A lot of times when I tell people I am an international affairs major, I get asked, “Aren’t there enough problems to be dealt with at home, here in the US?”
That is definitely true, many of the same problems that developing nations are confronted with exist at home. For the most part, the difference between the problems in the States and problems in the developing world is their scale. There are too many people in the US that don’t have enough resources to eat everyday, but per capita and in its severity, hunger is a far more damaging problem in much of the developing world than it is in the world’s largest superpower. Poverty is another one of these problems that exists all around the world, but in different levels. In the past few years I was able to witness poverty in four countries: the United States of America, Ecuador, Kenya, and Chile. In this post I’ll try to compare what life is like below the poverty line in each of the three foreign countries that I’ve visited and I will leave you to compare these countries to poverty in the United States. I know that there will be exceptions to everything I say but I will try my best to give you a general perspective on what life is like for the poor in the countries that I have travelled to.
Ecuador: The poverty that I witnessed in and around Duran, Ecuador was devastating. I didn’t expect it at all and seeing it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life (as deranged as that sounds, its true). I remember driving to an after school program one afternoon in the neighborhood called 28 de Agusto. It was called this because August 28th was the day that the land was taken from the government and the community started building their houses there. The people that lived there were previously homeless and would build homes on this land only to have them destroyed by the government. They continued to rebuild their homes time after time until finally the government granted them the right to live there. When we drove through the neighborhood it started to smell dreadful. I didn’t now what it was until a little up the road I saw piles of burning garbage. No trash service, I thought to myself. I now know that its not that uncommon in poor ares of the developing world, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, being from the United States. Next we saw the houses, small shacks with tin roofs built on wetlands with wood planks serving as bridges to dry land. Small shanties, no running water, disease brewing in the puddles polluted by the burning trash. Children were running around barely clothed and there were dead dogs laying limp on the side of the road.
Kenya: There were two types of poverty that I witnessed in Kenya, rural and urban. They were both very different, rural being more drastic than urban. I visited the Kibera and Mathare slums and met people who live in homes maybe 12 or 14 feet by 10 feet, some smaller, some slightly larger. In these homes lived too many people, six in a house that size that I was welcomed into. A woman showed us around her house and pointing to a pot said “this is my kitchen.” The lone pot was what she considered to be a kitchen. I suppose there isn’t much room for a kitchen when six people need to sleep in such a cramped space every night. Outside her house, we had to skip over sewage and trash that had become part of the ground, like a fossil that has formed after years of laying in the same spot. Again, no trash disposal services. The river that ran through Kibera was swamped by garbage. There were water spigots scattered throughout the slum that were for all of the 400,000 to use. The tiny houses were right next to each other, each one as cramped as the other. Women could not go out alone because when they did they risked getting sexually assaulted. Especially at night, instead of paying to use one of the privatized bathrooms, often people would defecate in a plastic bag and throw it as far as they could. “Flying toilets” was the name for this disturbing practice. The rural poverty was much worse then this, simply because they had nothing. Practically zero material possessions. Although the quality of life for many in the urban slums of Kenya is unhealthy and depressing, there are many more opportunities for social mobility in these areas than there are in the rural areas of Kenya. The Maasai tribe that I spent the day with live completely off of the land. They live in huts made of cow dung, dirt, and grass, eat mostly goat and beef and get their water from a small pond. In order to boil their water and cook their food, they make a fire by rubbing two sticks together. They live 3 hours (walking) away from the nearest road, which is a 4-5 hour drive away from Nairobi. They are so isolated from civilization it is nearly impossible to get proper health care, education or for the government to provide them with any aid (The urban slums on the other hand, are glorified internationally and are provided with aid from all over the world). This was the most intense level of poverty that I’ve seen thus far in my travels. They are completely at the will of nature. That is why they are the people being most affected by the current drought.
Chile: It is still hard for me to grasp the poverty in Chile because we haven’t seen that many poor areas. The ones we have visited do not seem all that bad in comparison to Ecuador and Kenya. The houses are pretty large, sometimes even two stories. They have tin roofs and are made of conventional building materials. There is no running water and only recently did they get electricity but they do have a pump in the neighborhood where they get their water. All of the houses are gated and well locked like everything here in Chile seems to be. It seems that the largest problem surrounding poverty in Chile may be inequality rather than severity. The country’s economy has been growing at 6% annually for over a decade now but the income disparities are stalling quality of life improvement. While the poverty may not be as severe here as it is in Africa, or even Ecuador or Peru, there is a way to solve the poverty that does exist: better income distribution. If industrial workers weren’t subjected to such long hours and low wages, the poverty would not be as bad and society wouldn’t be so class oriented.
So, there is a brief description of the poverty that I have seen internationally over the last two and a half years. It is tough to leave areas that are struggling so much but it is rewarding in the sense that it makes me appreciate all that I have and it also opens my eyes to how many people in the world need help. My encounter with the third world in Ecuador was one of the most rewarding of my life because before that trip I never really thought about the lives of other people around the world. I wanted to play college baseball and be a sportscenter anchor! After seeing that type of poverty I realized that the world is sooooo big. There is so much to witness, so many people that are struggling and aren’t as fortunate as I am. There are so many people who could use some help. After my experiences in Ecuador sunk in, I switched my college plans from being a communications major to an international affairs major with the hopes of helping people who need it.
I hope you can compare some of the stories and conditions that I’ve written about here to some of the issues that we face in the United States (as far as quality of life goes) and feel as fortunate and needed as I do.