The Generosity of the Extremely Poor: What I’ve Learned about Real Riches
The old woman squatted over the fire, mixing the vegetables. Her low home filled with the smoke. Outside, my guide and his cousin caught one of the skinny chickens, wrung its neck and plucked the feathers.
Very much as I had done for my father some fifty years prior. Not a pleasant thing to take a life. But I was a guest of honor. Meat — even tough, stringy chicken- was on the menu.
About an hour before this, my guide, who is from this high mountain part of Eastern Myanmar, and his cousin and I hiked the high hills to reach this village. It was 112 degrees and close to 98% humidity. These small villages are extremely isolated. The Myanmar government doesn’t even count them on the census. These people might as well not even exist.
I had fallen in love with the ethnic dresses and headdresses. The old woman now making our lunch had sold me a wonderful collection of pieces which would eventually be draped on a mannequin in my house.
For now, we all squatted around the pot where she stirred the chicken meat into the vegetables which had just been taken out of her garden. Her face was a mass of wrinkles. She had no teeth. Her smile was joyous, her expression one of supreme happiness. She had made some money that day, and I was joining her for a meal. I was delighted to help her out, and on top of that, I was able to bring home some beautiful ethnic clothing.
My guides and I hiked to the next village just a few miles over. The sun beat down on our heads as we traversed the hard clay roads. Up this high most of the villagers grow peanuts. Water is scarce. What water does exist trickles into the tiny town by means of a jerry-rigged bamboo contraption. That means that people never bathe. Babies don’t get washed. First of all there is no such thing as a bathroom, and there just isn’t enough water for people to wash themselves or their clothing. Remarkably, nobody smells. I sat on their open porches, in their houses in this stifling heat and there wasn’t the slightest indication that people weren’t clean. Kids came in dotted with dirt, rolled on the floor, picked up some peanuts and ran back out to play again. Mostly, they were interested in the visiting white woman.
At our second village, I sat with my guide as we listened to the local shaman discuss the customs and the role of the huge drum in his home. Women can’t touch it. If I had, it would need to be destroyed and another made. Below us, a large pig rolled in the red mud. I sipped tea, and quietly taped the shaman’s conversation. I asked permission to purchase the small metal bracelet the wife wore. She was pleased to sell it to me. When I can, I often try to purchase an item that has been worn a long time. That way the piece has memories and meaning. She understood this right away. When we got up to leave, his wife packaged up a large bag of peanuts and insisted that I take them. This was food enough for them for at least a week.
You don’t say no. Not only would this be rude, but this was a remarkable gift. My guide explained that other guests he had brought here had refused the tea, which is a massive insult. They wouldn’t take the peanuts either.
What? You think you’re gonna get cooties or something?
No matter where I’ve traveled in the world, when I have taken the time to explore off the beaten path and sit with villagers, I have been astounded by the generosity of people who have — by comparison to us --nothing to offer. I beg to differ. It’s the wrong measurement. They open their houses, offer food and drink, and often press gifts into my hands simply the taking the time to sit with them. The way I live is astoundingly rich, if you only take into account the conveniences we take for granted. You and I may not experience ourselves as wealthy, but the ability to close a door, turn on the AC against stupefying heat, twist a knob and have clean running water are beyond the beyond for billions.
I have driven through incredibly poor villages in Africa on my way to a scuba diving adventure. Those villages- at the time it was 2002-had only just gotten a single street lamp. Water was still a long way away. The dignity of such people has for me always been extraordinarily humbling. The eagerness to share with me, to include me, to have me hold a child and enjoy its warm skin and huge, curious eyes as it stares at a strange white visage is the kind of life-altering experience that re-frames who I am and what I think about the world.
I encounter deeply-rooted selfishness among the well-to-do. The most self-centered, greedy and rapacious people I’ve ever met have invariably been vastly well-off, far more so than I. I am supremely fortunate to be able to scrape together enough money to go on these international trips (albeit let’s be clear, I never ever set foot in a resort). I am willing to forgo a great many of life’s so -called pleasures to have experiences that rewrite what I think I know, what I believe, and the dearly-held notions about what is or isn’t. What that has taught me, rightly or wrongly, has been to be extremely grateful for those small but powerful gifts that I get from those who have nothing but smiles, warmth, love and inclusion to offer me. Or a bagful of peanuts.
