What is Poverty? Jo Goodwin Parker (1971)
When George Henderson, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was writing his 1971 book, America’s Other Children: Public Schools Outside Suburbia, he received an essay in the mail. It was signed “Jo Goodwin Parker” and had been mailed from West Virginia. No further information was ever discovered about the essay or its source. Whether the author of that essay was in reality a woman describing her own painful experiences or a sympathetic writer who had adopted her persona, Jo Goodwin Parker remains a mystery.
Here, her essay has been adapted to the context of the people living in poverty in East Africa, and especially, in Kenya. This is real, everyday poverty that adversely affects the lives of millions of people. The context is from actual conversations with the people living there as they describe their despair and hopelessness.
Part 1: What is poverty?
You want to know what poverty is? Ask me. Listen to me. Here I am, barefoot, dirty, smelly, hungry and sick, with filthy ragged clothes and the stench of my unwashed body and rotting teeth. I will tell you. Listen to me. Listen without pity, because I cannot use your pity. Listen with understanding, because otherwise, nothing will change. Put yourself in my dirty, worn out, ill-fitting clothes, with no shoes, and hear me.
Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt floor, with a mattress of grass and no blankets or pillow. My two chickens and one goat share the floor with me to make sure they aren’t stolen overnight. Poverty is living with a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of animals, feces, urine, sour milk, and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of sickness. If you have smelled this smell, you did not know how it came to be. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the dirt floors where years of “accidents” have happened. It is the smell of the goat’s milk, which has gone sour because there is no refrigerator. A refrigerator costs too much money, and besides, there is no electricity to run it. It is the smell of rotting compost and cooking fires.
Poverty is being tired. I have always been tired. The midwife told me when the last baby came that I had chronic anemia caused from my poor diet. The community health nurse told me I had a bad case of worms at the last community health day, and even though they removed our jiggers, I know they will come back. We cannot afford the dudu dust to prevent them. Then, the intern doctor said that I needed a corrective operation. I listened politely—the poor are always polite. The poor always listen. They don’t say that there is no money for iron pills, or better food, or worm medicine. The idea of an operation is frightening and costs so much that, if I had dared, I would have laughed. Besides, who would take care of my children? Recovery from an operation takes a long time. I have three children. When I left them with my mother-in-law the last time I had a job, I came home to find the baby covered with flies, and a dirty rag diaper that had not been changed since I left. When the dried diaper came off, bits of my baby’s flesh came with it. My other child was playing with a sharp bit of broken glass, and my oldest was playing alone at the edge of the river. I made 150 shillings a day as a housemaid. An early childhood development centre at the primary school costs twenty shillings a week per child. A Matatu costs 50 shillings per trip. I quit my job.
Poverty is dirt. You say in your clean clothes coming from your clean house, “Anybody can be clean.” Let me explain about housekeeping in my village with no money. First, the floor is dirt. The walls are mud and straw on a stick frame and the roof is thatch, which leaks when it rains. We live in dirt, and sleep on dirt. Washing clothes is done at the river in cold water. Without soap. But you ask, why not hot water? Because to have enough firewood or charcoal to heat water for washing costs money. There is no electricity remember? Hot water is a luxury. I do not have luxuries. We have only one set of clothes each, so when we do wash them, we are naked until they dry.
For breakfast there is usually nothing. I hope for an egg or two from my chickens, and go out early to look for anything I can get from my small garden, but mostly there are just a few kale leaves and nettles, and no eggs. I don’t have much space to grow vegetables, and not enough water to make my few plants thrive because my goat needs to graze and drink so I can milk it and try to sell the milk. I will make a small amount of ugali for supper, but I have to ration it because it’s expensive. I try to find a tomato to add to the greens and make some soup, but I will need to find firewood in the forest first. Charcoal costs too much money. So I walk for several kilometres to find enough wood for a small cook fire and carry it back. What dishes there are, I wash in cold water because there is not enough firewood for hot washing water, and no soap. I use leaves to scrub, and will put them outside on the ground to dry in the sun.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next update.