2017 Crook Fellow Jessi Stafford shares her observations on the effects of poverty on daily living conditions in La Paz Centro, Nicaragua, seen as she works this summer for Artists for Soup:
I’ve seen it many times. Volunteers come to help missionaries, non-profits, or other organizations working with the impoverished. They’re trying to do good but are overwhelmed by their surroundings.
I’ve heard it many times. Missionaries, directors, and leaders urging volunteers that it gets easier, that as time passes they will grow accustomed to their surroundings.
But is this the case? Does it get easier? Is time an anesthetic that gradually makes you numb to the daily struggles that accompany poverty? People vary, but for many of us it is a mixed response. Daily life grows easier, but daily heartbreak is inevitable. It is possible to simultaneously grow accustomed to a new life while each day struggling as you encounter poverty.
Some things you get used to, some things you never will.
I sit here drinking my coffee, using my internet, toting my credit cards that I always have at hand for “emergencies” such as nice steak dinner. My greatest worry is whether or not the restaurant will have coke zero (because let’s be honest, it’s all I drink).
I sit here gazing out the café window at another life. A life I live amongst but a life I don’t live. I know the work I’m doing with Artists for Soup, developing organic gardens to supplement diets and provide food security to families is incredibly important. But perhaps I will always feel slightly guilty for not being able to snap my fingers and change lives. Poco a poco. Little by little. You get used to, but it does not get easier.
You get used to it.
Cold showers, or no showers for that matter. My calls home consistently contain my drudging ramble about wanting a hot shower. Many people around me have no running water at all. It’s cold, but it’s water. You get used to it.
Lack of Communication
If anything, this gets more difficult. Internet is faulty, loved ones are far, and loneliness is inevitable. You miss out on special events and you do not take for granted the opportunity to call home. There may be no connection, and if there is connection, chances are your call will get dropped. It gets more difficult each day, but you get used to it.
Lack of Control
You cannot always control where you go with limited transportation. You cannot always control what your next meal will be. You cannot always control that without air conditioning and lots of walking, you are consistently sweaty and dirty. You get used to it.
But does it get easier?
I have made a case that you get used to conditions. But when the missionaries, directors, and leaders urge young volunteers that it gets easier working with the poor, I remain skeptical. Maybe, just maybe, you get used to working with people in poverty, but it never really gets easier.
Men. Women. Children. Desperation spares no one. You are constantly approached for help. People ask for money but they also ask for your scraps. It does not get easier.
Children in the streets
Children are constantly roaming the streets in all hours of the day. Many look as if they’ve never known a shower and they’re well versed in asking for money. Seeing shoeless children sleeping alone in the streets will never be something one just gets used to. Certainly, it does not get easier.
El machismo—or living in a society with extremely patriarchal gender relations. Of course sexism exists everywhere, but it comes out in different ways in different places. It does not get easier.
So what can you do?
When it does not get easier, press on. Development is a process. Implementing real change takes time. I’m learning to be patient in all things and learning the best way to help is to support organizations working with the community.
Most importantly, I’m learning to create a life. I’m learning to get to know people. I’m learning to listen.
This blog post was first published by The Robert Strauss Center at The University of Texas at Austin on 5 July 2017.