One of my most prized possessions is a Maasai knife and the beaded belt that I bought from my Tanzanian guide Philippo. He was part of a group of five men who accompanied me for seven days by camel from Arusha to Lake Natrone in February of 2015. The only one of our group who spoke enough English for us to have a conversation, Philippo allowed me to purchase his knife (“my mother will make me another belt,” he said with a huge grin). During our long slow trip, these men and I got to know one another quite well. These days, Philippo keeps me informed about his growing family, his new job, and reminds me that Babu (an old man with whom I got into nightly water fights which left us both breathless and exhausted from laughter) insists that I come back soon. I am. This November, I am joining them for a day’s ride on my favorite camel Dominique. I can’t wait. They’re family.
Truth is I know nothing. The guidelines and parameters within which I grew up are meaningless in the wider world but for one supremely important life lesson: my father taught me to treat everyone with respect. He might have been an intellectual elitist, but he ingrained in me a curiosity about and appreciation for those who labored at the low end of the working market. An interest in the welfare of people who didn’t have and likely would never have what even we had, and I grew up poor. Not poor by Myanmar or African standards, but most assuredly by American standards. There is great dignity in effort, whether that is to scratch a few plants out of arid soil, to lead a few tourists across endless African plains, to create beaded jewelry for sale at the market in order to pay for a child’s education.
Someone did, or else Philippo wouldn’t speak English.
George Carlin joked in his riff about the Ten Commandments that the one that admonished us to not covet our neighbor’s goods was “just plain stupid.” That’s what keeps the economy moving forward, he said, not without irony. The problem is that the wholesale, headlong focus on acquisition of things has largely replaced our commitment to the acquisition of learning, emotional maturity, experiences by which we are better able to appreciate the world and each other. The world’s poorest have taught me a great deal more about what’s truly worth having than any trip through Neiman Marcus. What I own doesn’t define me. How I think, feel, and move around in the world does. Those speak volumes.
About three years ago when I returned to Africa to track gorillas and chimps, I visited a small village near one of the national parks. There, if I would donate $35 to the village, I could be taken on a tour to see what that money purchased. The crisply-uniformed young man proudly walked me through the village. My funds would buy a vaccine for a wide-eyed infant that I held in my arms, medical supplies for a woman with a bad leg, materials for the village doctor who was building a bee hive, soap for a small family. As we walked down the main road, an energetic, sweetly shy young boy ran up beside me to hold my hand. In the other he proudly showed me his school supplies. “That is what your money bought,” the guide explained. “Education.” The universal way out of sheer desperation for many.
Throughout the entire tour, we had been followed closely by a gaggle of children. When I held my hands out behind me, every so often I could feel the delicate touch of one child’s hands. As we began to wind up our tour, I turned around to her and invited her to play piggyback. She’d never done this before so I had to show her how. Giggling uncontrollably, she climbed aboard, and I gave her a ride to my car where the guide waited for me.
A cheap piece of metal fashioned into a bracelet, worn by the wife of a shaman. A handmade machete and beaded belt made by a Maasai mother proud of her son. A photo of a grinning little girl hanging onto my neck for dear life. There is very little that I have in my house or my bank account that can outshine any of these items, items made vastly more valuable because of who put them into my hands, what they taught me, how they changed how I saw, felt and experienced the world. Therefore, priceless.
The more we have, the more we want. This is one reason why the rich are addicted to becoming richer. The poor- and that includes the poorest of the poor in the world- continue to teach me that the only things truly worth having are love, respect, gratitude, good stories, friends to share food with, laughter, and the grace of time in each other’s company. I am happy to forgo many of what we perceive as life’s comforts in order to experience such things, and be transformed by them.
In other words, put simply, the world’s poorest have made me “rich” in the best sense of the word.