Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Poverty Spectrum

I used to live in Fairfield County, Connecticut. This does not mean that I had an Uncle Scrooge-like vault of money to practice my backstroke in. Similarly, I now live in a poor village. This does not mean that everyone wanders the streets wearing rags and looking dangerously emaciated. There are different levels of disadvantage. There is a spectrum of poverty present in poor communities, just as there is a spectrum of wealth between Bill Gates and Joe Executive, even if they both happen to live in the same place.

Many homes in Loopeng are made of a mixture of cow dung and mud, which is daubed over a tight structure of sticks and covered by a thatch roof. These homes are often well-taken care of, almost always electrified and frequently the home of such modern frivolities as television and stereos. They may be made of cow dung and mud, but cow dung and mud are not necessarily indicators of extreme poverty.

In fact, a residential address in a "poor" village is hardly an indicator of poverty at all. In addition to a plethora of mud-stick homes, Loopeng has houses that would not be too terribly out of place in suburbia. These houses have 2-car garages, several bedrooms and, of course, running water. Hot and cold, even! They have lawns and gardens watered by irrigation systems. They haven't got a speck of pavement nearby, but that's practically the only giveaway that these homes are in an African village, not a Floridian suburb.

Loopeng has poverty. Some people living here don't get enough to eat. It's true. But not all residents can be painted with the same brush. Not everyone suffers the same level of disadvantage. Even in a rural African village, the playing field isn't level. Some of my students are orphans living in child-headed households amidst absolute squalor (the mud-stick house with the roof caving in and holes in the walls). Some of my students live with both their parents in a three bedroom house and get dropped off at school in shiny new cars. As it turns out, very few assumptions can, or should, be made about someone based on geography.

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