Just before you go: Eradicating poverty in 5 minutes or less

Here’s a slice of Tuesday: I woke up chilled to the bone. Put some water from the borehole (750 m away) on to boil. Watered my small garden, the little nursery of saplings in my yard, and the handful of trees I’ve planted around my house using some water from a shallow pond/well (100 m away). Made some coffee and some oatmeal, bundled myself up, asked every single member of my ~20 person host family how they slept, and then biked the 5k to the meeting. Waited, a little while, found baTaata there, waited another little while together. A few of the civil servants associated with the project eventually showed up and the meeting mostly became about the problem with the current meeting effectively not happening.

None of the headmen have shown up. BaTaata called the meeting so everyone could plan for how much each village could contribute to the fund for the electricity project, and make an action plan for meeting with local representatives to figure out how to tap into the Rural Electrification Fund. (Sidenote — I’d thought the fund was paid through Zambian taxes but now I’m told it actually comes from the World Bank. The plot thickens…).

BaEarnest is the local vet who is invested in the project because of its connection to the enabling of the Milk Collection Center. Now he has stopped by to check in on the meeting and is disappointed by the turnout. BaTaata explains that it’s because of a funeral that several of the headmen had to attend. BaEarnest thinks this is just an excuse. Where are the rest of them?

Believe it or not, it’s cold here these days, and I’ve been getting a bit sick, so I’d ended up sitting on the sunny portion of this ledge outside the clinic. My desire for warmth right now outweighs the awkwardness of squinting at my almost-dead phone in the brightness. For a while baEarnest goes on… about people’s priorities…community organizationhow can we improve communication with these meetings? … what’s the definition of an “inner city” in America? Ok I missed something but wait why is he asking me that? I hate multitasking, but the cell network signal has been down about 3 days and this may be my only shot to respond to some things before a few deadlines pass. The messages pour in in awkward spurts as the network comes and goes, an overwhelming mishmosh of all kinds of communication. I’m trying to ask my forestry officer if they’ll be there when I’m in town. This friend wants advice about beetroot pickles. That one has a spitting cobra in his well. Does this compost setup look ok? The vacation plan group chat has gotten completely unwieldy. “Ok, so the inner cities…” For whatever reason he wants to know way more about the geography of race in Chicago than I could possibly explain. We talk about it a bit while I’m anxious checking my phone, hoping that a few people respond to the more time sensitive things before either network or phone battery gives up.

Somehow an absurd amount of time has passed and I’m realizing that if I start moving toward the school now I’ll get there a couple hours later than I’d told the agriculture sciences teacher I might show up to help him lesson plan. He should be around all day so I think it’s ok, but I should leave soon if I want to arrive in a respectable window.

“Alright, I’m a few hours late for heading to the school, so I think I should be starting off,” I say.

BaEarnest responds: “Yes, of course, madam, I understand. But just quickly — before you go, what would be your advice for Zambians who are hoping to eradicate poverty as to what they can do in order to do so?”

This. is. absurd. It’s all I can do not to laugh at the casualness of the question. What the heck do I know? But actually… I’ve been thinking about that for a little while, and especially this past week while reading the book “The Tyranny of Experts” by William Easterly. The way baEarnest has asked it, maybe I don’t have to be an expert with an authoritative right answer, maybe I can just be a person with a different perspective and he can just get some insight into how I think.

“Ok, I don’t know but I have some thoughts, so I’ll make this as quick as I can…”

I’m not sure what kinds of answers he expects. One could say something like “fish farming!” or “bookkeeping!” or “solar dehydrators”. But the history of development is one of failed excitement over specific activities and innovations. So as intangible as some of these things are, here’s what I think is important these days:

  1. Focus on your community (whatever group of people you identify that as). Let your neighbor’s strength be your strength, either as a point of covering your weakness, or as a learning opportunity. Compete in ways that lead to mutual inspiration. Get to know each other, what everyone is good at, what their problems are, and what they’re up to. Ask each other questions, teach each other, strategize together. Meet together, stand together. Pool resources. Hold each other accountable.
  2. Recognize your environment. Seek to understand as much about it as possible. Experiment when you can and take notes. Work with your specific conditions, and for their increased potential 100 years from now. Climate change is real — you can’t opt out of its effects but you can try to brace yourself.
  3. Know your rights. Demand them, use them, respect them. Way easier said than done. Voting in elections is a good place to start but participation is a constant process.

He nods thoughtfully as I buckle my bike helmet and say, “They may seem like simple things, but I think if you can really achieve those things you can apply them to any kind of project people think of and have a pretty good start. Next time I want to hear about what your advice is.”

So if anyone else has got an answer to that question, let’s discuss. In the meantime that’s my two cents for Tuesday.


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