Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Closer Look at Poverty in Guido Almada

       Having lived in Guido Almada for almost 2 years now, its interesting to reflect upon those small details that I have come to use as indicators of any particular family's relative well-being. I haven't at any point tried to consciously compile this list, it is simply the product of fairly consistent observation. And with a limited amount of experience with poverty across other societies, I would be willing to postulate that at least a few of these indicators are somewhat generalizable, but certainly others are much more context specific to Paraguay, and even more so, to this community.  
       Before I start, I should note that everyone of my neighbors in this community is living below the poverty line as far as OXFAM or the World Bank is concerned, there is no doubt about that. Between the poorly constructed and negligibly maintained physical infrastructure, the inaccessibility of medical care and the absence of even minimal financial stability, one of the only things that people here seem to have in excess, other than yerba maté, polka music and hospitality, is basic material lack. But even in such a situation, no single prescription could be dolled out to alleviate the specific needs of each and every family or individual. Sure, there are certain universal needs, or at least many needs that could be addressed by a single particular initiative, but people's material dispositions are as unique to those individuals as those people are unique themselves.
       The point I am trying to make here is that even a seemingly straightforward concept such as “poverty” is deceptively difficult to define and infinitely multifaceted once you get to the household and personnel level. Yes, all my neighbors are living below the poverty line, but the nuance and variation even within this single community is startling—sometimes it is as clear as night and day, other times it is so subtle as to be almost invisible, at least to someone on the outside. Its for that reason, the variability, that certain indicators can be of enormous help when working with families and trying to understand their specific situation, although as with everything else, it is always important to regard any generalizations with reasonable skepticism.
       Typically, in Paraguay at least, I have found that the less Spanish that people are able to understand or speak, the more economically worse-off they tend to be (this is hardly an absolute fact, but I have found it a good general rule of thumb). Also, the number of ribs you can count on the family dogs tend to correlate quite well with malnutrition and poverty—if the dogs aren't eating enough, its a fairly safe bet that the children and parents aren't either—the more ribs you count, the more abject the condition. As well, the materials used to construct the home create a rough sort of spectrum of familial affluence. In the following list (1) is meant to represent the most relative affluence while (7) is meant to represent the least:
  1. Brick house with a tile roof and concrete floors.
  2. Brick house with a tin roof and concrete floors.
  3. Wooden-slat house with tin roof and concrete floors.
  4. Wooden-slat house with tin roof and dirt floors.
  5. Wooden-slat house with thatch-grass roof and dirt floors.
  6. Wood-brick house with tin roof and dirt floors.
  7. Wood-brick house with thatch-grass roof and dirt floors.
       A quick sidenote on housing construction: the materials used to construct each home also tend to indicate the relative time spent living in that particular location. In other words, families will invest in their homes over time and make improvements such as adding concrete floors or putting corrugated-tin (chapas in Spanish) over thatch-grass roofing. This, as well as affluence, are influential factors when considering the construction of the home.
       There are several others indicators as to a family's material condition as well. Students who show up to school without shoes are probably from pretty poor families. There are also plenty of neighborhood kids with only one pair of shoes (for the boys it is always soccer cleats) that they wear everywhere. Children with bulging bellies or disproportionate bodies indicate malnutrition, or at least improper nutrition, usually caused by too many carbohydrates and too few proteins, vitamins and essential minerals. Still, it's always better to have a full belly than an empty one, and even if it is just starchy, carb-rich, nutrient-poor mandioca, it is better than nothing.
       And while my community is lucky enough to have at least nominally running water (it only tends to work, and with unpredictable pressure, about 25% of the time), there are many families who live in areas where the pipes have not been laid or have broken and have not yet been fixed (there is no such thing as municipal water service). These parts of the community tend to be less well-off and as a result, also show a higher incidence of issues pertaining to poor hygiene and malnutrition. On some children, skin-borne parasites, especially of the feet and scalp, are quite common and can sometimes be attributed to lack of shoes and/or access to clean water. The same can be said for any number of quite obvious dental and/or oral diseases. Even in children as young as 5 or 6, missing teeth, gum diseases, and untreated cavities are commonplace. Among older teens and adults, it is fairly rare to have a full set of teeth.
       So that is what I have come to use as my general breakdown in understanding the relative poverty of people and families in my community. As I have said, it is far from universal and inviolable, but over the course of 2 years it has changed and evolved to better encapsulate the details and variation lumped together under the word “poverty”. Perhaps some examples would help in better illustrating this idea.
  •        There is a child in the school in Guido Almada and you can tell just from looking at him that the prepackaged rice and beans that they serve the kids for lunch is pretty much the only thing he gets to eat all day. I don't know this for a fact because he lives down one of the side roads of my community, several kilometers from the school building and close to the small cemetery, an area I don't often venture. In this part of town, the houses are hidden away in the trees and are as hard to find as they are spread out. El monte, the locals call it and the families who live down there hardly speak a word of Spanish. I don't think he owns a single pair of shoes because the sores on his feet are always raw and blistering, sometimes bleeding openly, but he loves it when I read story books to the class even though I am fairly sure he only half-understands it all.

