Recasting poverty

–“What am I missing when I look at poverty the way I do?,” is for me much like reading a mystery novel twice: The first time I read to find out what happened by way of what is described and evoked. The second time I read to figure out and evaluate what I missed by way of how the mystery was constructed. As Leona Toker put it, the first reading is the reading of a mystery as it unfolds; the second is about the convention(s) at work in making the mystery I read.

This implies poverty should be read at least twice, first as a policy issue and second as any such policy issue involving these rather than those conventions of issue construction: What does policy say? And what did we miss by way of saying it this, rather than that, way?

–Here’s an example. Consider reports by Zimbabwe villagers:

March, 1992
“We are not yet getting food for drought relief”
“there is no body who bring us food”

April
“He has got a problem of starvation he is not working and he has got seven children.”

May
“The problem of water here is sirious so that they need borehole and their cattle are very thin because there is no grass”
“Trees die when they plant them”
“This man is a criple that he needs help, but he is very intelligent that he tries to help himself”
“She is old and she is blind and she is a widow and she does not have anyone to help her with food. No clothes no blankets. They do no have cattle to plough with this year”

June
“At present two girls have left school they are just sitted at home. They can’t get money to pay schoolfees”
“They have no food. She has a family of six children”
“They are starving”
“The cattle are dying”

What was to be done?

That depends on my—your?—two readings. The first reading is the unfolding immediacy of dire times in the village; the second is identifying the responses to what is described, starting from food-for-work schemes on to other projects. (Think of the project as others have done: It is its own genre, with pre-existing modules for planning, operation, management, auditing and such.)

Still back to the question: What am I missing by way of two readings? But my second reading of the above quotes came years after the comments were written.

–That is to say, answers are to be found for: What am I missing now? The response, please note, cannot be solely a fact-finding response the obvious other question: What happened to these villagers in 1992 and after?

What is very important for today is: Where are people saying the same or similar things, right now, and what are the new genres for addressing these now recasted forms of poverty?

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminds me of an anecdote John Ashbery, the poet, told in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

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