Poverty: what it meant, and means

We can all make an effort at our individual level to help according to our capacity, but keeping in mind that this is a thankless task

For some years of my childhood I consider that we lived in relative poverty. By this I mean that we had enough to meet the basic needs of any human being to be able to survive biologically, that is, to simply be alive: food, water, clothing (to preserve bodily heat) and shelter (to protect from the vagaries of the elements and any danger from the external environment).

But we also had something to top this and give a certain human dimension to our lives: access to health care, education, quality family time and some social amenities. Absolute poverty exists when even the basic survival needs cannot be met for whatever reason: staying alive itself is at stake, and there were some persons and families in our immediate neighbourhood who were in this situation.

There was little that could be done to help them – the most common form of such help was to share some garden greens especially of the variety that grew aplenty like wild weed, namely brède chouchou or brède martin that would provide at least a bouillon (soup) to soothe their stomach pangs. Three meals (let alone ‘square’) a day every day were not guaranteed; at times one did not know where the next meal would come from, or if there would be any meal coming at all.

Looking back on my life, I figured that these – absolute and relative — are the two fundamental categories of poverty.

Subsequently I came to know about what I call academic poverty, of the type that is the subject of ponderous debate in hifi circles, with suited and booted people – most of whom have never been poor – producing learned papers and plans to lift people out of poverty based on definitions and categories that emerge out of these deliberations.

I confess to have been a participant in many of these discussions locally, and in Africa and Geneva when representing the country in WHO forums. I had the benefit of both having personally experienced poverty, albeit relative, and having observed it directly as also the contrast with its opposite (richness and opulence, haves and have-nots) here as well as when travelling abroad in several countries. Nowadays this is no big deal, and most Mauritians have had the opportunity of doing too.

‘Academic’ poverty, development

In historical terms, all human societies started off poor, at the hunter-gatherer stage when we were dependent on the proximate environment for our survival needs in that primitive, primordial phase of human development. Then, in the natural order of things, populations increased. Settled agriculture and much later down the millennia industrialisation came in to supply the goods and services required for societies that had moved beyond the basic needs level.

However, not all societies evolved in parallel or simultaneously; there were inequalities and disparities within societies, all societies, and these persist to this day. And the latest trend that has surfaced over the past couple of decades is that inequality has increased almost exponentially: there is ‘concentration of wealth’ by the already wealthy.

Academicians of all hues examine data collected in the field, crunch them and fit them into frameworks that try to present a coherent picture, and then work out plans and programmes to address the multiple and multi-layered causes in the hope that the rising tide will lift more and more of those left behind.

I presume that equivalent studies must have been undertaken even before Adam Smith and Karl Marx produced their classics, but my own encounter with academic poverty took place most fortuitously when I was in HSC at the Royal College Curepipe. Mr Perdreau, our chemistry teacher was absent. A newly-arrived teacher was sent to replace him, in the form of (late) Mr B Goordyal, who had earlier been presented to us at the morning assembly by the rector, Mr Bullen, as being a holder of two Bachelor Honours degrees, one in English and the other in Economics; he had been recruited to teach English. So when he walked into the class, we told ourselves that there goes: we would be having a free period, with Mr Goordyal assigning us to read something quietly while he supervised.

Our hope was belied! Instead, he went into an expose on poverty, having first asked the seemingly benign question ‘what is poverty?’, to which we had remained speechless.

My next involvement with the subject was deeper, more serious and systematic, when in 1992 I was one of a cohort of 12 Commonwealth Fellows selected by the Commonwealth Foundation to participate in a project of understanding – and fostering understanding – of the functioning of the Commonwealth and its institutions, and to get an insight into global developmental issues (including poverty) and the Commonwealth’s role in addressing them.

We spent two weeks in London, and two weeks in three countries in southern Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia. We were tutored by leading experts in their respective fields, and met all the heads of State and government and leaders of Opposition, as well as other important dignitaries. The one who left a lasting impression on me was President Sam Nujoma of Namibia.

By the time of the Commonwealth Fellowship, I had been to India for my studies and seen stark poverty, to the UK equally for studies and obtained glimpses of inequalities, and some parts of France and Switzerland where this was less apparent. There followed my association with the WHO, first as local representative (1999-2000) then as official delegate of the Ministry of Health (2006-2012). This was an opportunity to gain even deeper and broader understanding of, and further insights into poverty and related issues.

In 2000 there was a UN-driven assignment for regions and countries to prepare a PRSP – Poverty Reduction Strategic Plan. I took part in the one that was prepared at WHO-Africa (AFRO) level in Harare, and also the one prepared for Mauritius which was initiated by Mrs Vidula Nababsing with Mr Raj Makoond acting as the facilitator (he used the ZOPP methodology). I do not know how much of the PRSP for Mauritius was implemented. The only inference can be that, since we have had to come up with a Marshall Plan for poverty, clearly much remains to be done.

