When we think of poverty in the United States we tend to think of the homeless, people living in cars or shelters, going to soup kitchens in order to eat a good meal that day, etc. We don't know poverty like this; we don't see slums stretching for shack after shack.
I am not trying to take away from the plight of the poor in the U.S.; poverty in any form is something to fight against. In the U.S., though, we almost seem to hide our poor; we don't want the world to know our people suffer, too. Here there is no hiding. Thanya took me to a slum last week. There is one right in the center of town, where the road dips down and there is a flat stretch of land closer to sea level. Running through the middle is a black creek of sheer filth; its banks pure trash with hogs sifting through. When the homes (which can be labeled shacks in structure while in reality they are homes) end, it opens to a wide expanse that is a sea of trash and debris leading to the ocean. This is the children's playground, a place infested with insects, disease, and scavenging animals. Most of us are used to clean environments; having more than one spider in your house a week is practically an infestation.
For those of you who have seen the film Slumdog Millionaire, it was like walking into that film and the slums there, though I would even argue that the structures here were far worse than the ones in the film. It is a weird feeling to be there and part of me almost resents films like Slumdog Millionaire in a way. On one side they open up people's eyes to poverty in the world, and on the other they almost desensitize you. So that when you see it in person, you just feel like you stepped into a movie, as if it is not actually real. But there it is, around you, and these children aren't actors; they don't call it a day's work, go home to comfortable lives, and then end up on a red carpet winning Oscars. This is their home: these piles of trash their toys, this infested creek and ocean their swimming pool, or shower even. Then there is the emotion of where I am, almost like a tourist in their homes. I see it. The children chase after me chanting, "Whiteman! Whiteman!", but then I leave, and what do I do? What changes? I get to leave. I get to go back to fans, electricity, floors -- heck, there's even a real shower in the home I'm at right now.
Thanya pointed out that many of the children who SLYAP mentors are from these slums. She also explained how this slum came to be. During the war many, many people came from the countryside to the city seeking refuge. Most of the fighting took place in the provinces, though eventually it came to Freetown, as well. After the war most of the people stayed and did not return to the countryside. Urbanization has been a trend and the war caused an extremely high amount of people moving to the city in a short amount of time. There was no way for the job market, infrastructure, and everything else to keep up, especially during and after the war! The government is trying to convince the people to move out of the slum, because this one in particular is incredibly dangerous. Every rainy season the slum floods from the now "creek" (it is the tail end of the dry season right now) running through it. Children every year get swept out to sea during these floods and drown. And let's not even get into the effect on the ocean itself! The amount of trash on the "beach" is insane and I can't even imagine how polluted the water must be near there. Environmentalists would have a panic attack. But the question is, where do all these people move to? Do they have places to go? There are so many challenges. I often keep hearing "It is difficult here" and "This is Africa," but was this always "Africa"? Does this always have to be "Africa"? I want to leave you with encouraging words, words that I received from someone else, to be honest, because you cannot depress people and then not encourage them; otherwise, we would all just give up and never work to change anything. And I still believe in change. So...
"Hold on to what is good,
even if it is
a handful of earth.
"Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.
"Hold onto what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here."
-- Nancy Wood
P.S. Thanks for the comments again! Dad, Mile 91 is a village out in the provinces; it's about a 3 to 4 hour drive outside of Freetown. Heather and Gretchen, I still haven't gotten the dress made yet! I was supposed to Saturday but I got caught up with a mild problem - which I'll explain in the next blog! But I'll be sure to put up pictures when I do!
Your blog is so similar to what I observed myself whist I was in Malawi myself.
I spend 3 month there, teaching English and my views on "poverty" changed completely.
Please, learn as much from the strength of people you meet to realize that human spirit in unbreakable even in the face of tremendous adversity.
I'll be on the lookout for your next blog and keep strong and may this help you in your career and your next life.
