Myths of Poverty: A New Lesson


Kalin Atkinson

Myths of Poverty: A New Lesson

When our grey taxi cab drove down a small dirt road in Meknes it pulled up to a white, arching gate where a man with wire-rimmed glasses and a warm smile greeted us in both French and Arabic. “Bon jour”. “Sallam a’lakom”. This arched gate guarded a small boarding school that hosts about one hundred children. The man with the wire rimmed glasses explained that he is the superintendent of the school as he ushered us through the gate across a huge basketball court. The basketball court already seemed out of place, but what was more unexpected was the anime character painted on the outside wall. With spiky black hair and cutoff jeans, the anime boy posed in a powerful jump kick. The anime character and the basketball court jolted our class into realizing that this space may not be what we expected.

The international group ISA arranged for our group to help renovate one of the classrooms that day – a fresh coat of paint and some new shelving was in order. Harsh, electric blue paint covered the walls, the plaster underneath already crumbling off in patches. Although dirty and bare, a diamond patterned mosaic of green, blue, white, and coral decorated the bottom half of the walls. Each piece of glass is carefully shaped and laid together one at a time in Moroccan mosaics – it was curious how this mosaic was given such meticulous attention while the cupboard doors on the wall fell off in our hands. After touring the school and our new project space, we quickly painted over the neon walls with a crisp white coat and raked and weeded the garden outside the classroom; after the afternoon had passed our clothes were splattered in white specks and our hands had red blisters and dirt caked in every crease. Everyone’s face had a proud grin from the day’s work, but that intricate mosaic still drew in the most attention. It almost served as a reminder of how special the space was before we even came to work on it. 

While rolling on the fresh new paint, ideas of foreign aid and images of brown children with tattered clothes and tear-filled eyes flood my thoughts. These children are usually what you see on commercials and pamphlets distributed by top NGOs. The tears and the bare stomachs that showcase every rib are usually bring in the money that funds their aid; the white saviors coming in to save the brown victims. The work that these organizations do is very valuable, but when the camera lingers on the teary eyes of the children and villagers huddled in flimsy houses, it cements the role of the victim to the audience. It can draw in pity and money from the targeted viewer, but at the price of the agency and respect of the impoverished. One of the most prominent myths of poverty lies within the image of the white savior. This does not mean that there should not be aid and intervention across borders but partnership must be prioritized; in most cases the people of the area in need are capable of huge contributions to the development and the ones that understand what will help the community the most. it is possible to create sustainable aid and development as an outsider, but you cannot understand all the needs of the community until thoroughly engaging with it.

The school in Meknes is a boarding school developed by Moroccans teachers and administrators -they planned the curriculum, the housing system, and even a school psychology system. A housing system is also in place because there are many children that don’t have access to other schools because they live in the mountains or with nomadic parents- this issue is so individualized to the local geography that it is easily missed by an outside view. As proud as I was that day of my paint and dirt caked fingernails, my mind kept going back to the hands that laid the glossy mosaic and to the hands that organized the school books in the little library; there is a mosaic of people within the school already that pour their passion and their talent into it every day, and they deserve a spotlight too.


%d bloggers like this: