Are we Poor?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Mr. Mbenderana.” At the end of that post, I shared that Mr. Mbenderana finished our meeting by asking me a question “Why did I think that his community was poor?”

At the time I answered somewhat vaguely that I thought it was a combination of dependence on inconsistent rain patterns and systemic shortfalls at the District, Regional and National level related to infrastructure and essential service provision, planning and maintenance. It was more or less a generic answer that I drew upon in a moment of surprise and doesn’t answer the prerequisite question to answer this one – are they poor?

Empirically, yes I would say that the majority of, if not all, people in Mbenderana Village are poor. I could statistically rank the population of Mbenderana Village at a global level on a number of different indices and be willing to bet that in terms of income, education, life expectancy, etc the people of Mbenderana village rank below average.

But numbers can only tell us so much, on the human development index (HDI) Malawi ranks153 of 169. Do you feel as though you truly know more about Malawi by hearing that number?

I have noticed living in Malawi that the subject of money and poverty are not associated with the same social taboo that exists in Canada and prevents us from talking about our income or that of those less fortunate.

The first couple of times that people blandly stated Malawi is very poor to me I felt the need to correct them or at least console them with a compliment “Maybe so, but the people are so kind, the country is very beautiful, or the communities are so strong.” The fact is, when Malawians say this they are not like the insecure girl looking for a compliment (you know it, “I look terrible in this dress” “No, no it looks great on you, very flattering”) but instead stating what to them is a plain and simple fact.

I remember my host mother asked me in front of the whole family if I thought my host father Mr. Banda was poor. I panicked, I didn’t want to offend them in front of the whole family and said that globally I thought he was poor but in Malawi I thought he was pretty well off because he has a couple of nice houses and a healthy family. She vehemently corrected me to my (at the time) horror that Mr. Banda was “very, very poor.” She was right, he is, my host family is very poor – if you are talking about money.

So I ask the question, what is poverty? Close your eyes, be honest with yourself, when you think of poverty what do you think?

Now imagine that you are told your entire life that you are poor, before you even know what that might mean, how would that affect your life?

That is the case here in Malawi; children are taught from an extremely young age that Malawi is poor. In my first week in Malawi, one of my host brothers brought over a mini dictionary they had made at school. The first word in this dictionary: Poverty. Second word: Oppression. Imagine if the words poverty and oppression figured so prominently in your life as a child that it warranted them being the first words in a proxy dictionary; how would that shape your view of the world, of your country, of your possibilities in life?

Outside of how you or I define poverty, the notion that they are poor is engrained into the minds and hearts of Malawians from a very young age and I argue now that that in and of itself is a type of poverty- to be stripped of the opportunity to see the potential of your future before it has even begun- and that this is a contributing factor to making or keeping communities poor. What do you think?


10 responses to this post.

  1. Lauren

    What an excellent post. You have captured what I have been struggling with in my thoughts for some time now. What is poverty? Is wealth always quantifiable? But you have gone deeper. I really appreciate your insights into the attitudes Malawians share about their country and themselves on their poverty. I have never really thought about this aspect of poverty before.

    Thank you for teaching me something new.



  2. Posted by Alex on July 15, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Hey Lauren,

    This post has made me really think. I had never considered the type of poverty you described above, poverty of potential. Like you said i think this would have a profound effect on every aspect of a person’s life if they grew up thinking they were poor, but even worse than that: growing up thinking you could never change your situation. I wonder if Hope is somewhere in that child’s Dictionary?

    As for what I think poverty is, you’re right Money is a huge factor, but i think opportunity also plays a big role. I would never call someone poor who chose to live by backpacking from town to town, or travelling the world and living off of odd jobs. But this is because they have the opportunity to do these things and the ability to decide their own futures. I’m curious to see what other people’s perceptions on poverty are. (this post also reminded me of David’s post on assumptions. Do we assume Malawians are poor just because that is the standard we live by in Canada? what about Malawian standards?)

    Lots of Love!

