Memories of Poverty (Ricordi di poverta)

Poverty Means (Fill in the Blank)

I have been thinking a lot lately about development. One of the main goals of many of us working in development is to eliminate poverty. But what is poverty? Poverty means different things to different people. The World Bank measures poverty people who live on less than $1 and $2 per day. Currently, 2.7 billion people survive on less than $2 dollars per day.

I think we can all agree that poverty is NOT just the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money. It goes beyond just income and a lack of material wealth does not necessarily mean that one is deprived. Some spend their whole life getting rid of material possessions. Look at the bodhisattva!

  • Poverty means lacking a home or shelter.
  • Poverty means hunger.
  • Poverty means malnutrition.
  • Poverty means not having access to healthcare and doctors when illness strikes.
  • Poverty means not being able to go to school.
  • Poverty means obesity.
  • Poverty means opportunity.
  • Poverty means walking every day to go get water. Or not having access to clean drinking water.
  • Poverty means that you still cook on a three stone fire.
  • Poverty means pride.
  • Poverty means revolution.
  • Poverty means you die of diarrhea.
  • Poverty means you don’t have a job and make no plans for the future.
  • Poverty is crime.
  • Poverty means losing a child.
  • Poverty means powerlessness and lack of freedom.
  • Poverty means hopelessness.
  • Poverty means to think.

The Consciousness of Poverty

In my travels, I sometimes ask myself “what is poverty?” I am unsure, even after working with Jeffrey Sachs who wrote the End of Poverty and was one of the creators of the Millennium Development Goals which served as a road map toward poverty reduction for nations. When I lived in Kenya, never did I see so many people smile, reach out their hands to yours, speak of hope and yet, surrounding them was a constant struggle to make ends meet. Going to places like Northern Kenya, where pastoralists who live on the fringe, walk with their herd of camels (that cost a small fortune) and live out their lives the way they want, during these post-modern times…is this poverty? We can put statistics to their way of life – high maternal and child mortality, famines, 100s of kilometres from one bore hole to the next…One pastoralist told me that he didn’t think he was poor. At least, not until us muzungus came and told him he was. Sitting on 100 camels at 2,000 USD a piece – is that poverty? If you just think of poverty in terms of income, I don’t think so.

Ma in questo mondo che non possiede nemmeno la coscienza della miseria, allegro, duro, senza nessuna fede, io ero ricco, possedevo! Non solo perche una dignita Borghese era nei miei vestiti e nei miei gesti di vivace noia, di ripressa passion: ma perche non avevo la coscienza della mia ricchezza!

But in this world which doesn’t possess even a consciousness of poverty, light-hearted, hard, without any faith, I was rich, I possessed! Not only because my clothes and gestures had a bourgeois dignity of lively ennui, of repressed passion, but because I didn’t have any awareness of my wealth!

–Paolo Pier Pasolini, La Ricchezza del Sapere (The Wealth of Knowing), Roman Poems

Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer and film director wrote a lot about poverty. Central to Pasolini’s life and works were his despair over Italy’s impoverished conditions and his anger over the indifference of the materialistic bourgeoisie. His childhood and early adult were spent in the poverty-stricken village of Casarsa. After World War 2, he was forced to move to Rome with his mother, where he became immersed in the slum life of the city. Although different now, poverty and squalor still exist in some pockets of Rome, but mainly amongst the immigrants who eke out a living. Just prior to Pasolini’s death, he described Rome as a “small, bourgeouis, provincial city” but its ideologies and resistance have allowed for Rome to remain, Pasolini’s Rome.

I remember watching this documentary called “Good Fortune” a few years back. The film was a bit contrived and had its issues in presenting all sides. But I remember what struck me was a comment said by the farmer from Yala Kenya, who is one of the major subjects of the film. He said: “I am not poor. This settler (American company called Dominion Farms that was planning to make the area a rice growing area) is clearing all these things and now he wants to make me poor. But as for now, I’m not poor.”

Again, may I ask, what is poverty and do you consider yourself “poor?”

Less Than Zero

We, in the “developed world,” suffer from poverty in all its facets. Katrina was the 2nd wake-up call after 9-11 to many of us americans. As we watched the hurricane events unfold on TV, we asked: How can we have so much poverty in America? How can people NOT get out of New Orleans? Don’t they have a car and can’t they afford a hotel to stay in somewhere in Kentucky? Why do they expect their government to help them? Can’t they help themselves???

A strong economy in a developed nation doesn’t mean a whole lot when many struggle to survive and make ends meet. Sometimes I think that Americans are even worse off than those that have so little. Many Americans are in the negative balance, not at zero. We are borrowing our wealth on credit, but digging a deeper poverty hole. We are at less than zero. This. Is. America.

