Abundant life in the midst of poverty: early observations of village life in West Africa

I’m taking the personal liberty today to divert from my normal theme of practical discipleship to blog about something different.  This won’t become routine – just something I may do every now and again if the right topic or experience strikes me.  My first trip to the continent of Africa is one such experience!

I have given presentations on the topic of worldwide poverty to affluent Western audiences before.  With genuine passion, I have delivered the statistics related to the extremely poor around the world.  I know all the “information” about the lives of the extremely poor: lack of access to clean water, sanitation, nourishment, medicine and doctors, education, adequate housing, etc.

But I have never seen it with my own eyes.  I’ve never lived in the midst of it or experienced this level of poverty first-hand… until this summer.  Now, after 7.5 weeks in West Africa, I have made two observations about the lives of the extremely poor who live on next-to-nothing here.  (Both of these realizations took me completely by surprise!)

Realization #1: Abundant life exists here, even in the midst of extreme poverty!

My grandfather grew up in the West Texas Dust Bowl times of the 1930s as the son of a subsistence farmer.  Talk about poor!  They were a farming family during a multi-year drought in the middle of the Great Depression!  He describes his childhood by saying, “We didn’t have much.  We didn’t need much… come to think of it, we didn’t know much was available!”

His words rang in my ears as I walked among the thatched-roof bamboo huts in the upland village of Pai Kantanga, Ghana:

  • Ladies carrying 50-lb. buckets of water on their heads, drawn from the well in the center of the village – smiling widely.
  • Children who don’t own shoes, running along rocky paths, hitting a bicycle wheel along with a stick – laughing and playing the whole way.
  • A giant festival in the middle of the village on a Sunday afternoon, complete with lively drumming and joyful dancing.
  • A large group of men playing a friendly soccer match on a rocky field on a Saturday afternoon – some have shoes.  The goals are two vertical bamboo poles stuck into the ground.  The sidelines are teeming with proud women and joyful children – some have both a shirt and shorts – most have only one or the other!
  • A central market area is filled with people – most cannot buy anything – but the constant hum of conversation is buzzing with both laughter and loving concern.  The relationships here are rich and full and deep – you can hear it in their voices as they talk with one another.

These people – these “poor” people – most of whom live on less than $2/day (that’s about $700/year) are living abundant lives together!  They don’t have air-conditioning, candy, internet, video games, indoor plumbing, TV, washing machines, or mattresses on their beds…  They have none of the conveniences and luxuries that make my Western affluent life so easy and entertaining.  And yet, the fullness of their life experience and shared sense of community is incredible!

Prior to coming here, I never would have thought that abundant life and extreme poverty could co-exist.  But they do!  And very successfully so!  I have noticed two things about the kids in particular that demonstrate the contentment of these people:

(1) I very rarely hear African children crying.  At all.  Not even the babies!  I’ve heard a few, but not nearly the constant cacophony of cries I’m used to hearing from white babies (my own included!).

(2) I never once heard an African kid complain.  Not a single time – about anything!  And they have SO MUCH (from my spoiled perspective) to complain about!  Rich white kids complain about everything (myself included!).

There is a richness among these people that their poverty simply cannot touch – because it has nothing to do with material things.  It is amazing and beautiful to behold, albeit altogether foreign to me.  (They manage to be joyful despite not having Reese’s Cups or ESPN!)

Realization #2: These people don’t need saving.

This observation was even more difficult for me to wrap my head around than the first.  We (affluent white Westerners) are not needed here.  We are welcome here, because the people are so friendly, hospitable, and open to us – and they really like us a lot!  But they are doing just fine on their own without us.  They don’t need us to swoop in and rescue them.

Now, I never would have verbalized it that way prior to coming.  But now that I’m here – and if I’m being honest with myself – I can look back and see that, in my sub-conscience, this is how I felt: “They need our help!  We must go save them!  They won’t survive without us!”  False, false, and false.

I can certainly see how the extremity of the situation here could quickly be exasperated by some calamity like an outbreak of war or disease, or a natural disaster like a flood, earthquake, or wild fire.  In those cases, relief work is essential, and foreign aid is a necessity.  And since these things often strike the most impoverished regions of Africa, the affluent West must respond during crises.

But those are the exceptional times.  In most African villages, life is going on – peacefully, joyfully, and successfully – despite the lack of resources and services that I consume so much of and take for granted.

We are very welcome here, and our assistance is greatly appreciated!  But we’re not needed.  The situation is completely different than anything I could’ve imagined!  The people are neither desperate nor in anguish.  In fact, they seem quite happy and full of life!  There is a deep contentment here that again, their extreme poverty just cannot touch.

I do not envy my West African siblings in their way of life.  I could not live the way they do permanently.  But I am in awe of them: their abundance of life – their real joy – their genuine contentment – despite living on next-to-nothing.

*All photos in this post appear courtesy of my friend, Michelle Murrey, who is a photographer for Mercy Ships.  (c)2012, Michelle Murrey.

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