Below the poverty line: a lesson in boarders

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There is a cultural understanding of poverty in America that pales in comparison to the reality of poverty in other parts of the world.  The poverty that we are used to is a poverty that is sold to us as a play set with its own specific accessories.  There is the young man with the sagging pants and brand new shining Nike’s.  He comes with the poverty playhouse: a nondescript cement block of government built projects topped with satellite dishes.  If you aren’t satisfied with him, you can also buy the single mother who raised him as best she could while working two or more jobs.  Her accessory is a welfare check dripping with affluent white male scorn.  The face of poverty we see in the west looks abhorrent within the context of American culture but if you take that play set and drop it in rural Morocco the perception shifts so that the very same people would be seen as kings and queens.

This became very clear when we traveled to a school in rural Morocco outside Meknes to participate in a service learning activity.  The administration at school we went to visit handpicked 20 students who had the greatest need.  On the previous day our group had gone into the bustling market to purchase school supplies to give to the children.  We bought cute backpacks and had a little party stuffing them with various school supplies we thought would be fun for the kids to have.  The whole activity seemed to be more an exercise in showing us the market and teaching us how to haggle than a serious project that could potentially change someone’s life.  Boy were we wrong.

I learned quickly that the Moroccan poverty play set was very different from the American one to which I had become accustomed.  The face of this version of poverty was a young girl in a vibrant beaded turquoise dress, black shrug and matching hijab.  I met her on the wrong side of a basketball court.  This young woman’s accessories were not things but unexpected qualities that burned in her eyes and were understandable across the language barrier.  She wore ambition, ferocity, and intelligence as prominently as her lovely dress and did not let the fact that she was covered slow her down on the court.  She played hungry and she played well and she played with fingernails and elbows, all of which stung me at one point or another.  The passion and drive with which she played would have easily been enough to propel her into school sports, potentially a scholarship to a prestigious university and maybe even  into professional sports eventually.  Except that she was a poor Moroccan girl whose family couldn’t afford the twenty dollars for school supplies.

After she had mopped the court with me, with the help of a certain Amazonian professor, everyone went into the school for refreshing beverages and snacks.  The magnitude of this young woman’s poverty had still not fully penetrated yet.  Much like the young man described earlier, this young woman came with a hardworking and underappreciated driving force.  In the Moroccan poverty play set this character was a teacher, a woman who made a speech of gratitude of a magnitude I can’t say I remember seeing in my thirty years.  This woman stood before us shaking with the force of her emotion, struggling to find the appropriate English words to convince us of how our gesture had touched her as well as the children she represented.  Her accessories were humility, gratitude, and the bare bones cement school house in which she struggles to educate these children so that they may have some hope of a future.  Before our group left the school to go back to our nice clean hotel the woman thanked us again, and again, and again on the bus before we actually left. 

The parting images with which I left that experience were of a passionate young woman tearing down the basketball court in her beautiful turquoise dress naked ambition in her eyes, and a grateful teacher whose trembling and broken English communicated much more than gratitude.  I left this experience with a better understanding of what poverty really looks like, and it doesn’t look like Nike’s or smart phones.  Poverty looks like a life changed by a bag full of twenty dollars of school supplies, and a talented young woman who will never see the WNBA.

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