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Friday, September 10, 2010

Poverty is so much more than the indicators we use to measure its deadly impact

Rainbow Choi and the Understanding Needs In Other Nations (UNION) volunteer team has returned home safely from Cambodia. By every account, the trip was enlightening, enriching, and unforgettable.

Here are Rainbow’s thoughts on one of the most memorable families the team met - a family still waiting for a water well that will provide clean water.

“Just after meeting the family with the well from 2006 and the garden full of vegetables... and before getting to get our hands on some well-building the next day… we had a much more sobering experience of poverty and needs in Cambodia.

We met this family - Ran, and her mother. Ran has three kids. She had four kids, but one of her sons died of typhoid from drinking unclean water last year. Ran was very ill herself, which is why her mother had come back to live with her. Her husband is away most of the time, collecting firewood in the jungle to sell. She and her remaining three sons work the little land that they have to grow, and spend the rest of the day in other people’s fields to earn what little income they can to buy rice for the day and survive.

What is life like for Ran and her family?

Well, Ran herself is sick with some kind of typhoid. She suffers from anemia, from lack of iron. Her son has swelling in his legs, arms and shoulders from some kind of muscle infection that has gone untreated. They have no money for medicines much less vitamins.

She and her family eat twice a day - simple meals…just rice porridge. We met her around 11am that day. She had just come back from working in the rice fields since daybreak, about 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning. But she hadn't eaten yet - and her kids were still out in the field. She was about to prepare her family's meal: the rice porridge - i.e., rice boiled down with water – more water when there’s less rice. She didn't talk about eating - just about 'filling stomachs'. She showed us her drinking water – an almost-empty jar of collected rainwater. She lives too far from any river or open water source to even be able to get water from there. When she runs out, her family drinks the muddy water from the rice. At least that’s when they are lucky enough to be in the wet season. In the dry season, even the rice field water has long dried up.

There are some people, some distance away, Ran and her mother said, that have access to some water. So, when they need it, they ask if they can have some little bit. Ask might be too nice though. Beg might be more fitting. Where water is scarce, even neighbors are reluctant to share.

They had no smiles for us - not for themselves. They didn’t even look us in the eye when we were there – they were squatted down as we stood around them, eyes down at the ground as Ly talked with them about if HOPE International Development Agency was able to support them. Ly translated for us, but we caught most of it in their voices. Their voices were lifeless. They had nothing to say when we asked what they dreamed of for the future.

It was hard to stay and hard to walk away. We gave Ran’s family some loaves of bread that we had brought, and then left, very much sad, and had a quiet motorbike ride home. It was a hard day for the team. We had a team chat that night, and talked about poverty and development, as we’d seen over the last few days.

‘Poverty’ doesn’t just ‘exist’. ‘Poverty’ can be so vague it hardly has any tangible meaning anymore when we use the word. It isn’t captured by indicators of daily income, child mortality rates, poverty 'lines' and who's over or under it.

Poverty is captured in the life of a young mother whose every day existence is a struggle to survive, whose health is failing, who has lost a child, who works and toils to no end, only to fill her family’s stomachs with food that will not nourish them. It is captured in eyes that can't smile, and voices without life, two beautiful lives so desperately surviving today, that there is simply no hope, no dreams of what if? for a different tomorrow.

It is captured in real lives and real people… and it is very much real.”

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