Part 3: What is Poverty? Jo Goodwin Parker (1971)
This introduction is being included again from previous times. When George Henderson, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was writing his 1971 book, America’s Other Children: Public Schools Outside Suburbia, he received an essay in the mail. It was signed “Jo Goodwin Parker” and had been mailed from West Virginia. No further information was ever discovered about the essay or its source. Whether the author of that essay was in reality a woman describing her own painful experiences or a sympathetic writer who had adopted her persona, Jo Goodwin Parker remains a mystery.
Here, her essay has been adapted to the context of the people living in poverty in East Africa, and especially, in Kenya. This is real, everyday poverty that adversely affects the lives of millions of people. The context is from actual conversations with the people living there as they describe their despair and hopelessness.
Continued from last issue:
I’ll tell you something, after the last baby I destroyed my marriage by refusing relations with my husband. It had been a good one, but how could you keep on bringing children in this dirt? Did you ever think how much it costs for any kind of birth control? I knew my husband was leaving the day he left, but there were no good-byes between us. I hope he has been able to climb out of this mess somewhere. He never could cope with it. I have no idea where he is.
That’s when I finally asked for help from my only living uncle. When I got it, you know how much it was? It was 500 shillings for the four of us; that is all I will ever get. I was told not to come back. Now you know why there is no soap, no hot water, no aspirin, no worm medicine, no hand cream, and no food. None of these things forever and ever and ever. So that you can see clearly, I get the odd job in the fields, earning at most 300 shillings in a month, and most of that goes for food. For maize to make ugali, and maybe some beans. I sell what little milk I get from my goat, and sometimes a few eggs. I try my best to provide. Poverty is looking into a black future. And my children? At best, there is a life like mine. At worst, there is illness, disease, suffering and early death.
But you say to me, there are schools and they are now free. Yes, there are schools, and there are no longer tuition fees to pay. But my children have no text books, no work books, no pencils, or pens, or paper and the most important of all, they do not have health. They have worms, they have jiggers, infections, and they have pinkeye all dry season. They do not sleep well on the dirt floor. Even though they do not suffer from hunger, my 300 shillings keeps us alive, they do suffer from malnutrition because we can’t afford nutritious food, which means they wouldn’t do well in school anyway.
But, you say to me, there are health clinics. Yes, there are health clinics, but they aren’t always open. A visit there costs money too, and I have none. There are charity clinics in the towns that might be able to help, but I live out here, 15 kilometres from the town. I can walk that far (even if it is 30 kilometres both ways), but can my little children in their state? Matatus don’t come out this far, but even so, I cannot afford the 50 shillings even to just go one way and walk the other.
Poverty is an acid that drips on pride until all pride is worn away. Poverty is a chisel that chips on honour until honour is worn away. Poverty is a parasite that saps your power until power is worn away. Poverty is a pair of shackles that keeps you trapped and chained to the place you are. Some of you may say that you would do something in my situation, and maybe you would, for the first week or the first month, but for year after year after year? Poverty wears you down until you are gone.
But even the poor can dream. A dream of a time when there is money. Money for the right kinds of food, for school supplies and books, for worm medicine, for clothes, for a shovel, for some iron roof sheeting, for needles and thread. Money for a trip to town. And, oh, money for charcoal and money for soap. A dream of when asking for help does not eat away the last bit of dignity. When the relative you visit in despair is nice, welcoming and interested in you and children’s welfare.
I have come out of my despair to tell you this. Others like me are all around. Look at us with an angry heart, anger that will help you help me. Anger that will let you tell of me. The poor are always silent. Can you be silent now?
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