Poverty Impacts - how poverty impacts us when we travel

My experience in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. I knew that when I chose to live here. I knew I’d be faced with poverty every single day.

Ethiopia is also one of the fastest-growing countries in the world (over 10% in 2014), which means that there’s a growing inequality.

When I was living in Kenya poverty wasn’t so visible on the streets. In districts like Karen and Westlands, shiny malls and presidential-sized houses dominate. The poor are cornered into very specific pockets of the city, away from the rich. There’s barely any interaction between these two segments of the population; each segregated and screened off from one another. This is the kind of poverty that festers, causes social alienation and, as a consequence, crime. The poor view the rich from a distance, with their 4x4s, flashy jewellery and iPhones. This wealthy elite, although Kenyan, remain anonymous and ‘from a different world’, making it all the easier for a poor and desperate person to disassociate themselves and forcibly, or sneakily, steal something from them.

In Ethiopia it’s quite different. There is visible poverty on the streets. Almost everywhere you see polio victims with twisted limbs; young and shoeless mothers with a baby strapped to their backs; and oil-sniffing street children. It’s heartbreaking for a while, and then you force yourself to toughen up. It’s either that or risk turning into a crying wreck at every turn.

Beggars congregating outside an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa

But unlike Kenya’s segregation, (a lot of) Ethiopia’s rich and poor live side-by-side. My walk home consists of a pleasant stroll down a cobbled-stone street. To the right you have shacks – jumbled constructions of mud, corrugated iron and plastic sheets. To the left there are middle-to-large sized houses that were built within the last 30 years.

As I walk down the street I’m greeted by young children, all fighting to give me a high five. Some belong to the houses on the left, and some from the meagre houses on the right. They’re playing together with no thought to wealth or social status. When there’s a celebration – a baptism, a wedding or a religious festivity – these neighbours come together in celebration, denouncing division. It’s quite inspiring.

Living in a developing country has turned me into a bit of a hard bitch. Now, when I travel and see scenes of poverty, I don’t get overly emotional and I don’t experience an ounce of shock. But I do reflect on why people are still experiencing absolute poverty in different parts of the world – I guess this comes hand-in-hand with working in development. I also consider how I can spend my money so that it reaches local people, and how my money is trickling down to these people indirectly. After all, sustainable development shouldn’t be about giving handouts, but enabling individuals and communities to earn a sustainable income.

Molly from 'Molly on the Road'

I had the privilege of spending time with a community of indigenous Quechua families in the highlands of San Clemente, Ecuador, several years ago. I was part of a small group of students studying public health at the University of Minnesota, and part of our case study on women’s health involved interviews with rural women and their experiences.

Sitting down with Blanquita was one of the first opportunities I had ever had to understand the social determinants of health and poverty in a global context. We arranged ourselves cross-legged in the grass outside of her home, a blanket spread out between us with her hand-stiched embroidery work draped carefully across it. We nibbled on fruit, petted the dog, and swatted flies in the sunshine as she shared with us her life story.

The beautiful, yet poverty stricken, area of Peguche in Ecuador

Blanquita was forced into an arranged marriage when she was a teenager, and over the course of her life had given birth to a total of eight children, one of which she delivered on her own, and one of which died shortly after birth. Nobody in her family had ever visited a hospital or clinic, and there were many times when all she could feed her children was aji, a mild tomato and onion salsa, and tostadas, a dried corn mix. She supported herself and her children with the embroidery she sold, and received income from visitors to the community who stayed at her house or who she helped prepare food for.

Our encounter with Blanquita and other Quechua Ecuadorians made me reevaluate my perspective on a lot of things, one of the most relevant in my life today being the way that I travel. A visitor spending money in a community like Blanquita’s would have a significantly greater effect on the local economy than had they chosen a hotel or even a backpacker hostel. The embroidered hand towel that I bought from Blanquita that day for my mom back home was a much smarter purchase than the mass-produced alpaca sweater I found at the Otavalo market. Supporting local communities and individuals will always be the more responsible and sustainable choice, and will lead to a higher quality of experience. I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last Tuesday, but I will always remember the meal that I shared with Blanquita and her family in their welcoming home and the story that she shared with us.

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Bianca from 'The Altruistic Traveller'

I remember when I went to India for the first time and saw the poverty there. It wasn’t the first time I had seen beggars or people living in poor conditions, but it was the first time I had seen real poverty, masses of people living on the streets with barely a roof over their head and enough food to feed their children. I wouldn’t say it was shock, rather an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

Since then I have seen poverty in Uganda, Kenya and Cambodia. Each time I see it the feeling never changes, the same feeling of helplessness comes over me. At first I wanted to try and help, I would give money to beggars when I could and try to help out in any small way, but as I got older I began to understand that this was not the solution, and that the problem was more complex than we could ever imagine.

Cambodian children

I learned that giving to beggars only feeds the cycle of begging and does not, in any way, contribute to the solution. As the old saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. It’s the complex societal and economical issues that vary from county to country which need to be addressed, those complexities that are in many ways out of our hands.

As a traveller I believe the best we can do is make choices that will benefit the local people in the long term. Support social enterprises, spend your money where you know that it is going towards the local community, and therefore towards the solution, not the problem. There are many great organisations wherever you travel to that are doing work to eradicate poverty and help people in need. By supporting them you are supporting the people.

I think it’s important for travellers to visit a country less developed than their own. Poverty is real, and in order to understand it sometimes that means you must see it with your own eyes. It makes you understand the world we live in, and also appreciate the privileges we have.

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I'm Hannah - a communications consultant and avid traveller, based in Ethiopia. This is a travel blog about Africa, and beyond!

I hope that my travel exploits inspire you to get out there and see the world!

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