  •        My neighbor is named Antonio Garcia and you would think that, being a Paraguayan male, he would be of the same stereotypical machismo mold as the rest. In fact he is quite the different. His wife has a brain tumor and despite her operation, which the family saved for many months to afford, she is likely living on borrowed time. There is not enough family income to afford the chemotherapy that a full treatment would require and as a result, the tumor is regressing slowly. As if that weren't burden enough, the youngest daughter of the family had an accident several years ago in which she broke her foot. Since she was not able to receive proper medical care at the time, the injury healed improperly with the bone setting at a terrible angle that makes simply walking difficult. Several weekends ago, Don Garcia finally took this child to have her ankle re-broken and re-set properly. Her recovery is at least more certain than her mother's although both have drawn heavily on the very paltry family finances. Their house is made of thatch-grass and there are gaps in the wooden-board walls big enough to fit entire other wooden boards. When I work at their home, either in the fields or around the house, we always eat vegetarian but not because of dietary considerations, just because meat is expensive.

  •        There are three cars in my community owned by three different families. Two belong to Don Martin and his brother, the community merchant and carpenter, respectively. Don Martin uses the vehicle as transport for goods that he buys wholesale from the nearest city. If it weren't for him, our very isolated community would be that much more cut off in terms of foodstuffs and other important items (light-bulbs, toilet paper, metal wire, flour, yerba etc.); most other people can't afford the trip to the city too often. The third car belongs to a family at the other end of the community, a tobacco growing family who had a few fortuitous years some time back and were able to sell off enough land and successful crop yields to fix up their home and buy a vehicle. The wife of the family came to me quite distraught one day because she was visited by a gentleman from the Paraguayan census bureau. He took inventory of the house and informed her, apparently to her surprise, that she was in fact living below the poverty line. She was unsure what to do with this news considering her perspective that, compared to her neighbors (one of which is Don Garcia), she felt their family was living quite high and mighty. It was certainly a very strange situation for me because, despite the fact that I am a privileged middle-class American boy, I have somewhat lost my own bearings after living here for so long. I always took this family to be quite pretentious and eager to flaunt their wealth but this was the first time it occurred to me that the appearance of their affluence was largely a function of contrast and that on a more absolute scale, especially in comparison to me, they were still living in poverty.

  •        The family in my community who I am closest to, the family that took me in when I first arrived, who always welcome me with smiles and open arms also happens to be one of the poorest. For a long while, it wasn't quite clear why the Viallalbas were so unfortunate, especially considering that other members of the extended family were doing relatively well all considering, but eventually the picture became clearer. Some people in my community own land, others only rent. Not owning land might seem like a small detail to those of us who do not rely directly on it for sustenance, but when that land functions as your only source of employment and income as well as your grocery store, you will find that having to pay rent simply for its use is like having to pay a tax every time you want to eat. One day, I went to visit this family only to find that their house appeared to have been ransacked. What had happened, in reality, is that their youngest son Lino has some sort of medical ailment (perhaps epilepsy, but I am not sure exactly) where he experiences severe seizures. The family, in order to pay for the costs of tests and medicine to treat their youngest son, was forced to sell off almost everything they owned—all livestock (pigs, chickens, cows), their ox-cart and oxen, their TV and radio, even a bed frame. After doing what was necessary to care for their son, the father Ines pulled me aside and asked if he could borrow 50,000 Gs. (approximately $12.50 USD) to pay off the remaining rent on the land for the season; if they couldn't pay the rent, they couldn't use the land, if they couldn't use the land, they couldn't plant anything, if they couldn't plant, they couldn't eat. I lent them the money.

       There are a thousand other stories from my community such as these, a thousand other incidences where I was fortunate enough to have an intimate view of not only these families and who they are, but also of their relative material disposition. All of this, of course, has happened over a long period of time that has afforded me the opportunity to earn trust, build relationships, and to begin the slow process of deconstructing my own personal biases and perspectives to gain a more full understanding of poverty and its many manifestations in this context and in general.
       But just as there is such variation within my community, there is also infinite variation between cultures and societies across the world. When dealing with poverty on a local level, it is always much better to assume nothing, to take the time to listen and understand and to engage people with an open mind and an open heart. While this is usually not the fastest way towards solving such problems, it is certainly the safest and most comprehensive way to address not only symptoms but also the underlying causes of poverty. In the end, this is the kind of change that is needed anyway, not just band-aids but actual systemic remedies.
       One thing that I can say is universal, no matter the community, the country or the socioeconomic position, is the fact that all people think and feel and love and hurt about the same; people are people and deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect afforded all human beings.

From Guido Almada,
little hupo

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