Thursday, September 18, 2008

Living With (But Not In) Poverty

What would it be like if your next door neighbor lived in a tin shack with no running water or electricity, and rarely had enough food to go around?

This is my tension.

Dar es Salaam is a city of 4 million people. It is growing economically in leaps and bounds. The fancy hotels are overflowing with visitors here on business. New banks seem to be opening every week, with lines that go out the door. Our school, HOPAC, which costs $4000 per year for tuition, is bursting at the seams with a waiting list a mile long. The only other high quality international school in the city, IST, which costs more than $12,000 per year, is also bursting at the seams. There are many wealthy people in this city.

However, the vast majority are not. Thankfully, we don’t see starving people in Dar es Salaam the way we did when I lived in Ethiopia as a teenager. There are people starving in Tanzania, and I’m sure even in the city, but it’s not the norm. But that doesn’t mean that the majority are very far above it.

Earlier this week, my house worker, Esta, asked me for an advance on her monthly pay. I asked her what she needed it for and she said that her husband still hasn’t found work and they are out of food. Since she had received her salary less than two weeks ago, the fact that she is asking for an advance for food is not a good thing.

I gave her the advance, and some food, but inside I felt sick. Esta has worked for us for two years and is such a dear woman. She is about my age, been married for two years, and has a baby girl who she brings to work with her. She is a believer and is full of joy. But her life is hard. She and her husband rent two small rooms. Not a two bedroom house—two rooms. One for sitting and one for sleeping. She cooks outside and uses an outhouse. They have electricity but rarely use it. They do not have running water. Esta’s husband has been out of work now for over a year. There is a 40% unemployment rate in this city.

We pay Esta about $80 per month, and this is her only job. In addition, we pay for almost all of their rent and cover all of the medical expenses for her and her baby. If she is still working for us when her daughter goes to school, we will help with school fees too. We pay over the going rate. Yet….we’re talking only $80 a month to live on, folks.

Then there’s our life. We live in a four bedroom house that is (sort of) similar to an American house, though rent is about 4 times cheaper here. We have all the amenities, except for a dryer or dish washer, but I have Esta. We own one ten-year-old car. My pantry is always full of food.

We are not living extravagantly by American standards. When we moved here, we carefully thought through our standard of living. We have been purposeful about the location and size of our house—we chose all the details for very specific ministry-related reasons. We live at or below the standard of living compared to the other HOPAC families. In fact, most of the Tanzanian kids at HOPAC live far above us.

Yet I live with constant tension between our lifestyle and that of so many of the people around us—even those about 100 yards from our house. The truth is, even if we lived at a lower standard, as some of the missionaries in the villages do, we would still have more than most Tanzanians. We never have to worry about having enough to eat. We never have to worry about money for a sick child. We are allowed plane trips to the States every couple of years. Our children are guaranteed an excellent education and all the opportunity they will ever desire.

When Gil and I go out to dinner, I think about how that one dinner was a week’s wage for many people in the city. If we go to a hotel for our anniversary for a night, we could easily spend a month’s wage of an average Tanzanian. I think about it when I buy dog food. Or Pringles. Or books. Or anything that goes beyond basic living expenses.

Sometimes I just want to run away from it all. It’s just too hard. When Esta asked me for the advance for food, I just wanted to leave Tanzania and go back to America. I often just want to pretend that poverty isn’t really there. Of course, living in the States doesn’t make poverty go away. But in America, surrounded by people who live in luxury, it’s easier to live in denial.

Of course, not everyone is rich in America. But even the poorest have electricity, running water (that won’t make you sick if you drink it), shoes, free education for their children, food stamps, presents at Christmas, a TV, and often even a car and a computer. More importantly, people in America have opportunity to get ahead. Most of the rest of the world does not.

But there are no easy answers. How do we remain generous while staying within economic and cultural norms in Africa? What is the balance between generosity and fostering unhealthy dependence? How many “creature comforts” of western life can still glorify God? How do we really distinguish between “needs” and “wants” (which are very much defined by our culture)? Why do my kids get to experience Disneyland, bubble baths, dress-up clothes, swimming pools, and university, and the kids around the corner do not? Why has God allowed us to have so much and so many to have so little? And what is our responsibility in the midst of that?

Think on poverty, my friends. Though I want to run away from it, God never desires us to put our heads in the sand. When not confronted with it head-on, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. In the end, I’m thankful I live with this tension. Heaven forbid I start pretending that this life really is heaven, and that I “deserve” comfort—as I am often so tempted.

When my struggle ceases, I will be either in sin, or in Heaven.
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