Two travel experiences to very different parts of the world have given me a thought-provoking yet confusing view of poverty and the human condition. This blog looks at the historical culture of immigrant Norway and the current culture of poverty in modern day Kenya.
Some of Janet’s ancestors originate from a little island near Molde called Sekken. From a tourist’s perspective, it’s a quaint and adorable place. Janet has a distant cousin who still lives there and he showed us the little scrap of land where her ancestors once lived and farmed. I say farmed, but keep in mind anyone who lived here occupied hard rocky land on a slope toward the water. It was hard to imagine how anyone could have made a living and raised a family here. We were caught up in the beauty of the place and asked Janet’s cousin, “It’s so beautiful here, how could they leave?”, but his reply brought us back to reality: “How could they stay?”
Fast forward to a few months ago, when I spent several days among the poorest of the poor in and around Nairobi. For upper middle-class Americans like the ten of us in our travel group, it was eye-opening to see humans living in what we considered deplorable conditions, especially knowing that there was plenty of money coming into Kenya. For those who live in the urban slums of Nairobi, literally living on the waste dumps of the wealthy, it was hard for us to imagine a life there.
As one might expect, our collective instinct was to assume that the people who lived in the slums were miserable and desperate to leave, and like the timeworn parable of the star thrower, we wished we could “rescue” even one child or family from this place, and let them experience a world like ours. In talking to one of our hosts, Pastor Joseph – having grown up in the slums – he left us baffled when he gave us a different perspective.
Pastor Joseph revealed that in spite of the apparent hopelessness of living in the slums, there are people who actually accumulate enough money to be able to afford to leave. Yet, they stay. Our question to him was, in light of these conditions, “How could they stay?”. His response: “How could they leave? This is their home. This is where their family is. They are happy here.”
We were dumbfounded, I suppose, by that response. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it ever since. I guess people who are uber-wealthy look at people like me – financially comfortable, but cost-conscious and frugal, fearful of that one unfortunate event that could leave us in ruin – and say to themselves, “Why wouldn’t they try to escape from that, and wouldn’t they rather live like us?”
But no, I do not aspire to live like that, and I am not jealous of the financial elite. With that in mind, I have to reconsider my biases and judgments of the people I met and observed living in Nairobi. I can’t assume that my way of living is something that they envy or aspire to. I would utterly suffer if I lived in the slum conditions of Nairobi, and I still believe that no one deserves to live that way. And in no way do I excuse the corruption in Kenya that maintains such shocking wealth disparity. I do not accept the notion of “the poor you will always have with you” as an excuse to keep the poor in their place.
There are no easy answers for me on the questions of poverty, suffering, or immigration. The circumstances of 19th century Norwegians unable to stay in their home seems worlds away from 21st century Kenyans unwilling to leave theirs, yet somehow the two are bound together, perhaps by their mutual quest for survival and happiness. I suppose that’s something we all have in common.