Posted by: Lenka Styblova | February 24, 2010, 2:09 pm
Your writing is very hard hitting,and well done.
Thank you for the insight. In my imagination I could NEVER know what you are experiencing.
I think it is time to increase my weekly payroll deduction to SLYAP.
I will be praying for you and all you come in contact with. Keep us posted!
From a fellow YAPPer who is in awe of your endeavors!
The Support Center
Posted by: Jerlyn Newhouse | February 24, 2010, 2:21 pm
Your observations are truly in line! In this nation we do not know poverty. We act like it is not real, like it is un-American. We do not give people the stories and the lives they so desperately deserve. Continue to seek and learn so that you can be confronted with the harsh reality. Continue to seek, learn, and break from this American lifestyle that places the world's pain at a safe distance.
"Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all the grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it's we ourselves for whom they finally fall."
Posted by: Sandals | February 24, 2010, 4:12 pm
Ashley, this is an amazing post. It brought tears to my eyes imagining all of the issues people in Sierra Leone must deal with on a daily basis. What you must be experiencing sounds amazing and difficult at the same time. To imagine children playing in garbage, because that is what they have access to, is horrifying. Nobody should have to live that way, without access to a clean place for their children to play. I wonder what the people of Sierra Leone would think of our thoughts regarding their conditions. It is so devastating to us to hear these things and see these pictures, because it is not what we are used to seeing. You are right that we hide our poor in the U.S. almost as if we are afraid to show what we are not doing for our people when we are such a "rich" nation.
I can't wait to hear more from you about Sierra Leone and your experiences. This is, unfortunately, the only way we are able to experience Sierra Leone right now - Through you. It would be great if we could all visit Sierra Leone to really see what it is like, but I feel as though I'm learning a lot through you. Keep your blogs coming and stay healthy!
Posted by: Bree | February 24, 2010, 5:44 pm
Dear Ashley, I concur that your writing is vivid and compelling. Thank you. I have had the good fortune to travel through Europe and even spent 6 weeks in SriLanka(then Ceylon). I travelled simply and "close to the people". Americans and other westerners come and go in Sierra Leone and I wonder if we are doing more for our own understanding of world diversity than bringing any change into their lives. It is very, very difficult to get down and play in the garbage with a child, yet this is perhaps the only way to connect with his or her soul. We are all truly connected to one another -- no one better, or more significant. So, as you spread your compassion and caring for people, please relax. You will not be able to bring clean water or schools, but you will be able to look deeply into the eyes of these strangers and make them friends. You will help to connect their souls to everyone else in this great amazing universe. Who knows what you will do when you return to America!
Posted by: judith christian | February 25, 2010, 2:32 pm
Your observations of the poverty in Sierra Leone made me re-evaluate how people in the United States view and understand poverty in our society. Any more it seems like the average citizen can label themselves as being poverty stricken due to their recent economic hardships. Many of these same people still have homes, fresh water, and food to eat each day, but lack the true understanding of how severe poverty can really be.
Such a wonderfull and emotional blog, keep up the great work.
Posted by: Adam Urffer, MSW | February 25, 2010, 3:48 pm
Thank you so much for all the comments. Ah, this is such a challenging and frustrating issue. I really like what you brought up Bree, about wondering how people in here think of all of our thoughts on their poverty. From the few people I have talked to I think some people would be happy that we are talking about it, hoping it will bring change as more and more people are showing that they care. I was talking to a girl the other day, one of the YAP participants who is now going to the university and when I told her about going to the hospital she told me it was good, because then I could suffer as they suffer, and maybe I would understand a little bit more.
I also loved your comment, Judith. I think we forget how important it is to recognize the humanity in each of us. The poor get treated as less than human so often. But we all are connected as fellow human beings, and therefore their plight is our plight as well.
Everyone has such great insight and things to share and I appreciate all of them and am encouraged by your dialogue with me!
Posted by: Ashley | March 1, 2010, 7:08 pm
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