Speaking about Poverty
Day in and day out I swerve through Honduran shanty towns, isolated hovels, over exquisite landscapes and into ditches. I can’t open my eyes wide enough, and at the end of everyday I have more questions than the day before. The questions are complex and every one leads me down a rabbit hole. Its starts like this: To begin with, how do we really measure poverty here in Honduras? And once I identify the poor, I wonder, does Prisma reach the poorest of the poor? If not, is it enough that they reach the middle poor, and by virtue of growing small business opportunity, they grow opportunities for employment of the poorest of the poor? Given the global economic crisis, is encouraging debt responsible? Is it more important for the borrower to just feel less poor? Or is that just an enormously arrogant view? And once we move into the realm of feelings, we lose all measurements. But lets say we wanted to measure feeling poor, is that something we should do? And how? My head is swimming.
All my questions really crystallize as I write journal updates. Let me stop asking and begin.
Sometimes I meet people whose situation is dire. They live in garbage. As we drive up, dirty children come to greet us. Big, haunting stares. As we talk I find it hard to focus for the sheer quantity of flies in their open homes. This was the case of Doña Reina Marina Fernandez. She lives in a tiny isolated village. To get there I rode on the back of a motocycle for over two hours of dirt road. We stopped twice to push it through rivers and sludge. We arrive to find the majority of her property totally destroyed by the recent flooding that has decimated the southern region of Honduras. The flooding has changed the shape of her land and her oven is about to fall off a cliff. She is trying to figure out how to move it since she makes her business baking bread and other sweets.
Her smiling son of about 15 comes to greet us. I give him a hearty greeting just to find that he is mute. Like an idiot I say, “hello, how are you?” in sign language. First, signing in Spanish is as different as speaking in Spanish. Second, of course he didn’t go to sign language school. This person has no communicative ability, because he was never taught to talk. He smiles and gestures and Manuel, the saint of a loan officer that has been taking me around, understands him. Or pretends to. For several months this year, the flooding isolated this town. Most of the crops of every person, including Doña Reina, were destroyed and there is little to eat. They take the bus in now to Danli to buy basic goods, and try to sell them in an economy, that for all appearances, is hardly functioning. It should be stated clearly that she is open about her circumstance and is honest about her difficulties but she was honorable and resolute. She has a quick wit, and asked me interesting questions about the US. She wonders how many people are farmers. I could only tell her that my family was a family farming and my dad still works in agriculture.
Surely, this is “the poor”. Right? But who are the children I see out of the corner of my eye as we whiz through pueblo after pueblo, and in the shadows of Tegucigalpa? They raise their heads out of giant dumpsters as we pass by, faces covered in flies. Are they being reached by microfinance? If not, can they be?
And in my journal updates how can I represent the poverty here. Telling one person’s story is satisfying, and its my job, but really its not about one person. Its about a system. I write the details of one person but on re-reading every update they seem flat and one-dimensional. I find myself wanting to highlight poverty for Kiva lenders. Then they can feel like their loan meant something. They can feel they are helping. I feel horrible when on my visits find myself looking for the saddest part of their story. Preserving their dignity is important to me, and I try to stop myself. I do, but its hard. I so badly want to see an extreme transformation that I have to make sure I’m not fabricating it. Progress is so incremental, often non-existent.
Sometimes I have a totally different problem representing the borrowers. Sometimes the borrowers don’t seem nearly as poor. They definitely needed it, accordingly the loan was helpful, but in no way life altering in the Muhammad Yunus sense. This was very true on a recent visit.
I meet many people like Victor, who really make me question the system and the goal of microfinance. He is a former professional football player in Honduras. He played 10 years in the professional soccer leagues of this country and for many teams. I’m told that 10 years ago soccer players didn’t make the money that they do now. Still- this seems to indicate a level of opportunity Doña Reina can only dream of. He now operates his own taxi business. We talk on his outdoor patio while workers finish painting his two-story house a nice new shade of vibrant yellow. His lovely, stylish wife passes through on her way to visit friends, high-heels clicking past my filthy, dusty tennis shoes. He owns his taxi, and his personal car, and needed a loan to fix a broken transmission. This sounds like the kind of debt I have. He supports two children who live in Tegucigalpa while the attend University. As an unpaid Kiva Fellow, with little to no plan about how I’m going to finance my life in the U.S when I return in 5 months, saddled with student loans, I wonder if Victor is actually richer than me. Surely not. Right?
Though this doesn’t feel like the microfinance of my imagination, the Victors of Honduras are a crucial cog in the microfinance machine. In order to reach the poorest (assuming that they do) Prisma needs him. Before they are a development organization, they are a bank. Their technical abilities, and sound internal policies make the humanitarian arm of their business more effective. Obviously this is a simple concept, but will Kiva lenders feel emotionally fulfilled when they learn the true details of his life? Is this a breakdown in the system? I want to accurately describe what I see here, really shedding light on the whole system, and thereby foster true understanding. But something about Victor’s loan doesn’t feel like microfinance. Still, it was a small loan, so that counts. Right?
Understanding what poverty looks like here, how microfinance fits, and whether it’s addressing the real causes of poverty, where cultural differences begin and end, how to speak to truth, and where I am in the whole system is hard. I’ll admit freely: right now, I am lost./>