I have been lucky enough in my life to have travelled and lived in many different countries and worked with many different organisations. I have seen poverty in every place that I have been, whether it was in my own country, Scotland or where I am living now in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. When I look at it, being poor has a different meaning dependent on where you are, but the feeling is the same no matter where you go. According to the United Nations, poverty is fundamentally ‘a violation of human dignity’. It is, I feel the best way of explaining both how and why people are poor and how our perceptions of people can create poverty.
When I was young, before my concept of rich and poor was formed, I went to school in an area that was considered to be ‘poor’ by Scottish standards. I saw children at school that had clothes with holes in them and who came to school in non-matching shoes. I didn’t know what this meant until I was a lot older because as a child you don’t appreciate the difference between you and your peers. When we create the difference, the us and them, that is when we take away a level of dignity. In Edinburgh, I worked with a charity for South Asian women, a minority group where there is a lot of problems integrating into society. I could see a number of these women lived in difficult condition some having refugee status and Scotland was most likely not their first choice. They had great difficulty becoming part of the welfare system and often even greater difficulty finding work. I spent time working for a mental health charity in Glasgow and there yet again I saw that the living standards in the poor communities in Scotland were very low.
People who were in genuine need of help were forced to make themselves even worse off in order to get attention but often this would be neglected to the point of sever mental trauma. Even in the service I was working in, the people were not sufficiently trained in order to make an impact. For a developed country, Scotland has a long way to go in order to get it’s poorest members help. What I did see, when I was working going door to door to get charitable donations, it was always the poorest people who wanted to give whatever they had. The mentality was that there were still people worse off than them. The generosity was truly astounding.
In 2009, I spent three months living and working in the United States. There was a crazy juxtaposition between the community I was working in, where the people were not considered wealthy and the neighbouring housing project. The houses I worked in, in my opinion, were huge! Every family had a car and every family had someone like me, looking after their children. Five minutes along the road, there were community projects where there were families of eight to a one bedroom flat and each child was raised by the community. Again, it was these people in the projects that were out every day welcoming people in and offering a warm meal to every person that walked passed.
In 2011, I went to an area in China to teach English for a summer. This was my first true experience in a country where poverty was spread wide and there I met many challenges. I understood what it was like for people to have very little food, for there to be no options for work and that there was not always a home to go to. I was teaching children whose families had put all the money they had in the world together to get their children a better opportunity in life. It was a lot of pressure as a young person coming from such a vastly different background to grasp. The children worked unbelievably hard savouring absolutely every piece of knowledge, every word, every syllable, every letter. It was inspiring to see.
In 2016, I started my time as a student fighting shoulder to shoulder with the poor in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). When I landed here, I fell in love with the country and the people, I could see the beauty in everything and wanted to venture out and see what it was like to live here. The island has abundant nature, problems with finding food here are not common, in Saint Vincent you will not starve. But other types of poverty became very clear. Here is a small island, which has fallen pray to a system of heavy importation that it cannot sustain. The older generations here are very skilled, farmers, fishermen, chefs, workmen, but the younger generations are losing these abilities because the Westernised culture is so prevalent. The job opportunities in other areas are very small, often it is more about who you know that what you are able to do. Families of twelve will have a house with two room so that they are able to pay for their oldest child to get to the community college. Here you might not see it right away, but there are severe cracks in the foundations. But in Saint Vincent, you always have a place to stay, people will welcome you into their homes, they are always happy to share any skill and you are family from the moment you meet.
From SVG, I moved to Ecuador to work for six months in a project in a semi-rural area. This country was very interesting and yet again, it was not obvious at first what poverty was here. In Ecuador, looks are very important and so often of the surface everything looks good, the shoes are properly shining and the uniforms are perfectly pressed, however this is not always the reality. Many families could not afford clean water or electricity for their homes and everyone in the family worked, from as soon as they could walk. I worked with children that were severely affected by drink and drugs and living with families who were unable to support them. It was often the case that the children would only get one meal a day that was supplied by the government. Things were not always as they appeared and it took working in the communities for a few months before these things became truly apparent. However, none of this stopped people inviting us in for meals or offering us things when we went to teach in the communities.
I am now back in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, with a lot of new experiences under my belt and looking towards the future. So in my experience, what does it mean to be poor? It means having an awareness of what is important, it means valuing the little things, it means treating people with respect, it means giving everything that you have to improve the life of someone else, it means making the most of what you do have and it means being a decent human being. Often, we look at the negative things when we see what we consider poor and we feel pity, but what I have seen is amazing strength, generosity and kindness which are the things that, when they are lacking, makes the wealthiest person in the world poor. We think little of the personal qualities when we label people, ‘Poor’ is not a personality and often this term in itself is being used to undermine what people are capable of. The people I have worked with over the years have shown me how rich a life can be and what I want for my future is to be more like them. We are all human, so let us remove the us and them and share all that we have.
By Heather Cumberland, Fighting with The Poor Program.