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The Relativity of Poverty

Right now, I am sitting in a poorly lit conference hall in the central African nation of Burundi. A midwife is giving a presentation about a province of the country situated in the far east, and has outlined the following challenges in maternal care in the country:

  • Trained medical personnel
  • Medical supplies and facilities
  • Cultural awareness
  • Electricity
  • Religious biases
  • Means of transport
  • General infrastructure
  • Literacy
  • Available funds

So basically everything is a challenge. Finding a medical facility with electricity is nearly impossible, as is finding an actual medical facility. If you find a medical facility with electricity and a competent medical worker, you probably aren’t actually in Burundi.

Over the past year, as family and friends have read various drafts of The Paths of Marriage, one of the questions I have most often been asked is,

“How did you know how to depict poverty in 1950s India?”

One of the main reasons is a lifetime of wisdom, anecdotes, and often random musings of my real-life maternal grandmother, who really did grow up in abject poverty in 1950s Chennai. Her bits of information, however, didn’t make a complete picture. What did fill in the gaps of my understanding of poverty are scenes such as this one; scenes such as this serve the bitter reminders that poverty is both relative and all-consuming.

Before joining UNICEF, I worked for the UN World Food Programme, which is an agency based in Rome, which is a capital city of a country with crippling rates of unemployment. Indeed, many Italians I have met over the years have not lived in Italy for years, but rather moved elsewhere in Europe or to the States to find a place with better job prospects.

When I worked in Senegal in West Africa, most people I met also wanted to move to find better opportunity. Because France and Germany have stricter immigration policies, guess where many Senegalese decided to move to make their better life? Italy. In Uganda, most people I met dreamed of using their native English skills in the UK, Canada, or States.

The first conversation I had when landing in Burundi a month ago was with my taxi driver. As The Paths of Marriage is constantly one of the prominent topics on my mind, when I began to talk to the driver about his life, what he said struck me particularly hard.

“I am sending my kids where they have can a better life. They are going to West Africa or Uganda. They can’t stay here,” he said.

Here in Burundi, the lands of (accessible) opportunity are the same countries whose citizens hope to escape elsewhere. The poverty in Burundi is so severe that fellow impoverished African neighbors hold the perceived key to success.

Having never actually lived in poverty myself, I cannot claim to understand poverty at a personal level. What I do know from my work across the African continent and from my grandmother’s insights, what I depicted in The Paths of Marriage was the destruction poverty delivers on the individual. As the midwife explained, even if one element for success is present, all of the other needed elements may be lacking. Understandably, a natural desire of those living in such a fragile society is to leave, to find a place better for oneself and one’s family.

In Lakshmi’s case, even though she was able to get an education, her education did not mitigate gender inequality, violent crime, or a lack of sustainable work. Instead, Lakshmi found her way to the American state of West Virginia. Although impoverished compared to the rest of the United States, West Virginia had much more relative to where Lakshmi grew up. The very notion of moving to West Virginia or Uganda or Senegal to find a better life is ridiculous to many of us. But as scenes such as the one unfolding before my eyes reminds, whether we talk about West Virginia, India or Africa, poverty is both relative and destructive.

 

The Paths of Marriage is now available everywhere books are sold.