I am sitting in the calm and peaceful garden area of the Shangri-La Hotel in the heart of Kathmandu Nepal. There is a cozy blanket over my knees and the sun is warm on my face. On the table is a frothy and excellently presented cafe latte. There are potted flowers all around. Staff who would be at my side in a heartbeat if I looked in their direction or lifted a hand to hail them. Birds twitter over the thrum of the hotel generator and the toots of traffic are barely audible. I have just had a pleasant conversation with a gentleman sitting nearby. He is a Nepali financier who lives part-time here and part-time in Bangkok. Luxury – comfort – ease – affluence.
In Nepal, as in many places I have visited, contrasts abound. It is not difficult to be pampered here; to access excellent food, top notch accommodation, and excessively attentive service. It is also not difficult to be thrust into the midst of extreme poverty – hunger, illiteracy, disease, abuse, cold. There are in truth many faces of poverty; many “styles” or depths of poverty.
As an outsider it often appears to me that everyone is poor. Everyone is surrounded by dirt, garbage, and filth of every kind. People are walking or piled three and four to a motorcycle or stuffed to bursting into vans and trucks. But on a closer look it is obvious that some are poorer than others. Not all poverty is the same. Although it is scripturally true that the poor will always be with us, what exactly does that mean? Who is poor?
In Canada we may first think of the homeless on our streets as those who are poor. We think of anyone without accommodation as poor; a place of safety, a place to keep belongings, a place to prepare nutritious food, and a place to call home.
We may also recall experiences of First Nations people. Overcrowded and ill-supplied communities where yards are littered with disposed items. Children walking alone to school with inadequate clothing and likely late and unfed. Families suffering with alcoholism and various psychosocial problems.
Single parents and children are especially vulnerable as are certain elderly and mentally ill people. We might also note the working poor in our midst. There are many in Canadian society working hard every day at low paying jobs with few, if any, benefits.
In Canada there are refugees, immigrants and longtime citizens; young and old; and men and women living on very little. There are plenty of poor people in Canada.
But not all poverty looks the same. In Nepal the sheer numbers are staggering. It’s like there is an abundance of lack here, a plethora of poverty. I have seen women and children with leprosy in the some of the western villages. Limbs amputated, open sores, distorted, and disfigured. They are dismissed as unclean, unworthy, unvalued.
I have seen people with spinal cord injury left to sit at home – expected to die – who have somehow rallied. They have sought and received help, garnered an education, and the possibility of a future. To me they look poor. They live in what I would consider to be deplorable conditions. Their aspirations are modest and by most global standards they are still living in poverty despite the fact that they are rising above all expectation for their life.
I have seen old women on the streets, likely widowed, vulnerable, alone, and neglected. They beg for whatever they can each day. I wonder at the abuse they have suffered, at the circumstances of their lives. Are they always cold? Are they always lonely? Are they constantly hungry? Or have they been so desensitized as to have no awareness of “self” left at all? What level of hell is that? What kind of poverty?
I would like to say that I have come to some wise and helpful conclusion in this reflection but it would not be true. I know that many would resist making these comparisons but I can’t seem to help myself. The comparisons are there, visible at every turn.
I could I suppose do what I have heard and seen some people do, focus on spiritual as opposed to material poverty but that seems arrogant and false to me. Can we really separate ourselves in this way? The apostle Paul has much to say on the topic so I won’t ponder it now!
I am glad that I am not immune to the poverty that abounds in this world whether it be in developed or undeveloped regions. But I have no illusions that I comprehend its extent – its depth or pervasiveness – its reach. What I know for sure is that with the wealth, security, and opportunity I enjoy comes obligation to make some effort. However small and insignificant it may seem in my own eyes or in the estimation of other I must make some effort to ease the burden of poverty that exists in every corner of the world. I am fully aware that it will not make all the difference but it is my hope and prayer that each of us can make some difference.