Thursday, December 2, 2010

What is Poverty?

Our trip to Morocco was a real game changer for me. I am seeing the world in a totally different way now than before I left. I expected to fly across the ocean and see some really beautiful things that would leave me breathless. I expected to see some special craftsmen that would inspire me. What I saw instead was thousands upon thousands of people living simple traditional lives. Lives that were uncluttered by many modern “conveniences”. And the irony is not lost on me that in the US, one of the wealthiest countries on the globe, I am trying my damnedest to lead a life that is closer to what they experience.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, our second day in Morocco we all traveled to Fez. Fez is a bustling and vibrant community. There was everything you could possibly imagine you would ever need, blankets, butchers, vegetables and fruit, cheeses, oils, olives, dishes, wedding crafts, shoes, clothes. All manner of special little shops were just smushed one on top of another. Some shops were 100 square feet or maybe smaller. In the area of the medina that handled fabrics I saw huge piles of sheep skins that were waiting to be spun into yarn. Next door, a 6 foot loom waited to spin the yarn into cloth.

The famous tannery in Fez is another example. There is a large tannery located within the medina. Skins will be soaked for 4 days in a mixture of lye and water and pigeon droppings to bleach the skin and remove the hair. Then the bleached skins will soak in vats of vegetable dyes for days or weeks until the entire skin is desired color. Then the skins are dried and conditioned and then used to make everything from wallets and purses to jackets and shoes. We went to a gorgeous pottery factory too. Local clay is mined from the hills and then brought back to the factory to soak in water to soften it up. A potter then spins the clay into dishes or bowls or tagines, whatever is desired. Then it is fired, painted and refired. Up until recently, when there was concern for clean air for the workers, the pottery was all fired in kilns heated by burning olive pits. Talk about recycling! These are three good examples of craftsman taking what is found in their local community and creating something useful with it. These craftsmen and those before them have been doing things the same way for centuries. There is a tradition of craftsmanship in Morocco. And the process has changed very little.
I never realized how much my life was dependent on the industrial complex. It seems like almost everything we consume, slather onto our skin, wear, etc, comes hermetically sealed in plastic or is made in a place with heavy equipment. Most things are made by “craftsmen” who couldn’t make their products without heavy automation and equipment. Automation and machinery has turned manufacturing into something done by an unskilled workforce. But these craftsmen in Morocco seemed to make astounding goods out of virtually nothing, some old sheepskins, rocks that were just laying around in the local hills. These are talents that must be learned and honed. I had tremendous respect for these men.

That brings me back to my original questions, What is poverty? What does the word poverty really mean? What pictures does it evoke in your mind? Before my trip to Morocco I imagined poverty to be a state of financial inadequacy or not having enough money. I have heard Morocco described as a third world country, so I expected to see some interesting things while I was there. But I did not expect the viewpoint change that I actually experienced. Because so many people living in Morocco are poor by the Western definition. They may only live on a few dollars a day. But I saw markets filled with local people buying. I saw food everywhere, and it was not tourist food, it was local people’s food, oranges, buckets of olives, dried dates and figs tied into long strings, meat and round breads. I did not see people that were disenfranchised. I did not see people wandering around not knowing the shopkeepers, and even those begging seemed like they just happened to ask me because I was so clearly a tourist, not because they set out to beg for money that day. I have no doubt that the government keeps some major visible areas “clean” in this way, we were in a major tourist area. But overall my sense was that this was a community where no one fell through the cracks. Families took care of one another, and all people would find some food during the day, and everyone had access to water through community wells (just don’t drink the tap if you aren’t a native).

I started thinking about what poverty was. If you don’t have any money, but you get the things you need for daily life, are you impoverished? If you have just enough food, but not an excess for your mental comfort, are you living in poverty? If you always have clean clothes to put on, but maybe they are simple and you don’t have a different dress for every day of the week, are you impoverished? If you can get to work by walking or taking the bus, but you maybe can’t afford to fly away on vacations, are you impoverished? I have in my life, been way too hung up on having the “right” pair of shoes, or having a little extra food in my fridge just in case I get hungry, nevermind that I never do. Last week I saw thousands of people doing just fine, leading happy and contented lives on far less money than I live on. They had far less stuff than I did, and they seemed to be more free to take life as it comes. Think about it, how many of us have bought, say, dishwashing detergent weeks before the old box ran out, just in case you needed more. But the store always has dishwashing detergent, and you could just go out when you ran out of the other box! Do you see? If you have spent that money on detergent when you didn’t really need it, imagine how many other things you are buying that you don’t need! Is it possible that with all our wealth in industrialized society we really are just purchasing things that we don’t need and that don’t add to the quality of our lives? If we are not increasing the quality of our lives, what’s the point?

Poverty has a new definition to me. It is not about money, but rather about not being able to connect with the things you need to sustain your life. In the US that may mean that you are an unskilled worker, unable to get a job that pays you enough to buy the things you need. Here in America, you need money to obtain everything, food, shelter, etc. This is a situation where a person might become disenfranchised, or unable to connect with basic goods and services within their community. In Morocco, it may mean a woman who is widowed and cannot easily find work or trade because she is a woman. There are disenfranchised people within all communities. But I think it is the disenfranchisement that is my new definition of poverty, rather than assigning a simple dollar value to it. People can be poor in all kinds of way. Yet they can be rich is all kinds of ways too.

I have spent a lot of time and energy looking at food. The food I eat, the food I serve, food as it is in my community. But I think I also need to examine the “stuff” in my life. I think I might be able to find a greater sense of peace by doing less, buying less, having less. I must remember that my local store is always open, I live smack dab in the middle of a major consumerist city. I will always be able to get what I need. I don’t have to buy extra nonsense just to have it around the house. My kids will do just fine with fewer toys. I can wear last year’s shoes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I am not going to sit here and say that life is better in Morocco, or fall into the pitfall of blasting American culture. I love my country, we are a great country. We have established freedoms that set the groundwork for allowing all people a base standard of living. Our legal system grants people dignity, and it should be upheld. We do the best we can having a diverse population of people from all over the world as opposed to one ethnic background of people who all believe the same thing. But we have some things we can work on. There are problems within our culture. We can be spoiled. We have narrow definitions of words like “clean” or “safe”. A lot of the time we think we are better than other folks on the world stage. We have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater when It comes to things like litigation and regulation. And the poor in our country struggles as much as the poor in any other country. I learned last week to be very thankful for all the blessings I have in my life. I have been given great gifts. I must cherish them, and never focus on the portion of the glass that isn’t full. In this way we can all be rich.

This Post is part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays!


  1. Terrific post. I love all of the questions you bring up and are thinking about. Perfect after last week's buying orgy also known as "Black Friday." I get uncomfortable with the focus on shopping and I wonder what other countries think of us when someone gets shot over an Xbox at 3am.

  2. Here here
    You should watch the Story of Stuff (on youtube)

    I used to work with a guy who had six kids. He would always joke about his family being labeled as poverty by the government. They were all dressed, fed and belonged to a loving family. What more do we really need?