Tuesday, June 15, 2010


“What’s the poorest place you’ve ever been?” an American from Dallas asked me at dinner last night.

Interesting question.

In an effort to avoid being confrontational, I had told him that many of the countries I had visited were poor, in a variety of different ways. From China to Swaziland, I couldn’t find the words to tell him it was impossible to compare nations’ wealth or lack thereof.

But it got me thinking about what makes a community rich, and what makes them poor. Khula and Ezwenelisha (both in KwaZulu Natal) were viewed as impoverished by many volunteers who had not been abroad. We pulled up to a dilapidated wooden house one day and one volunteer, on the verge of tears, turned to me and stated, “please don’t tell me that’s a house.”

However, one volunteer who had been to India pointed out that there were plenty of other places that were much worse off.

What makes these two communities unique was their dependence on the healthcare system, as a result of high HIV prevalence, and a lack of healthcare infrastructure available to them.

There are plenty of other areas in the world riddled by natural disasters, drought, and ethnic violence, among other perils.

I wanted to avoid being confrontational with “Dallas”, and conversation quickly moved away from the subject as our main course arrived. But the subject still resonated. It surprises me how many people look upon me with some sort of notion that I am brave or that I should be proud of what I’ve done. Of course, I am proud. I wouldn’t change my six months on the continent for anything, but I don’t consider myself brave.

Whatever bravado I exude is minimized by the resilience of those I’ve worked with, particularly in Khula and Ezwenelisha. It’s also belittled by the hearts of those I’ve volunteered alongside.

“The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.”

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