“Despite everything, these people are still so happy.”
I expect we’ve all heard it said, or like me said it ourselves, that despite being poor those living in poverty seem incredibly happy. It’s an observation that is made so often that it’s becoming a bit of a cliché. But I now wonder what this does to our understanding of poverty and how we respond.
A couple of years ago I met a women in Uganda who first made me think about this. She lived in a small village and for the sake of this blog we’ll call her Florence. I met Florence at a micro-finance meeting and she seemed a confident woman. As chairperson of the group, she was widely respected by the other members. I asked Florence why she decided to join the group and she explained to me that a couple of years ago she’d joined a large microfinance organisation. She began saving as much as she could with them so she could then borrow a loan. Sadly that never happened. Instead, the organisation stole all of Florence’s savings - over a year’s worth.
For Florence, a single Mum, this was devastating. It was made worse because she was HIV positive and had cancer. Although HIV medication is free in Uganda, Florence was now unable to pay for the transport to reach the clinic, let alone pay for the cancer treatment. Florence was struggling to provide for herself and her family. I met Florence about a year later when she’d joined another microfinance group, was elected as chairperson, and owned the beginnings of a flourishing business.
I believe that much like the cliché, Florence really was determined and largely happy, but it’s not that simple. She was also experiencing poverty and injustice which had in many ways forced her to become so determined and resilient. Poverty is a daily grind and Florence had little choice but to carry on with her life despite all she faced.
When we simplify those living in poverty as simply being ‘so happy despite the poverty they live in’ we make it more digestible for ourselves. Rather than understanding poverty as a terrible injustice on which we must act it, we focus only on the heroism of those suffering. I think the balance lies somewhere between the two.
By Five Talents Development Executive Hannah Wichmann