living with poverty

Friday, 9 May 2014

We don't have to go far to relate to poverty. Even with our thick brick walls, we are not isolated from it. Rwanda is far from the poorest country in the world, yet many people in our rural community live in poverty. It surrounds them, controls them, and threatens to consume them. In our brief time here, we have met many people struggling to survive, and have heard of how poverty has a devastating effect on their lives.

A friend of ours had a break in recently. The thieves came into the house during the day, unnoticed, and hid under a spare bed. During the night, they emptied the room of the bed, most of the family's clothes, which were kept in there, and whatever else they could find. This father relayed his sorrow at having had a break in, and that now he couldn't pay for his children to attend school after the semester break. Having already arranged to buy some pigs from him, we bought them straight away so his kids could go to school.

Our colleagues have started visiting the sick in their homes, providing basic health care and giving health related advice. They came to the home of a very poor family. Their one year old didn't crawl or eat solid food, and our colleagues could see that the child was malnourished. When asking about the family's diet, they heard that the family lived solely on corn. The family was allowed to grow some crops for themselves on some nearby land, and had recently harvested beans. During the night, thieves had come in through the windows, which had no bars or glass, and had stolen the entire bean harvest. The family was back to surviving on corn and waiting for the next crop of beans to grow. Fortunately, our colleagues could point out a naturally growing tree in the area which is very nutritious, giving the family hope.

A woman and I were talking (with hand gestures) about how many children we have. She held up 3 fingers, then took one down again. She had recently lost a child. I thought maybe she'd had a miscarriage or a stillborn, but when talking to someone about it, I found out that her 3 year old had died suddenly during the night. The likely cause of death was malnutrition, but as the child hadn't been seen by a doctor, either before or after death, it's guesswork at best. I just wanted to cry.

Our washing mama came looking for work. She and her husband hadn't eaten for 2 days, giving whatever food they had to their two young boys. She has been washing our clothes since we arrived, and last week she asked me if we had a spare t-shirt or 2 for her children. I didn't understand her words, but I knew what she was asking. I found a translator just to be sure, and told her I would have a look before the next time. I knew we had done a heavy purge of the kids' clothes before leaving Denmark, but we still have a lot compared to many people around us. Lucy's clothes were the only size her 2 boys would fit, and Lucy and I picked out a t-shirt together that she wanted to give, making sure it wasn't too girly (of course, they don't care about that). We sent Christian into town to buy a few things and he came home with a small stack of previously loved clothes. The mama was so surprised and grateful to get so many clothes.
Yesterday she was here again, washing our clothes, and Alexander suddenly said,
"They're poor, aren't they?"
"Sorry?" I asked.
"They're poor, because they asked us for clothes."
"Yes they are. but nobody likes to be poor. Do you see how hard the mama is working, so she can buy food for her family?"
"That's why we pay her," he said, "because she's working for us."
"Yes, and she came to ask for work, not for money. She wants to do what she can to help herself."

Hearing these stories makes me angry, sad, frustrated, grieved, hopeless and full of despair. Some days, when I just stay at home, I don't need to see what's happening around me. Some days, I don't want to know. Some days, I just don't know what to do. Living with poverty, right outside our doorstep, is one of the things I was most worried about, when moving to Rwanda. How can we help all these people? The problem is just too big.

And when I get stuck in that thought, it helps to remember something Mother Theresa said,

"Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you."


  1. I hadn't heard that quote before, but I am so glad you've shared it here. Your writing is beautiful even when it covers should a devastating topic. It must be so hard to struggle with this.

  2. Marianne Merrild10 May 2014 at 15:53

    Meget rørende beskrivelse - og også meget godt citat! Tænker at det må være en god trøst på de dage der er lidt svære! Knus og tanker - Marianne xoxo

  3. So heartbreaking. I can't imagine how emotionally overwhelming this must all be. I think you (and Mother Teresa) :) are right about not worrying about the numbers. It's so easy to do. I know we distinctly felt that after we had been to Ethiopia. It just felt like we could never do enough. But that is such a discouraging mindset. You are right to focus on one person at a time.

  4. oh wow fiona, i can so relate to is so overwhelming being surrounded by poverty. cambodia has a lot of theft as well, and it makes me so angry that people would steal from other people in poverty. living overseas has also been the first time i've had legitimately poor friends and coworkers - not just people i'm volunteering to help tutor or mentor, but my friends. and i can often have the reflex of, give them money! but that doesn't solve the problem. it's so good to write honestly about our experiences and struggles to learn how to really help people without hurting them.


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