    – Alex


  3. Hi Lauren,

    I love this post! I have faced a lot of similar questions here in Burkina Faso, like “do you think we are poor?” and “Our lives, compared with your life in Canada, are very difficult, aren’t they?”. It is always so hard to know how to respond – in the first place, we are here to try and fight poverty, so how can we answer that “no, you aren’t poor, things aren’t SO bad here”? At the same time, arriving in a “poor” country, you begin to reevaluate what poverty means, as you experience the beauty (and sometimes the tragedy) of life in that place firsthand. Thanks for writing such an enlightening post about this!

    Hope to hear lots more stories and insights from Malawi!!!



  4. Posted by Jessica Barker on July 16, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    Thank you for writing this post, it has really made me think. To me, there are so many different types of poverty – opportunity poverty, resource poverty, monetary poverty, etc and it is up to the individual to determine if they are poor. For example, person A does not have a lot of money so person B defines them as “poor” but in person A’s mind they are anything but, because they have a good family, good friends, etc. If person A doesn’t want for more than that, then who is person B to determine that they are “poor”? As Dave said, poverty isn’t strictly quantifiable, there are so many factors involved that you can’t plop a number on.

    If someone tells you every day of your life that you are ugly, you’re likely going to think that you are, indeed, ugly, whether you actually are or not (beauty is after all just a person’s opinion) and you’re not exactly going to attempt a career as a beauty queen. It’s the same situation with what you were talking about – children, who are very impressionable, are told they are poor, so they grow up thinking they are poor, so why then would they try to not be poor by improving their situation by, say, getting a better education. It makes sense to me that “poor” is part of how they define themselves, just like how the ugly person probably defines themself as “ugly”. I agree with you that thinking you are poor hinders communities and feeds into the cycle of poverty. I’d love to keep talking about this, we should chat in September.

    I hope that you are doing well! Keep up the great posts!


  5. Posted by Kate Pejman on July 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Hi Lauren,

    Just wanted to let you know that right when I read the title of your post I went ” THAT’S WHAT I WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT”! and so I enjoyed reading this post very much.

    Here in Accra I haven’t head too many people referring to themselves as poor but living in Canada is a dream come for so many of those whom I’ve interacted with.
    I find that even the definition of poorness is defined by the rich. I personally have a comfortable apartment and a car in Canada which typically describes me as well off, but at the same time if I ask a complete stranger on the street for an address, he/she may find it weird. Why is poorness defined by “things” that we have and not by our human relationships…..which one has a greater value even it was to determine poverty levels? Is it better to live in a community where everyone is “well off” yet its people are less inclined to help one another, or live in a community where you are not as “well off” but you can turn into a stranger in time of need and not have it be weird??

    My description obviously does not describe everyone and it may at least describe a small percentage of people.

    Keep up the good posts Lauren,



  6. Hi All!

    Thanks for the thoughts. I want to touch quickly on what Alex mentioned about a backpacker who lives a penniless existence living transiently from place to place. You are so right in noting that not many people would call them poor although the amount of money in their pocket is probably only enough for them to make it through the next day or two. But they likely have a choice to live another way.

    Great analogy Alex, it gave me some great food for thought.



  7. Posted by Desirée on July 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Great topic Lauren. I saw the link on facebook and was immediately drawn in.


  8. Posted by David McColl on July 27, 2010 at 5:37 am

    I think HDI does have some value as a measure, but like GDP, it is a number and not much more.
    Poverty is the lack of possibility in my mind. Poor is a little different, I think. I’d describe poor as the lack of possessions.

    I think realizing the lack of possibility or ownership of a lower number/quality of possessions does not necessarily decrease hope. But it could. I think this is a question better addressed by the community.

    Now, how about a different mindset to poverty – the poverty to be poor. Try living on $2 dollars a day in Canada vs. Malawi. Which do you think would be more difficult? I’m not claiming either side on the answer to that question, but I wonder how the issues within that answer weaken our ability to work against worldwide poverty. I really think the idea of being “rich” in Canada and being free needs rethinking.


  9. thanks for this great post wow… it’s very



  10. You bring an interesting thought about living on a specified amount of money in any given country Dave. Certainly it costs significantly more to live in Canada but we have utensils, taps, homes with decorations, stoves, appliances – it costs a lot more but it is an altogether different lifestyle.

    Just some food for thought.


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