Finding Dignity amidst Destitution

Originally written on May 21, 2010

Let me get straight to the point: I think all of this poverty and sadness is finally hitting me. I don’t think I’ll be writing any more articles draped with pretty flowers or rustic shoreline vistas that obscure the life of the average Nicaraguan. If you want to read about all the charming getaways in the hills of northern Nicaragua or the pristine beaches of San Juan del Sur, rest assured that a simple Google search will bring up a plethora of options to peruse. That is not my modus operandi though. To do justice to a people that thirst for it, I am going to write about how I see this “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes”, and perhaps learn a little about it in the process.

Poverty like quicksand

Can things really be as bad as I make them out to be or is my view of reality somehow tainted? Maybe I see the glass half-empty. Well, how about I put it in Nicaraguan terms: maybe I see the belly of a child half-empty, or the barrel of water that a woman walked five kilometers to pump out of a questionable-looking well half-empty, or even the wallet of a cab driver half-empty. No, I think my pessimistic view is justified, and even useful. Pessimism, I believe, has its place in this country because it’s a good way to illuminate the needs of the people.

Let’s take a look at the context for why I’ve changed directions in my writing. I’ve been doing a project delivering wheelchairs to the very poor (much respect to Free Wheelchair Mission and the dignifying work they do). These deliveries have taken me to many indigent areas of Nicaragua and, although perhaps superficially, intertwined my life with the lives of the beneficiaries. This project is direly needed and uplifting, but it has raised more questions than it has answered, and it has prodded the heart of the matter that has me so upset: where is the dignity in these peoples’ lives? Where do they find the strength to endure what they’ve lived through for so long?

My limited experience gives me little credibility to answer a loaded question like that. Sure, I experienced a taste of poverty by living in the slums for the first month of my stint in Nicaragua, but I cannot imagine living my life in that way forever. I knew my stay in Nicaragua was ephemeral. Regardless of where I lived or what I did, I’d be back in the comfort of my own home in the United States of America in three months. But imagine coming home each night to a shack made of corrugated tin and cardboard boxes and realizing that you cannot escape from this. That this is your world.

That is what keeps me awake at night. I keep wondering…

How is this life livable?

For example, can you imagine getting diagnosed with diabetes, and then not being able to properly regulate your insulin levels? Can you comprehend what it would be like to not be able to afford the right medicines, or not even know the proper way to care for yourself? This happens to so many people here in Nicaragua and the shocking truth is that, to many, this path leads to further complications that shove them deeper into the quicksand of poverty. Many of the beneficiares of the wheelchair donation project shared a common etiology for their loss of mobility: peripheral neuropathy that necessitated limb amputation.

After going through the procedure and accepting the psychological and physical consequences of losing a limb, the individuals had only begun to hobble down the road to recovery. But of the beneficiares receiving the wheelchairs, none of them had ever had a wheelchair before. Let that sink in a moment. 100% of the interviewees were left maimed and completely responsible for finding another way to move around, and could never afford a wheelchair. Many of the poorest could not even afford crutches, so they were carried by family members inside their homes and suffered the indignity of being manhandled while being transported to various medical appointments. This became their way of life. Some for months, some for years, and for the most unfortunate few, over a decade.

At this point you can understand why this whole story is so depressing to me. It has been said time and time again that poverty strips you of your freedom, but let me put it in a more disquieting but palpable phrase: poverty is the Great Rapist. It violates you. It denies you your indelible right to healthcare, compromises your ability to stay healthy, and creates, in many cases, an insurmountable wall and a gaping chasm between you and those above you in socioeconomic status. It revokes your freedom to choose.

Finding the dignity

So here is the baffling anomaly to the otherwise well-documented phenomenon of poverty: throughout the course of distributing the wheelchairs, I found mostly happy people living in these abhorrent conditions. That does not compute for me. How can someone be satisfied with working a small convenience store out of their inadequate home with little room for social and financial mobility?

I believe that maintaining dignity may play a role, since it seemingly assuages the burdens of poverty, and even the poorest achieve it in their own ways.

What is dignity?

Let’s take a quick look at dignity before we continue. My dictionary defines it as “the state of being worthy of honor and respect.” I believe dignity is a human right. Amongst the most serious crimes, denial of dignity sits near the top of the pile. I can think of examples of the denial of dignity in Nazi concentration camps, and in forms of wartime torture. Both have been prevalent in popular cinema over the years, and I believe everyone can agree that it is a sickening image to see someone truly bereft of dignity. As evinced in these examples, it seems to me that if dignity is refused and if the victim lets it go, the will to live dwindles.

So how is it retained amongst the destitute?

A dignified man sits outside his home in Tipitapa. Photo used with permission.

In my experience, dignity is maintained by caring lovingly for one another. This is found particularly among family members, but is sometimes seen outside the family in acts of altruism. To extract another example from the wheelchair delivery project: I mentioned that many of the victims of diabetes complications had to be carried around when they did not possess the financial resources to purchase crutches (or the physical capacity to use one) and that it was that it was job of the family members to assist the incapacitated. I saw many grandchildren or children of the disabled help lift them from their resting point into the wheelchair once it was delivered, help wheel them around, and subsequently include them in family activities.

Another important thing the poor do to cultivate dignity is maintain appearances. It’s a peculiar way in which the mind works. Trick it into thinking the body is living in a less harsh context, and it remains stable. Or so I interpret it. This at least partially explains why you will find cleanshaven men with combed hair and proper haircuts living in penury.

Finally, it is important to have pride. Pride in what you do. Pride in the cleanliness and orderliness of your home. Pride in what your children are accomplishing. Pride in your own moral character. Such pride is manifested in someone constantly sweeping the dirt floors of their meager homes, or keeping a nice piece of linen on a table, or well-framed photographs of children in graduation caps nailed to the walls. This is what keeps a man or woman going through tough times.

So, an important assertion is reaffirmed. Basic necessities go beyond filling the physical demands of the body; a basic list of mental necessities are integral to contentment, regardless of one’s situation or socioeconomic status. Having pride in one’s work, maintaining dignity through loving interactions with one’s family, and maintaining a dignified appearance all coalesce to form a strong indicator of why the poor and destitute of Nicaragua are sometimes happier than you might think. Although still disturbed by what I’ve seen, knowing that this dignity exists amidst destitution makes me a feel a little better.

Note: This was a draft I never finished while I was in Nicaragua. It has been completed with a few added perspectives gleaned from hindsight.

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