Everywhere I looked, it was the dogs who seemed the most impoverished. Tucked into a neat ball, folding into themselves, with permanent frowns as they watched strangers walk over and around them. There was no jumping and barking and tail-wagging. Just reclusive silence.
They understood how I felt. Their behaviors mirrored the innate hopelessness that sent a stabbing chill through my heart. They sensed that the poverty in these slums is unbearably upsetting and unfortunately widespread.
But how did they know— how did they get it— when the people all around me, kids and parents alike, were smiling and waving and jumping and singing and skipping through the stench of littered trash that permeated the village. Piles upon piles of tattered clothing and apple cores and packaged goods and wrappers were spread all along the paths, gathered in heaps of bundles on the dirt. Kids ambled nakedly in the trash as if it were a waterfall, soaking in the presence of empty water bottles the way they would a stream of clear natural water. And to them it was just as it ever has been. Nothing else but comfortability coated their strange habits.
And as I waved back and forth to the kids whose smiles were delicately etched into their own faces, I couldn’t help but smile back. My heart ached when I saw a child run naked atop an amalgamation of garbage, and that pain poured through me when I met the girl in the back of the classroom with a cleft lip and the pink cardigan. I wanted to give them everything. Soccer balls, oreos, ballerinas, castles and ice cream cones.
Do they know what lies outside the dilapidated walls of the slums? Should they? Are they blissfully ignorant or just ignorant of potential bliss? Who am I to answer that question for them, by assuming that they want underwear and socks and packaged foods? Can I make that call for them?
There are so many questions that are zipping through my mind right now, tugging at the corners of my creativity to find some sort of solution that will fill these nagging questions. But how? How are we supposed to target the true necessities of these impoverished slum residents when they don’t feel their own poverty?
This is where my economics question comes in. Is there even enough money in the world to give? Will money even fix the problem?
Do we give them toilet paper? But where would it go.
Do we give them underwear? But how would it get washed properly.
Do we give them electricity? But how would that sustain itself.
What can we give? Should we give? How do we fix this, how do we lift 200,000 people out of poverty without completely altering their entire perception of the way life works? How can we fix this with economics? And I hope you have an answer better than mine, because I don’t think we can.
And let’s just say for fun, that we potentially could. In that case, I don’t even know if they would be happy. Distraught though we were, it was evident that these people are already content. And I refuse to take away the cliche lesson of “finding happiness outside of materialism” because today was way more than that. Repeating cliche statements doesn’t add meaning to an experience and doesn’t assuage the issue. And I think that’s what is hard about right now. Because I don’t know what to take away. I learned that this issue is much more complex and layered and multifaceted than I had anticipated. I learned that finding a solution is laced into the concept of Western privilege and cultural appropriation, and once again dances in and between the vague line of progress and respect. We romanticize poverty to be this curable complexity that can be fixed with “Western Ideals” and that with the signing of a check, something can be fixed. But it’s more than that, because I hate that after today I won’t be able to think about it the way I am right now. I feel affected and involved and changed, but it’s only temporary. Tomorrow I’ll wake up, worry about my flight and about packing, and go out about my life unchanged. I hope this lasts longer than a fleeting existential crisis— because these kids deserve more.