Tuesday, 23 August 2016

What is Poor?

Today I sat with a few of my coworkers at lunch, while discussing one heavy topic - poverty. I had joined in mid-way, just as one was talking about how even when they are struggling here in Nova Scotia, people back home didn't take these complaints seriously because they were in America.

This ideology or understand of what America is has been something I have thought about frequently in the past year or so. At times, I have encountered what I like to call hardship bingo where players either intentionally or unintentionally try to out-do others in the conversation with antidotes of who's had it worse. And, this almost never ends well. The reality is, no country is completely devoid of hardship - poverty is felt in all areas of the world, because it's a social phenomenon. The problem of comparing poverty is that the contexts of said poverty are somewhat drastic, depending on where we're talking.

I have mentioned in previous posts and in many conversations both in and out of my academic and professional careers about my own experience living below Canada's poverty line. This is what I refer to as "Canadian poor," which shows similar characteristics of poverty in other countries, but in no way compares to most. Never have I entered into a conversation about my experiences with an intention of trying to out-do someone else's experiences - regardless of where they are from - because for those who have felt poverty, the instability of meeting basic needs, it is very personal.

The reality is - and I'll be the first to admit this - that no matter how rough we may have it in Canada, there are, unfortunately, far worse conditions out there. And this is pretty much were I joined the conversation.

Yes, I may have lived on $12/week in the first year of my undergrad for food, and sure, I watched my mother skip meals so that my brother and I could have a roof over our head and three meals a day. But that's the point. At all times, experiencing (what could arguably be considered the top end of Canadian poor) these instances of poverty growing up and even in my adulthood, I still had three meals a day - nutritional value aside - and a roof over my head. My taps leaked fresh, potable water within milliseconds of turning them on. I didn't worry about being out on the streets, because there are social programs that aim to prevent that (even if they don't always work). I didn't have to worry about healthcare because that comes with my citizenship/passport. Oh, and I was making the decision to remain in school... university even! These are all things that do not come so easily to everyone, further reinforcing my privilege - a privilege that was bestowed upon me by chance, completely out of my control.

I have seen poverty outside of Canada. I've witnessed it first hand. It's frustrating - because so much of the poverty I have encountered is systemic - it's curable! The problems, the very foundations of its being are rooted in mismanagement, inequality, and lack of education. The latter is probably the most essential component, and yet the most frustrating, cyclical aspect of it all. Studies have shown (Google it!) the impact of education on many social issues (health, socioeconomics, women's rights, etc. to name a few) is incredible. Yet, for the vast majority, obtaining an education - even basic education - is a luxury; it's unattainable. But, not because these individuals are intellectually capable, but because in the choice between feeding yourself or your family and getting an education, one weighs more heavily and has far more obvious short-term effects than the other.

Recently I have had a few conversations with people - friends - who have asked me how I handle being in a place where I'm constantly surrounded by poor people. To be honest, most times I'm fairly oblivious because of the way it is framed. This is because, even though it is sometimes painful to hear or see how poverty is impacting people around me, there's one great difference between attitudes of those suffering from poverty in Canada (or the West), and those from other countries (which from my personal, first-hand experiences include Ghana, Uganda, and to a lesser extend, Kenya). In Canada we focus on what we are without. We complain about not having certain things. Heck - even when we have access to disposable income we still complain about the things we do not have. But outside of the West, I've seen people fight - taking on multiple jobs, working and/or developing community groups dedicated to addressing specific issues, whatever it takes. Yet, they are also some of the most kind, compassionate, giving people. I continue to be amazed and humbled by the generosity of the many Africans I have met while attending church services when in country. That they would hand a few bills each week at their Sunday service**, despite the fact that they are having their own struggles is something we Westerners could really learn a thing or two from. Poverty outside of the West is without a doubt far more harsh, and yet those I have met laugh more, are more appreciative of what they have, and are the first to give the shirt of their back for a fellow human in need without even blinking an eye.

To close, I just want to make sure anyone reading this knows I'm not painting all of anything with the same brush. Canadian poor can be devastating and hard to get out of. Likewise, all Africans are not poor. In fact, many have done quite well for themselves... many have not. But, many Canadians have done well for themselves, while others have not. My point is not to create the foundation for another round of hardship bingo, but to reinforce that no matter how little or how much we may have, we need to be more appreciative of what is within out reach - be it the tangible or intangible. But, perhaps we need to focus more on the intangible inventory, rather than our physical possessions.

Despite the fact that my brain has been circling this conversation from earlier and piecing together my own thoughts from the past few weeks, it was really refreshing to have such a conversation at work. I'm also happy to report that at least one week has passed without a lunchtime update of Pokemon. So... there's that.

-the Orange Canadian

*I would assume those attending services on other days of the week are equally as generous, I have just not had the pleasure of attending any of these services. 

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