What is Poverty, really?

I should say, before anything else, that Rwanda is developing quickly and has made tremendous progress since the country was devastated by the 1994 genocide. There is so much good that can be said about the country and how hard its citizens are working towards development.  It is, nonetheless, among the poorest countries in the world. Rwanda ranks 159 out of 181 countries by GDP.

Even though I’m insulated from the real day-to-day realities of poverty because I have a stipend that allows me to live comfortably, all of the nice things I brought with me from America as well as care packages and gifts from people back home I still have had my eyes opened by observing the daily life here. I also recently came across some writing  that reminded me of the magnitude and gravity of the problems which the continent of Africa faces.

So, let me share with you this quote. It comes from the book The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. This 700-page opus follows the ups and downs of nearly every African country since independence. In it, he chronicles the poverty, corruption, tyranny and violence which have plagued this continent and continue to do so today.

Fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than every before … Its average per capital national income is one-third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. Most African countries have lower national incomes now than they had in 1980 or, in some cases, in 1960. Half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less than US$ a day. Its entire economic output is no more than $420 billion, just 1.3% of world GDP, less than a country like Mexico … It is the only region where per capita investments and savings have declined since 1970. It is the only region where school enrollment is falling and where illiteracy is still commonplace … It is also the only region where life expectancy is falling. On a list drawn up by the United Nations Development Program, all twenty-five countries that rank lowest in terms of human development are African.

This litany of figures is  dispiriting to me. It makes the situation seem more urgent but also more hopeless. But, these figures are also impersonal. I remember hearing statistics like that back in the US; I realized there was a problem but couldn’t imagine or understand the reality of people in that sort of situation. Now, I think I’m getting a slightly better grip on it because my friends, neighbors, colleagues and students all live this reality.

So, I want to share with you also some data about the district (the equivalent of a county) where I live.  These figures helped me quantify and contemplate poverty in its particulars, on the level of daily life. In reading them, I asked myself questions like, what does poverty prevent the average person in Rwanda from doing or having? What tasks or activities is the average person obliged to do because of their poverty?

  • average life expectancy = 55 years
  • average births per woman = 5.3
  • 323,000 people live in my district. 55% of them are under age 19; only 4% are over age 65.
  • 48% are considered poor by the national government’s standards
  • 33% use unimproved water sources (lakes & marshes). 60% must walk more than 15 minutes to fetch water (and then 15 minutes or more back carrying 5  gallons of water on their head)
  • 83% live in houses made of mud-covered tree trunks.
  • 72% live in houses with floors of beaten earth/18% have floors of hardened dung
  • 76% use petrol lanterns as their main light source
  • Only 45% of households have a mobile phone
  • 83% are farmers for their primary occupation
  • 70% raise some kind of livestock
  • Only 82% of people over age 6 have ever attended school
  • Only 70% are literate
  • 86% of primary school-age children attend school
  • Only 19% of secondary school-age children attend school
  • 1.8% of people over age 6 have used a computer and would feel confident about using one again
  • 3% children have only one parent living
  • 14% of children are orphans, missing both their parents
  • Women do an average of 33 hours of week of household work (in addition to any income-generating occupation they may have.) Men do an average of 11 hours of household work a week.

I don’t have an admonition or exhortation to end this post. Rather, I just want to contemplate, for a moment, how wide the gulf is between the developed and the developing worlds. Even though I know it does, it’s hard for me to remember & believe that a place like America really exists while I’m living here. When I go back there I bet it will be just as hard for me to remember & believe that Rwanda is real, too. The existences in the two places are just so different. So, I guess what I’m hoping to accomplish by providing these concrete statistics is to encourage people living in the west to think through their day and consider just how different it could be. I know I never really did that when I was living in America. My goodness, we have it good in America.

I think Paul had it right in Romans when he said that all of creation is groaning for deliverance. It will be a good thing when the evil structures of our world are transformed by our Lamb. It is a good thing when we participate in that transformation here and now.


2 thoughts on “What is Poverty, really?

  1. Thanks for not guilt-tripping us or exhorting us to feel sad, rather simply asking us to remember and contemplate reality as it is. It truly is a good thing when we participate in transformation, not because it makes us good people, but because we are lucky enough to take part in a revolution.

  2. Thanks Gretchen for the reflection – a different “world” indeed!. I think it is utterly ironic that underneath this beautiful post there is currently a commercial for a new tablet computer. It makes me think that in addition to so many life-enriching services that we take for granted (health-care, public utilities, education etc.), in the West there is this endless raft of “necessities” that has no doubt blunted our sensitivities. It makes me think of the way that Dr. Seuss describes all the toys in one of his beloved stories: Jing Tinglers
    Flu Floopers
    Tar Tinkers
    Who Hoovers
    Gar Ginkers
    Trum Tupers
    Slu Slumkers
    Blum Bloopers
    Who Wompers
    Zu Zitter Carzay
    Who Carnio Flunx.

    Now you know what to get me for Christmas! Thanks again, for sharing your journey and your heart with us! Keep’m coming.

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