I wonder if my writings have glorified the Western world’s manufactured persona of the starving, dirty African child? I fear that sharing my struggles adjusting to a new culture has suggested that it might be impossible for a Westerner to feel comfortable here. I worry that my reflections have perpetuated the colonial notions that Africa is a poor, backward country. I’m troubled that my writings have confirmed suspicions that Africa will only be saved by western advances and finances. I pray that no one believes that poverty only exists in Africa.
As I’ve previously written, people frequently ask me about life in America. One of the most common questions is how the two countries compare and if people also struggle in America. The painful truth is yes. Poverty does exist in America, and people struggle greatly. I often respond that just like here in Kenya, there are places in America resembling the same poverty, struggle, and pain. In both countries, poverty and wealth are awkward bed-fellows. Sleeping only inches apart, the haves build empires next to the have-nots.
On a weekend afternoon, after long days of classes, we relish the chance to imbibe in a few moments of luxury. Off dirt roads and amidst shack houses, a resort—built with the funds from [corrupt] politicians for their cronies as a symbol of their wealth and influence—sits as a stark image of the immense disparities in our world.
With the sun blaring, the oppressive heat was cooled by a pool resort’s sweet treat. Behind the gated walls of paradise, lush pampered grass, polished by elegant gardens, welcomes you to a thatched-roofed resort with marbled bars, pampered restaurants, and blue-tiled pools plucked from Lifestyle Magazine. Transported from another world—the luxury of leisure afforded to those who can risk a few hours without work. Here, poverty, pain, and hunger do not exist. The glare of the polished silver and elegant china blinds you to the world’s pains. Beneath the sky-blue water, the cries of the thirsty poor are drowned out by gallons of pristine nonpotable water. Here, in paradise, electrified barbed wires prevent poverty from entering. Today, we sip our coffee, relax in the sun, and relish the joys that most will never experience.
Just down the road, I follow the postulants to one of their ministry placements. Behind a small restaurant, we meander down an alley and to a courtyard where we welcomed boys of all ages (including grown men who have been coming since they were boys) to a hot lunch. Bowls of beans and rice, ugali and vegetables, or chapati and githeri (beans and corn stew) fill the stomachs of all who come. The old and the young are offered any choice of dish and given a share of humanity that much of the world’s poor are rarely provided. Arriving sober and drugged (the choice drug here is sniffing carpenter’s glue), each is warmly welcomed by name, and even the manic individuals are compassionately redirected and offered grace humanity. In this dirt-covered alley, service generally reserved for royalty is royally given to the poor.
The juxtaposition between wealth and poverty is stark. Unlike America, much of Kenya did not systematically red line and section off their poverty from the eyes of others. Instead, it is laid bare for all to see. A high-rise luxury hotel can be placed next to a dilapidated shack. A high-price supermarket can be set across the street from an open-air low-cost market. Unlike America, the rich and the poor are neighbors.
As an America, this stark contrast is jarring. I’ve grown accustomed to my poverty being hidden. Drives past the 9th Street Divide into Louisville’s West End to cross the barrier between the haves and the have-nots. Trips to Appalachia for mission projects and poverty tourism to experience what many students call “another world.” Weekend Urban Immersions in various cities across America, where students are tasked to live on minimum wage and food stamps for the weekend. Visits to Native American reservations to witness where we’ve forced the original inhabitants to live on limited land and minimal resources.
The more time I spend in Kenya, the more I recognize the unity between the two countries. Where politicians in Kenya are openly and knowingly corrupt, American politicians are corrupted behind closed doors with stock offerings, business deals, and super PACs. Where Kenya’s lack of infrastructure is noticeable, apparent, and affects the broad public, American infrastructure only fails those who lack the resources to make noise—think lack of affordable internet in rural America or places like Flint, Michigan, where for nearly a decade they have lacked clean drinking water.
Balancing wealth inequality is an insurmountable challenge. How do we reconcile life’s lottery? It was not my choice to be born in America to my middle-class family. Nor was it anyone else’s choice to be born into their family’s wealth or their family’s poverty. As I adjudicate the conditions of the world and the circumstances in which I have found myself. I wonder which neighbor have I become?
Have I become the wealthy neighbor with the electrified barbwire drowning out the poor beneath crystal clear waters?
Have I become the person who scrapes the plates of their unwanted food onto the streets of the hungry?
Have I become the tourist who gawks at the poor and faints at the conditions of the “other world”?
Have I become the corrupt politician who only serves others after securing that his pocket is full first?
Have I become the addict who sniffs glue, begging to become unstuck from the world’s problems?
Have I become the student who triumphs to seek better opportunities for myself and my family?
Have I become the privileged student who wastes my opportunities and fails to learn a single lesson?
Have I become the Brother who humbly serves humanity the dignity they deserve?
Have I become the restaurant cook who makes food at reduced rates, even in our inflated economy, to ensure that others can eat?
Have I become the teacher who works nights and weekends to ensure the struggling student can pass his exam?
Have I become the unknown stranger struggling to help his neighbor?
We have paradise. We have poverty. Perhaps one day, we won’t have both.
Consider donating to the missions of the Xaverian Brothers: