Photos of people living in poverty in the developing world often appear beautiful, which is something I find perplexing. They often show lush fields with people clothed in traditional, colourful clothing or beautiful, smiling children.
This is something I’ve been struggling with since our first day here on September 3rd. As we were driving from the airport to our new home, I was overcome with emotion. The tears I fought back weren’t tears of sorrow. I’m sure I was feeling the relief of finally arriving in Malawi after months of preparation and anticipation and days of travel. But there was more. It was something about the scene I saw along the road that struck my heart. Was it the women walking with large baskets on their heads and babies tied to their backs, or the many children and adults walking along the side of the road, or the people gathered around tiny store fronts just up the dirt hill from the road? Perhaps it was the brown mountains circling the city and the tropical vegetation all around? The people, the landscape, and the mountains all seemed so strong. And despite the litter all around and the dirty and dusty ground, something seemed beautiful.
I think we see the beauty in poverty when we see the beauty of such resilient and strong people. Malawi is ranked 170 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The average number of years a Malawian attends school is 4 (compared to 13 in Canada). The gross national income per capita in Malawi is $1,073, whereas in Canada it is $42,582. Of the 16 million people living in Malawi, 15 million have no access to electricity. Those who have access can’t always afford it, and almost everyone experiences “rolling blackouts” due to lack of supply. Despite living in extreme poverty, most Malawians are warm and very optimistic. Despite what they lack, most people I meet here seem to be grateful for what they have.
But poverty is ugly and horrible. Garbage ends up everywhere here because of the lack of a garbage disposal service. And there are no public garbage cans. Then there are the deeper horrors of poverty. Last week I spoke to a friend whose niece—a young mother—was beaten to death by her husband. The couple’s one-year old child is still living with that father and left without a mother. There will be no justice served through a criminal system: there is no criminal system for the poorest of the poor in Malawi and no police to assist a woman at risk of domestic violence. There is no money for lawyers. There will be no trial. So, although there is something extremely beautiful about sunny, tropical landscapes and the strength and endurance of people living in poverty, the longer I live here, the more I understand the suffering and ugliness of poverty.
Living in Malawi with our family may sound heroic or admirable to North Americans, but we live an easy life here compared to the vast majority of Malawians. And in a few years we will return to Canada where we will once again have all the modern conveniences we are so used to. A few weeks ago I complained to my husband about our (damn) kitchen because the fridge doesn’t work properly, we have no electricity 2 or more days every week, the oven has no numbers on it (I think I’ve figured out roughly where to turn the dial for 350F), and we have no dishwasher. And yet I have far more than most Malawians.
After living without some of the things we are so used to having in Canada, I hold even more respect for the people living here. I know what it means for our family to live part of the week without electricity, so I have a better sense of what it means for most Malawians to live with none. I also have a better sense of the true ugliness of poverty, and the strength and optimism of the people of Malawi seems even more beautiful.
Photo Credit: Heather Chappell