Sometimes You Cry in Africa

I read a paragraph in “Living Poor”, that has stuck with me.

“The incapacity of the poor to see the pattern of their lives is occasionally breached. I took a color photograph of Wai and his family standing in front of their house, and when the people of the town saw it, it had the curious power to make them weep. It was just a picture of a man, like any other in the town, with his eight children formally lined up in ascending order, his pregnant wife, and his mother. But there was something awful in Wai’s rags, in the tilt of his head, in the foolish pride that showed in his mother’s face for the voracious horde of naked kids. The picture summed up his whole life, a symbolic rendering of his past and future. The people would look at it and gasp. “Oh, my God, poor “Wai.” Perhaps for just a moment they saw themselves. Wai, of course, was the poorest, but not by much. You could measure degrees of poverty in Rio Verde with one pot or one woven mat or a dollar’s worth of fishhooks.”
(Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle. Moritz Thomsen)

I’m not certain I even know what poverty is anymore.

My experience in West Africa is that locals rarely speak about Poverty. I rarely hear a Malian use the term poverty. If a local does speak of “poverty”,  it is in reference to the weighty difficulties of another,  not themselves.

Personally, I don’t think I have ever heard a single West African reference themselves with the word “POVERTY”.

Is that strange, surprising even?

Maybe we are projecting poverty on people for whom it might not apply? (Remember, we are in the the Sahel,  the least developed and poorest region on earth.)

Sometimes, in a general conversation friends will matter of fact comment about a family situation and on the usual reality of having no cash to deal with it, since having already spent their money on sickness, medicine…..  etc. Making reference to the cost of things is just life.

Poverty is not a word lightly tossed around by West Africans, not like it is by westerners.

Life in Mali is lived each day with smiles, greetings, hard work, tea time, conversations, births, sicknesses, weddings, funerals, and friendship. This is the life we see and live, each day. Life is not consumed with a focus on poverty. Yet is is still there, showing its head at any health crisis. 

I reread this story of Wai this morning and it really broke something in me. I suppose it’s because the image brings back memories of very similar family circumstances I’ve seen over the years. Loved ones seem oblivious to how poor they really are, at least it seems so on the outside. There are probably times they cry too, not knowing what to do, when money is needed most.

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