Beyond just finance and possessions, and even when we think we have enough, like a roof over our heads, and food on the table, some just can’t get out of their insulated world of unhappiness. To me, being unhappy and lonely is one of the worst states of poverty. I have been in this state, and during those dark times, I feel poor. We have everything we want at our disposal, and we are still miserable. In the final episode of season 4 of the Sopranos, Tony talks about how in America, we expect to be happy. The dialogue goes like this:

Tony Soprano: You know, there’s this Russian woman. She told me something that’s very true. She said, only here, in America, do we expect to be happy. I mean this woman, she had a terrible leg disease since she was 9. She was dirt poor. She’s getting on with her life. I mean, over here, we come and we bitch to shrinks. I mean, what the fuck?
Dr. Melfi: Well, part of that may be true. But, who said that after getting out of the dirt and the poverty, do we have to stop looking for pain and truth?
Tony Soprano: Pain and truth? Come on, I’m a fat fucking crook from New Jersey.

Sound familiar? I think Tony is onto something. Bada Bing baby! The idea that it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable is a cliché, but is there a way to meet in the middle? Can we be a bit more bourgeois and not live in the extremes? Pasolini, in Ricordi di Miseria (Memories of Poverty), Roman Poems wrote:

Quelle faccie dei passaggeri quotidiani, come in libera uscita da tristi caserme, dignitosi e seri nella finta vivacita di borghesi che mascherava la dura, l’antica loro paura di poveri onesti.

Those faces of everyday passengers, as if out on a pass from sad barracks, dignified and serious, with the feigned vivacity of the bourgeoisie masking the age-old fear of the honest poor.

In the Ghetto

My husband and I were debating about the meaning of “ghetto”, an Italian word, in its origins. We live right next to the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. When I think ghetto, I think Chicago’s South Side, Jamaica city Queens, Brazil’s favelas. You know, all those urban slum places that you don’t dare walk in after dark. But those places are home to many. When Elvis thinks ghetto, he thinks Chicago too.

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto

And his mama cries
Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto

Then we started thinking about the Jewish connotation to ghetto. To me, it means confinement, restricted, caged. Pre-concentration camps. On Wikipedia, the authority of all facts, it says: Jewish quarters, like the Jewish ghettos in Europe, were often the outgrowths of segregated ghettos instituted by the surrounding authorities in World War Two, the Nazis. Jewish ghettos in Europe existed because Jews were viewed as alien due to being a cultural minority and due to their non-Christian beliefs in a Renaissance Christian environment. As a result, Jews were placed under strict regulations throughout many European cities. The character of ghettos has varied through times. In some cases, the ghetto was a quarter with a relatively affluent population (for instance the Jewish ghetto in Venice). In other cases, ghettos were places of terrible poverty and during periods of population growth, ghettos (like Rome), had narrow streets and tall, crowded houses.

The term ghetto now refers to an overcrowded urban area often associated with specific ethnic or racial populations living below the poverty line. From a statistical perspective, ghettos are typically high crime areas relative to other parts of the city.

Why am I even talking about ghettos? Besides wanting to post a puffy drugged up Elvis video on my site, when I think of ghetto, I am often just confused about its definition as the word, poverty. My husband and I debated about what it meant for a good 5 minutes of our short attention spans. Both words hold stigma, but when you walk the Roman ghetto, it is a beautiful area. And even if not beautiful, it is still considered home to someone, whether it is the south side, or the Venice.

Revolution is Poverty

But is all poverty bad? Aristotle said that the “mother of revolution is poverty.” Perhaps this is true. Some of the best revolutions were stirred during unrest, the working class poor, the breaking point. Punk rock grew out of poverty. As Johnny Rotten said: “Oh bullocks, why should I carry on. NO FUN. Being alone is no fun. Ever get the feeling you been cheated?”

Or maybe this is just anger, again the unhappiness factor. But as Zach De La Roca said, Anger is a Gift. The Arab Spring uprising will be analysed critically over the next decade on the determinants, but we cannot argue that the frustrations of living in poverty was the matchstick. We know that French Revolution was triggered by poverty and civil unrest. If misery and poverty leads to change for the better, maybe we should all expect to be happy as Tony pointed out. Maybe expecting things is a bit ambitious. To expect something usually leads to disappointment. But to hope, that is something we can do. And to be self driven in our hopes. And to think.

Ah, raccogliersi in se, e pensare! Dirsi, ecco, ora penso, seduti sul sedile, presso l’amico finestrino. Posso pensare! Brucia gli occhi, il viso, dale marcite di Piazza Vittorio, il mattino, e, misero, adesivo, mortifica l’odore del carbone d’avidita dei sensi: un dolore terribile pesa nel cuore, cosi di nuovo vivo.

Ah, to withdraw into myself and think! To tell myself, here, now, I’m thinking, sitting on a seat, by a friendly window. I can think! In the miasma of the Piazza Vittorio the morning burns my eyes, my face, and the miserable sticky smell of coal mortifies the thirst of my senses: a terrible pain weighs down my heart, so alive again.

Paolo Pier Pasolini, Il Privilegio di Pensare (The Privilege of Thinking), Roman Poems

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2 Responses to Memories of Poverty (Ricordi di poverta)

  1. In the movie The Big Heat the actress Gloria Graham has the lines ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.’ Two dollars a day means having to take a day at a time and wondering whether you will eat that day. 2.7 billion people have to live like that so it would be nice if more people would give them a thought.

  2. Hmm, a new twist in poverty defination. Seems everyone around this place is impovished in one way or another after this critical thinking and analysis. Is it possible to aggregate the definations as indicators of the extent of poverty. Just thinking.

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