At this moment, I’ve been living in one of the poorest countries in the world for one year, three months, and two days.

I can’t use the tap water to rinse my toothbrush, much less to drink. All of the water we use must go through a high-quality, Swiss-made ceramic filter. But that’s quite a luxury, really, since one of those filters costs half a year’s salary for the average worker here.

Sometimes the water in our house shuts off for a few hours — or even for most of the day, and we have to flush the toilet with water reserved in a bucket alongside. Once, it was out for two days. But there are many people in this country who have to walk a few hours a day just to get the water they need for daily use, and half the people in this country — half – have “unimproved” latrine facilities.

(Improved latrine facilities include “ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrines, pit latrines with slabs, and composting toilets” — not exactly first-world niceties, but better than the alternative. Better than what half of the population has.)

The stores routinely yet unpredictably run out of one product or another. One day there’s no flour to be found anywhere. Another day, matches and toilet paper are seemingly nonexistent. Even sugar, which is grown and processed right here in Malawi, is occasionally hard to find.

But there are many people in this country who run out of food every year while they wait for the harvest.

The floors in my house are concrete, though we can afford to cover some parts of the cold gray stuff with area rugs. My ankles and knees ache at the end of the day if I’ve spent a lot of time on my feet.

But those concrete floors represent a huge step up. Most people in Malawi have dirt floors. And as World Bank and UC Berkeley researchers found, replacing dirt floors with concrete improved the health of children in Mexico significantly, with 20% reductions in anemia and parasitic infections and a 13% reduction in diarrhea.

My family and I must sleep under mosquito nets and take antimalarial medications every day. But I’ve talked with people here who had no idea that mosquitoes caused malaria, and who therefore have no nets. Despite the fact that 100% of the population is at significant risk for malaria, barely half of children and pregnant women sleep under nets.

I rarely speak or write of these things except to close friends and family. I refuse to take pictures of the common sights that are worth more than one thousand tragic words about poverty and inequality and the aching, wrenching helplessness:

The people who are disabled by easily reparable conditions, such as clubfeet.

The swollen bellies of malnourished children living just a 15 minute drive outside the old colonial capital.

The weary families sitting on the ground outside crowded hospital wards to feed their sick relatives.

The desperate men coming to my door to beg for work.

Look, I get it: people don’t go to the Olympics expecting to endure what seems to them like developing-world problems. There are serious concerns and controversies about the winter Olympics at Sochi, and it’s hard not to see the ridiculous mishaps as a humorous end to so much arrogance mixed with incompetence on the part of the government.

But from where I sit (literally), most of the jokes about the conditions at Sochi just make me cringe; the Instagrammed ‘hilarity’ strikes me as so much poverty porn. Because a lot of people actually have to live under such incompetence, and not just for a few weeks. And that’s not easy.

Yes, there has been mismanagement and corruption and malfeasance, and there’s something satisfying about seeing it all go wrong. But do you think such things don’t shape the form poverty takes in the poorest countries, too? Do you think that people who lack the luxuries we regard as utterly ordinary have less of a divinely-given sense of the beautiful and good?

"Babushka Lives Here," by Anton Novoselov. Courtesy Anton Novoselov via Flickr Creative Commons.

“Babushka Lives Here,” by Anton Novoselov. Russia, 2013. Courtesy Anton Novoselov via Flickr Creative Commons.

As Stephen Mattson wrote in a post for Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, reveling in #SochiProblems really feels like “Hey, let’s laugh about how other people actually live.”

Or — more accurately — how many (probably most) people in the would be lucky and grateful to live.

"Babushka and her life," by Anton Novoselov. Photo courtesy Anton Novoselov via Flickr Creative Commons.

“Babushka and her life,” by Anton Novoselov. Russia, 2013.   Photo courtesy Anton Novoselov via Flickr Creative Commons.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for the blog post. I live with my wife and two girls in Mangochi district. We’re actually spending next week up in Zomba for a little RnR which we are very much looking forward too. I’ve got two blog post in the 1st draft stage that I’m just finding so difficult to word. I want to tell friends back in Australia about life here and the things we witness on a day to day basis, I want to share a different perspective about life and how the other 80% of the world’s population live. But I find it a challenge not to write in such a way that people respond with pity and crippling guilt. Our friends and neighbours here in Malawi are not ‘those poor Africans’ they are actually our friends and neighbours whom we love, whom God love and who all have a life and story. My thoughts are all over the place, I must need that break. Anyway all this is to say I appreciate your post and how you worded it.

    Blessings

    Ben

  2. As a former MK who grew up in Togo and Nigeria, I’m grateful for your post. I get frustrated with my oh-so-privileged American friends, and wish they understood how fortunate they are. You expressed many things I’ve wanted to say and you found a much gentler, kinder, and more effective way to say them. Thanks for such beautiful truth-telling. May we all take it to heart.

  3. Powerful, Rachel, as always. I wonder if it might be more useful to post pictures of what poverty really looks like, if we saturated the media with those images just as we do with photos of the rich and famous in their obscenely expensive playgrounds.

  4. Excellent article. Thanks.
    It is news to me that much of Russia (and Sochi in particular) is so desperate. Alarming really.
    But I don’t think raising awareness about it should be called ‘poverty porn’. The term sounds dehumanizing as if it is scolding us for paying too much attention to the needs of others.

    I would not call photos of injured Iraqi war vets “war porn”, for example. We need to be grateful for knowing about these matters. Only then can we better understand and try to do something constructive to make a difference.

  5. Excellent post, Rachel. But where do we draw the line between drawing attention to poverty (which needs to happen) and gawking at it (which is poverty porn)? In other words, how can I, who has never been to a desperately impoverished place in my life, help rather than hurt those in need?

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