I came across an interesting little book the other day, Light Over Kenya by Michael F. Lillie. It’s a beautiful photo essay about a trip that the author took in 2006 and subsequently repeated after his marriage in 2009. The photography is brilliant; the faces I met in the book will stay with me for a long time to come. But what captured my attention, ironically, was a portion of the sparse text that accompanies these beautiful pictures. I’m fairly certain that the photographer did not intend for his prose to overshadow his graphic work!
But there on page 20, he ponders the question, the right question to ask when confronting the kinds of conditions and issues that he faced during his journey. It’s right next to a photo of a Kenyan woman, Theresia. She had recently been treated for skin cancer as well as HIV/AIDS. As a result of her hospitalization, she could not pay her rent, the equivalent of four dollars. Lillie makes an important observation: “I’ve spent more than that on coffee in one day.” And then he poses the important observation, a question, actually, that we might all be asking: “I’m not sure that we in the west fully understand poverty or how it affects our fellow human beings.”
We don’t. We oftentimes can’t. Until we permit ourselves to come face-to-face in acquaintance with somebody real, an actual circumstance that we can see and touch and hear and smell, we’re too comfortably removed from the reality to understand it. We can respond to calamities like earthquakes and hurricanes that briefly impose themselves upon our awareness through the news, but the millions of daily tragedies like Theresia’s are just too little and too pervasive for many of us to embrace.
There are people starving to death in places like sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Asia and Latin America. (The drought of 2009 is crushing the rural poor in northern and central Nicaragua.) This year six million children will die of starvation; more than 200 will have perished since you began to read this essay. The assets of the world’s three richest people are more than the combined GNP of all the least developed countries on the planet!
Do we in the west really understand poverty or how it affects our fellow human beings? I trust not, because if we truly understood it yet continued to allow its pervasiveness, it would render all of us something less than human….