Photo by Ricky
Rarely now, the image of the little boy pops into my head but when it does, I remember him so distinctly that recalling the tilt of his thin face, the threadbare shirt he wore, the longing look in his eyes against the background of an overcast Caribbean day, requires no real effort. That is because somehow that particular moment in time, when he stood waving goodbye to Alejandra and I, became deeply embedded into my psyche.
It had been our last day in Bluefields, Nicaragua when we met him. We'd been sent down from Washington D.C. as a video production team by the Inter-American Development Bank to shoot footage in this isolated enclave of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.
When I first heard of Bluefields, I was warned of its poverty - abject poverty to be precise. Nevertheless, I really didn't think that there was anything there I wouldn't recognize in terms of scarcity. In my native Panama and elsewhere, I had at times witnessed what it was to live a life where the most basic of necessities were lacking. Personally, I had experienced deprivation and knew what it felt like to have no money, and to have to manage the day to day with painful economies. This place I thought, would have nothing that could surprise me.
We flew out to Bluefields from the capital city of Managua on an ancient little plane that looked like it was being held together by the grace of God and duct tape. Even so, all the proprieties had been observed within its narrow dilapidated aisles. For example, there was a gloved and uniformed stewardess who paraded a rickety cart offering a selection of canned national beverages for the passengers. Her actions would have looked ridiculous had it not been for the fact that the effort felt so poignantly sincere; somewhat like trying to impress someone with a fancy dinner when all there is to serve are soda crackers. That flight however, was to be the most comfort and luxury we would know for the next few days.
In trying to think of words that would best describe to you what I saw as we drove into town, I mentally place myself first inside the car that took us over the potholed roads framed by run down buildings whose peeling paints, and warped wooden foundations were the perfect metaphor for the harshness of a world stripped of advantages; an existence mired within the confines of the bare minimums - Bluefields was a dirty, depressing and worn at the seams kind of place. Still, because the outward face of poverty was not unknown to me, I was sure I could handle our stay there with the aplomb of one who understood the transient nature of our time there. And so for the next three days I handled, and this is what I came away with from that effort: Any deprivation which I have ever experienced does. not. constitute. poverty.
Poverty, is a state of being that overtakes all strata of life, for the 24 hours of every single day over a protracted period of time. Poverty goes beyond not having the money to purchase things whether they be basic or superfluous and, it is a condition that settles deeply into a place where the hopelessness of life is an insurmountable wall that a vast majority of people never even attempt to overcome because, they have never known the luxury of options. There is never anything better nor anything different in poverty. It is even keeled and steady in its abjectness. Living in poverty is an everyday chore which most of us who have not been born or grown into it, would characterize as plain ole surviving.
With this recognition in hand, I ventured forth that last day holding my video camera while Alejandra stood by my side to conduct the street interviews. We asked the expected questions. In retrospect, I feel that they were the wrong questions to ask. You may imagine what they could be in the context of one who looks in with curiosity on the underprivileged. How do you manage like this? What would you do if you were given... They were intrusive questions, inadvertently designed to highlight what was so obviously lacking for those whom we approached.
So many years later I know that we are missing something fundamental in our worldwide approach to eradicating poverty. Having worked for the kind of institution that spent inordinate amounts of time, money and personnel resources on examining the problem from every angle, I would agree that there is no one approach, no single formula that can consistently be applied everywhere. It is true however that there are basic cornerstones that must be met to propel the fight in a direction where some difference is readily visible. To name a few, a minimum standard of living, access to basic education, a stable government that foments the kinds of programs that prioritizes the interests of its citizenry and more importantly, that vies for the interests of the youth that will someday take over from the present generation because everyday, the divide grows wider and every day, more fall by the wayside, forgotten and ignored. But here is the single most important notion which I think is lacking in all this questioning of the problem. I'm talking about a recognition of something that is lost that must somehow be regained - Hope.
The problem of poverty can be partially solved by addressing the issues of what tangible options we can give that might serve to better empower the poor. They do not address however the intangible necessity of hope. And this last realization is what brings me to that little boy I mentioned earlier in this post. He broke my heart. And what I remember most about him is that in such a young person, there was no flare of expectation and a very visible acceptance that his barren life was all there would ever be for him. When asked what he wanted most for himself he answered quite simply that all he wished for was a little white car to play with. In articulating his desire it was very obvious that he believed it to be an impossible dream that one should ever come into his possession.
When we finally put the camera and microphone away, Alejandra and I looked at each other and without saying a word we set out to hunt for a white car that we could bring back to him. In a small business selling all manner of cheap wares along the main street, we chanced upon a Chinese made package that held the car of his dreams and we purchased it, went back, and set it in his hands.
That action only made us feel moderately better. He was happy, true. Disbelieving that someone would do something nice for him with no strings attached, yes. Grateful to the point of tears, absolutely but, in that moment of handing him his perceived heart's desire, Alejandra and I reenacted a microcosm of how we continually attempt to address the issue of poverty without tackling the fundamental lack and acute need for sustained hope. Giving him the car made us and him feel briefly better but ultimately, it did nothing to help him out of his desperate life situation. What little hope might have flared in him, surely died a speedy death with our departure and the unrelenting constancy of his poverty siphoning off whatever joy we were able to give him.
I have a little boy myself. Today he is only slightly younger than the boy in Bluefields was when we interviewed him so many years ago. Had my son existed then and I been able to stand him next to my Bluefields child, you would see immediately beyond the differences of quality of dress, nourishment and health, to that one marked and unmistakable distinction of how they look out into the world. R's eyes shine with the promise of a hope he doesn't even recognize he owns. That security in the rightness of his world was glaringly absent in my little Bluefields boy.
Afterward, his image haunted me for the longest time. Whenever I would tell someone of what I had encountered in Bluefields my eyes watered in remembrance of him whose name I cannot even recall. Only much later did I come to recognize why this was the case. With all my heart, my desire would have been the ability to continually paint his world full of hope. To have shown him what he could have longed for in life beyond his little white car.
For more information on why the subject of poverty inspired this post, please click here.
Photo by Ricky