I wish that we didn’t look at a place and only see the problems and the pain—it does the people living their lives there a disservice. And yet we still sometimes think problem first, and people second. While it is very important in some respects to recognize troubles and complications for what they are and where they stand, I believe it might be useful to see beyond that scope. Tempering our expectations of a country or a whole continent—Africa, for instance—to that horizon is an exercise that has the tendency to marginalize and to pigeonhole.
When we got back from Tanzania and Uganda I was asked a number of times if we saw a lot of poverty. The short answer was yes, yes we did, but I have a problem with the short answer. I think the long answer to that question matters more.
Everywhere we were working there were no toilets, no running water, no electricity grids, paved roads. Families lived in compacted-dirt-brick houses, no window panes, no flooring. If a family had a clean cookstove, they used it. They generally lived limited to their own crops and livestock. By all definitions this is poverty. This is how we see poverty. But I don’t believe poverty should be the penumbral definition of anybody’s life. It’s a powerful word and has such universal meaning that when spoken it elicits intense imagery. The word poverty should be used, it deserves to be used, but I think it should be spoken with some reservation because of that inherent power; not tossed around.
Where we were, poverty applied in the material. The difficulties involved in transporting product to a rural destination can essentially mean widespread lack of access to essential amenities and goods. We lived in rural Tanzania, in the mountains, and rural Uganda, right on the banks of Lake Victoria. We saw a lot of homes with dirt floors and little to no roofing or window panes or anything really to protect inhabitants from the elements.
At the same time we saw a lot of beauty. There is beauty in a family and beauty in a home even if that home has no flushing toilet or electricity and even if that family has lost a lot. We saw community everywhere; intelligence and resourcefulness. But when we say “there is poverty” we do not think of the intelligence and resourcefulness it takes to get by. Or the courage to make a home, to make a life, to have a community. People who suffer from poverty can easily become defined by it, by our definition, all of us looking in from the outside. It’s so important to recognize a problem, but to solve it properly we have to understand the individual who was dealt that hand.
What I like about social business is that it capitalizes on the beauty of the individual. It promotes opportunity and optimizes choices. It sustains. It doesn’t work without recognizing the good and emphasizing it. This means that a social entrepreneur has to go somewhere and find that beauty and goodness from which they can create a business.
I met a woman at a Village Mart from Nebraska. She had been living in Tanzania for three years with her husband, working as a missionary. We were chatting. I was talking about where we’d been, that I’d just came from Uganda. I said, “…and Uganda is so beautiful.” She said, “Yes, but they need so much help here, too.” It was as if she hadn’t registered the word beautiful. That when she heard ‘Uganda’ all she could think about was were its deficiencies. At the time I wanted to tell her that there were problems everywhere, but I had a hard time understanding exactly what was bothering me about what she said.
When I remember the moment, it takes me back to us thinking of problems first and people second. We were at a busy supermarket, with cars driving around us and stalls and colors and shouts and music and all she could think about were the problems. That kind of thinking contributes to a world consciousness that does injustice to people who might not have the means or voices to say the beautiful things about themselves and the lives they live. If we are to address the bad things, we must also address the good things, and the normal things: the bits of life we can all identify with. If we tip the scales too far into all that negativity we start a process of dehumanization.
It was that conversation that really made me think about the people we were working and living with, the people we were interviewing. When I thought about it more on the taxi ride home I realized I had, to some extent, done exactly what this woman had done. I had gone into a country with preconceived notions about what we were going to see, the stories we were going to get.
I went into the project thinking we might have to piece together the stories, that we really would have to coax them out of our interviews. Yet everybody had these gorgeous voices. Everyone we met could tell their own personal narrative.
They knew themselves intimately. Our role was just to cushion their stories and carry them, give them to other people, people on the outside who might not see that beauty immediately.
I hope we can do that.