Sunday, September 30, 2012

Revisitations: Living Poor

[This post is from April 9, 2008. I brought Moritz Thomsen's great book, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle with me to my Philippine island. I see parallels here to Thomsen's observations of Ecuador all the time. The biggest difference between Thomsen and me is the obvious fact that, unlike him, I haven't come to a poor country to teach people how to improve their lot. Thomsen served two tours (four years) in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, before he decided to live there for the rest of his life. I am "living poor" merely because, like so many other expats living in poor countries, I can live a great deal higher off the hog (and Thomson was a California pig farmer) on my tiny pension than I could back home. However much I love Thomsen's example and his writings, I know my limitations, both as a man and as a writer, and I respect them. But I derive little comfort from my knowledge, even as I derive comfort from such luxuries here in the Sticks as a refrigerator (necessity), my electric fan (necessity) and 50 channels of cable TV (absolute necessity). The condition of Living Poor, as I've learned, is quite relative.]

Living Poor Revisited

It might almost seem redundant for me to be reading Moritz Thomsen's "Peace Corps Chronicle" Living Poor here on a small island in the heart of the Philippine archipelago. Except that what Thomsen wrote about poverty is representatove of poor people everywhere. And in Ecuador and in poor places all over the world, in the forty years since the book's publication, nothing has changed. There is no River of Emeralds here, but the Pacific Ocean is there, as blue and as unforgiving as ever.

"Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he views it rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitably takes he would kill himself.

"In South America the poor man is an ignorant man, unaware of the forces that shape his destiny. The shattering truth - that he is kept poor and ignorant as the principal and unspoken component of national policy - escapes him. He cries for land reform, a system of farm loans that will carry him along between crops, unaware that the national economy in almost every country sustained by a one-crop export commodity depends for its success on an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Ecuador needs poor men to compete in the world banana market; Brazil needs poverty to sell its coffee; Chile, its tin; Colombia, its cacao and coffee, and so on. The way United States pressures shape the policies of the South American governments can make a Peace Corps volunteer who is involved and saddened by the poverty in his village tremble to his very roots."

In the Philippines, whose population has been exploding for more than a decade, children are everywhere - especially small children. Imbecile politicians point to this overpopulation as a good sign for the future of the Philippines. And yet no single factor practically guarantees that poverty will endure more than the servitude of women as little more than baby-making machines.

This problem is exacerbated in Roman Catholic countries (like the Philippines and every country in Central and South America) where Papal policy strongly discourages the use of contraceptives and where abortion is either strictly controlled or even banned. The church is always there to welcome the many millions of new souls, but never willing to fill their stomachs. This life is merely a proving ground for the next one, according to their reasoning (if you could call it that), so why bother prolonging it? Why, indeed.

"Death, of course, is the great release. I lay in my house one night trying to sleep, while up the hill a fiesta went on until dawn - drums in an endless and monotonous rhythm connecting a series of increasingly complicated songs, some chanted by women, some by men, some by mixed voices. It gradually became beautiful and moving, but I was puzzled because the celebration was just a week before the great Semana Santa, Holy Easter, a fiesta that everyone saves up for and that leaves everyone broke and exhausted.

"Why were they bombiendo all night on the hill? I asked someone.

"'They were celebrating the death of Crispin's first-born,' I was told. 'He was born dead, an angelito.' There wasn't a bit of sadness in the town; it was a real celebration. Crispin's son had struck it lucky; he was one of God's angels without all of that intervening crap."

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