world? Yet in the U.S., you are poor.

That's why, when Tanzanians ask about life back in America, they cannot believe that there are any poor people. How can someone own a car, have running water, eat food everyday...and still be considered poor?

I'll share a brief but recent story to highlight the difference.

Ashley and I walked out our front gate in Mabatini to take out the trash, and a bunch of the neighborhood kids greeted us hoping to play in our yard. We stepped back through the gate and the children began rummaging through our garbage. One item in particular caught their attention: an empty, flattened cereal box.

this is what the children found, and to think it cost us about $6.00...cereal is pricey here.

Picking it up in his hands, one of the boys, Stevu, looked at the image on the back of the box - a cornfield with a red barn in the backdrop - and exclaimed in Swahili, "Ni Marekani? Ni pazuri sana! Nyumba nzuri! Ety?" Or in English, "Is this America? Wow, it's so beautiful! What a nice home! Isn't it?"

Red barn and a cornfield similar to that on the cereal box.

Ashley and I looked at Stevu's innocent little face, and then to each other, thinking how what this sweet boy considers premium housing is where we store animals and farming equipment. Stevu took the cereal box with him to put on display in his family's humble home, perhaps as inspiration for the kind of house he hopes to live in someday.

The fact is that the majority of homes in Tanzania would likely be condemned and deemed unfit for human habitation if they were located in the United States. But not only is this kind of living the reality for many Tanzanians, but also the only reality they will ever know.

That's how a Tanzanian boy can see a picture of an American barn and think, "Wow, now that's upper class living."


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience. I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. It really gets you to think of the stark contrasts. Safe travels!

  2. Wow, what an eye-opener! One thing I think must be taken into account - and this is not to disagree with anything you've said, just to add - is the psychological aspect of poverty. You can feel poor in a country where you're actually in the top 10% in the world if wealth is distributed very unequally in your country, or especially among those whom you're around. Rachel and I always felt well off in Budapest; in north Dallas we felt not-so-well-off, despite having much more money.

    The poverty line in America would be middle class in much if not most of Europe (I've heard it said that America's poor have a higher daily protein intake than most Europeans), but you feel so much worse in America there's this shelf of about 20% of the population that controls about 2/3 of the nation's wealth, and all of our advertising, our tv sitcoms, our fashion trends, the daily images we are bombarded with are based on their lives (because if that's where all the money is, that is who companies want to advertise to). A big hubbub was made over "the 1%" a few years ago, but it's really the 20% that affect everyone else a lot more on a daily basis. So everyone else works their tails off to live like the 20%, and when they fall short, they feel very crappy.

    Of course this is nothing compared to what real poverty is in places like Tanzania - don't get me wrong. But if you can live in a village where everyone else is about like you, and the other villages on the horizon are about like your village, and the images of a much wealthier lifestyle are absent or at least confined to a very small part of your consciousness, then there is something peaceful to that.


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