I thought I knew what poverty was until I came here.
A toddler, no older than three years old, came up to me and grabbed my hand begging for money yesterday. The little boy would not let go.
I still had not exchanged my money into Leones yet, so I was unable to provide something, but my colleague, Ishmael, handed him a coin, which he proudly took back to his mother.
“You are probably used to it,” Ishmael said. “America has beggars too, right?”
“Yes, but in America, none of them are children,” I said.
I was ready to expect my fair share of beggars during my time in Freetown. This little boy was the first and certainly will not be the last. This country is rife with problems, poverty being one of them. Poverty is a worldwide problem. Even America, the richest country in the world, has it and that is the biggest shame in the world. How else would my Sierra Leonean colleague assume so easily that I was already used to beggars on the street?
Every morning when our driver Michelle takes me to the Awoko office, my eyes are glued to the sights we pass on the street, from the vendors desperate to sell novelty item such as cigarettes or candy, to dilapidated houses in which their occupants still care enough to sweep their front porches despite the conditions they live in.
Poverty is a widespread problem throughout Africa and as an American, that seems to be one of the first things we learn. We see it on television commercials from nonprofit groups that feature pictures of sad and starving children living in dire conditions, asking Americans to donate money that a child in some developing country can eat and go to school.
We see it in media coverage, when the American media cares enough to cover events in Africa and other parts of the developing world to begin with.
We see it in interviews with prominent African leaders, who do not deny their particular country’s social problems and try their best to improve the lives of their countrymen.
As I see a small child hawking a water bottle or clothes hangers so that he or she can bring some money into their home, my heart sinks knowing that I have no power to do anything to solve their plight. I could buy that water bottle or those clothing hangers and they may be able to eat for the day; but what about the next day, the next week, or the next year? How will they survive? Is it even my obligation to care and try to do something about it?
In America, we pass by a begging homeless person without a glance, not willing to spare a dollar. It is our instinctive attitude to assume that the homeless person will only spend that money on drugs or alcohol, not on something that can actually improve their situation. Is that true though? That, I am not so sure of.
As someone whose life has not experienced much hardship, I believe it is an obligation of those who are better off to assist those who are not. But there are many deeper issues that cannot be resolved by throwing money at them. Many African countries receive huge amounts of aid from Western nations, but as many Africans are still living in dire poverty, is that all for not?
Poverty is an issue which may never be resolved, no matter how many talented, passionate and educated people try to tackle it. I did not come to Sierra Leone to save the world, though that would be pretty awesome if I did. But I do hope to go back to America with a little more humility than I had when I left. And I hope that I can tell my friends and family about what I have seen and teach and share that humility with them as well. That alone may not save a starving child who is selling candy bars on the streets of Freetown; but that could very well be the first step to raising awareness so that the child does not have to do that forever.