Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brother, Can you spare me a .....?

Unlike other adventures, and especially because my guide is an agronomist and conservationist by profession, the emphasis of this trip has been almost entirely on experiencing the amazing nature of Colombia rather than its people. Nonetheless people have been asking me about what the quality of life is in this 3rd world country and about poverty.

First of all, Colombia has a population of 44 million people with incredibly diverse cultural groups and living situations. How to judge poverty would mean having criterion which is both objective and subjective. Whenever I try to get a handle on this subject, I feel like I have a mountain of sand in front of me and I need to look carefully at each grain for color, size and texture and then sort them out to understand what they mean.

First of all, it appears that rural people have abundant food and water and often share collectively in villages. The fact that they have little electricity or running water seems to be less of an issue than other places I've been. I am told, for what it is worth, that there is less craving for additional material gain than in other Western societies. They appreciate the serenity of their life style, but this bucolic description may be a myth, I just don't know. Then there are the remote-living indigenous villagers who, I am told, for the most part love their simple lifestyle, view it as spiritual abundance, and vigorously defend it from the encroachment of modernity.

The cities are a teeming cacaphony of sounds and odors, primarily from an army of obnoxiously loud-buzzing motor bikes, groaning overladen trucks and diesel-spewing buses coursing through potholed streets which lodge everything from super modern office buildings and shopping malls to barios of graffiti-littered rundown storefronts and houses. There are wealthy, fashionably-dressed professionals, intelligent-looking university students and lots of small business folk who are surrounded by a sprawling mass of humanity, who probably must be viewed as the urban poor. These people can be seen crunched on buses, jetting about doubled up on motor bikes or found relaxing or busying themselves in front of a myriad of overstocked, metal screened shops, unsanitary-looking workshops or cheap cafes. There are also the usual homeless people lying in doorways, many victims of continual coca use and, much less so, alchoholism. There seem to be not as many as I expected and, perhaps fewer than I've seen in some American cities, but I am told, exist without any support in terms of soup kitchens or temporary lodging.

Are these Colombians poor? Do they feel disadvantaged or does feeling disadvantaged really qualify as actually being poor? Are these folks poor at all when compared to the people I saw in Tanzania or Bolivia? How should I view the poor of America, many ofwhom have a car, a tv, a cellphone and medical and nutritional support poor in relation to others who have no water? I suppose adressing these questions really would make a more thought-provoking post. Instead I must confess that my answers fluctuate daily depending on my mood and my level of caring.

I am glad to hear your voices on this subject from your own tiny soapboxes. You may think that you know this subject well from personal experience and dare to generalize. For me there is only caution. There are a myriad of lives. The beach is huge and its particles shift capriciously with the wind.


  1. There are so many ways I could approach this subject just off the top of my head that I wouldn't even know where to begin! But don't worry...I'm in a relatively good mood this morning and not as inclined to get on my soapbox as usual--at least not to get angry about anything.

    Is poverty subjective or objective? Again off the top of my head, I'd say it's mostly subjective. Of course I'm setting aside the extreme situations you mentioned, like not having enough food or water, where poverty actually becomes life-threatening. But saying it's mostly subjective doesn't make it any less real.

    What I'm really saying is that poverty is mostly relative. So much of it depends on your own immediate social micro-climate. What do you have or not have relative to others in your immediate environment? Even more important: What do you have or not have relative to the people you consider your peers?

    What I mean is that it depends not only on what you personally expect to have in terms of material possessions, but on what other people (again, those in your immediate environment or social circle) expect you to have, or assume you have. Here in SoCal for example, you are expected to have a car no matter how poor you are and even if it's falling apart. And even if you can't afford to insure it, although it's against the law to drive without insurance. And if you don't have one? Aside from the obvious logistics problems (i.e how long it takes you to get from one place to another), there are hundreds of social implications related to the way other people treat you--far too many to get into here.

    I suspect it's a very different situation in other countries, where if you're at the lower end of the socio-economic scale it's assumed that you don't have a car and will have to depend on public transportation, assuming of course that such a thing exists in your particular locality.

    There are so many different ways of approaching this subject that entire books can be (and have been) written on the subject.

  2. Nicely-written post, Lee. Much to think about.

  3. I think some things about poverty are objective. Using Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, the bottom rung, namely food,shelter,water, define povery. I don't think that people who are frequently without these basics can be content unless pain, suffering,and death are OK with them. Probably not. Beyond that, the definition of poverty becomes fuzzier. What other needs do people have? What defines poverty of spirit?Those questions could have lots of answers. Different answers for different people at different times in different places. One way to frame this question about ourselves is to ask ourselves
    two questions. I feel poor when.......and I feel rich when...
    ..This might tell us what we value, but not much about what anyone else values. These questions are pondered mostly by those at the top of Maslow' chart.

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