They Aren't So Bad Off

They Aren’t so bad off...

It is not an uncommon remark by tourists visiting the area. When I ask what makes them say that. I get responses about how nice the locals are dressed or how nice their houses are, how many people here speak French, which must be a result of a high level of schooling, and how happy everyone is. It is as if these tourists are expecting something out of a World Vision or Unicef fund-raising advertisement filled with miserable half-naked people wallowing in filth and disease their eyes glassy with hopelessness.

Poverty is not synonymous with misery. It is also not synonymous with sloth or slovenly behaviour. There is nothing that says a poor person can’t bathe or wash his clothes or take pride in a well maintained home. Having a nice home does not mean you have cash in your pocket as so many in the housing crash of the west should know. It may mean the proprietor invested everything in the house and hasn’t much left over. It may mean he or she inherited or was gifted a property that has been in the family for generations even centuries. It doesn’t mean there is money to maintain it in the future.

It is very probably more important to poor people with pride to make sure they look nice going out than to people with means. A poor person that doesn’t want the world to know how poor he is will spend his last dime on the latest fashion so he can go out in public with his head held high. Here the people put a lot of stock in impressions, in saving face, even if a person only has one nice outfit she will wear it when she goes out in public. Even to go out to the market the woman or girl will first bathe or at least wash up, put on lotion, fix her hair add perfume, if she has it, and then put on her nice starched outfit. As soon as she returns home she will remove it carefully folding or hanging it to limit wrinkles and put on dingy old clothes to do the cooking or chores.

Appearances can be deceiving and hospitality is a must. There are families who have very little but if you show up you will get a cold coke and be served a lavish meal; will be pushed to gorge yourself on way more than you can possibly consume. You will leave never knowing that they bought the coke on credit and the meal you ate alone was destined for the whole family -- all 20 of them. When you were told the kids had eaten earlier or you see them called away to eat apart they actually didn’t eat or were called away only on pretence since there was nothing to offer them but your left overs.

I have had tourists try to insist that the people of Timbuktu are not poor and certainly have plenty to eat to judge by how fat they are... They don’t seam to realize a pot belly and swollen face are signs of malnutrition; and they certainly don’t belief me when i tell them that many of my immediate neighbours only eat one meal a day if they are lucky and that we are often the source for that meal either helping out with money or sending over a plate.

In fact they tend to think we ourselves must be doing very well. They simply cannot believe that a western woman would agree to live here unless she was living the luxurious life of an ex-pat. And after all we have a large house and a car and if we can afford to help feed and buy medicine for all our less fortunate neighbours then we must be doing pretty good. Some have actual stated that they don’t think they really need to offer my husband any recompense for services rendered as he is well enough off already!

Well the truth is we
are doing pretty good because we believe doing well has more to do with state of mind than material wealth. We are doing good because we are alive and healthy we do not have a war on our doorstep we have friends and family we do have shelter and clothes and something to eat and water to drink. That does not mean we are materially wealthy. In fact we don’t have a lot because we give so much of it away. We have had the fortune to build a house which we did little by little as we had the means and those means are now invested in the house they are no longer in our pockets. Besides it is a lot less expensive to build a nice house here than in the west. So much of what we earn goes to feed our large extended family and to help our neighbours and Shindouk’s tribe. It doesn’t leave a lot for luxuries.