If only the high-sounding names of the proposed remedies were matched by an equally high implementation rate, perhaps the poverty still seen around the world today would have been considerably less. But I am not naive: I am aware that the greatest weakness of all such super plans is that they depend on a multiplicity of complex factors and variables, many if not most of which are out of the control of those who make the plans and of the decision makers. Of the factors that are within if not under the latters’ control, they stand to answer the call. So far, their answers have not been entirely convincing.

What it meant

We lived in Curepipe Road, Farquhar Street where Hindu Girls’ College is situated. My ‘roaming’ territory included the adjoining localities of Engrais Martial and Eau Coulée, and Curepipe. Our house was the ‘colonial’ type, with a tin roof sloping down to the outer walls of iron sheets. The inside partitions were wooden, and they were covered with wall paper.

One common room at the back had special treatment: the ‘wall papering ‘ was done by us children at the end of the year when we were on holiday. We used old newspapers and magazine pages, and the glue was sticky rice. The kitchen at the back (for some it was separate from the house) had a machaan (shelf) situated high above the two chulhas (fireplace) made of stone slabs arranged in a U-shape. Heat from them dried the green firewood that was stored on the machaan. Cooking was done in metal pots and aluminium dekchis.

Heating in winter was from the common coal stove (also used to dry baby nappies or sometimes a few clothes) around which we all huddled to listen to stories told by the ladies. Bedding was made up of straw mattresses which had to be ‘beaten’ afresh about once a year.

Water from Mare-aux-Vacoas came to us from a single tap situated outside a tiny bathing area, which also had a single tap situated at the top on one wall. We washed twice a day, before going to school and in the evening, and had a full hot bath only on Sundays: the water was heated in a large metal container on wood fire, and the routine went on till the afternoon as all members the family had to do the ritual. We accompanied our mother, aunties and grandma to the river for washing clothes, and delighted in catching shrimp and ti millions while they were busy. The toilet was a shed in the yard enclosing a bucket-type latrine, with a weekly replacement of the bucket by, so we learnt, prisoners who came in a green lorry.

As for food, we took weekly rations of white flour, ration rice, pulses and so on from the Chinese shop, who kept the carnet ration – the ‘carnet la boutique’ so vilified in a well-known money scandal – that was paid up at month-end. As there was no fridge. we ate fresh food daily; most vegetables and herbs were from the garden. Salted fish, bomli and canned pilchards and sardines were added from time to time during the week; fresh fish and octopus we would have about twice a month on weekends, fresh meat about once a month and fresh chicken (bred in the yard) perhaps twice or thrice a year. We had no notion of dessert, but as for fruits our standard fare was different types of guavas, cherries, peaches, myrtes, fraises, bibasses plucked from the garden. Apples, oranges, pineapples, water melon were had only on occasion.

There was strict supervision of our school attendance and homework, and books had to be carefully covered and maintained because they had to be passed on to the younger siblings. We had a change of school clothes in midweek. Footwear was soulier lapin or savate tanga, with the boot-like ‘world walk’ pair kept for outings: it would only be renewed every two years, or repaired.

I have given enough of details for anyone who did not live in those post World War II and pre- and peri-cyclones Alix and Carol years to have a fair idea of living conditions then. One can visualise those living in absolute poverty, in tin-shacks (bicoques) or thatched houses, having to fetch water from the public fountain, and with scarce access to a carnet ration. From relatives, friends and acquaintances I know that what I have described was pretty much the same for people in the situation of relative or absolute poverty in similar peri-urban regions.

What it means now

Global poverty statistics are available online; one estimate is that about half of the world population or 3 billion people are living on less that $2.50 per day, and one billion children are living in poverty. As far as Mauritius is concerned poverty concerns a few thousands of families.

In the rest of the world, there are regions and countries where warring and conflicts are endemic, resulting in poverty of the extreme type, among internally displaced people and refugees fleeing these zones. In other countries where no such conditions exist and there are elected governments, poverty exists because of poor governance, wealth misappropriation, siphoning of money into tax havens and other tax evasion routes. These are some of the major reasons for the persisting poverty, and there are expert analyses available online for anyone wishing to delve deeper.

This is about economic poverty. But there are also other dimensions of poverty, such as social, cultural and so on. One can still be poor in the midst of material abundance. In one form or another, poverty will follow us till the end of the world, for we are very loathe to change our ways.

Personally I do not think we can ever end poverty, a utopian dream. But we can all make an effort at our individual level to help according to our capacity, but keeping in mind that this is a thankless task.

RN Gopee

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.