Living Poor

“Living Poor” by Moritz Thomsen

Living Poor, by Moritz Thomsen

Living Poor, by Moritz Thomsen

A few months ago, I finished reading a Peace Corps chronicle called Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen. Thomsen was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s in Ecuador, during Peace Corps’s first decade of existence. While he served as an agriculture volunteer in a very different time and on the other side of the world from me, I found it very easy to relate to Thomsen. At other times, I realized that some of my struggles are nothing compared to his.

Below is a collection of quotes that exemplify the Peace Corps experience, in any decade.

His thoughts on Pre-Service Training:

“Peace Corps training is like no other training in the world, having something in common with college life, officer’s training, Marine basic training, and a ninety-day jail sentence. What makes it paradoxical is that everything is voluntary; the schedule exists for you to follow if you wish.” (Thomsen 4)

“In one sense the training period was basically not concerned with training at all; rather, it was a period of structured tension, of subtle and purposive torture in which it was calculated that the individual trainee would be forced to reveal himself. The purpose of the program was not to change your character but to discover it, not to toughen you up or to implant proper motivations for Peace Corps service but to find out what your motivations were. Many potentially good Volunteers have been eliminated from the program, a lot of them because they never figured out what it was trying to do…The training was designed not only to reveal you to the Peace Corps but to reveal you to yourself.” (7)

“We were a tightly knit and involved group, and when we lost one of our members it was like surgery; it had a crippling effect.” (8)

 We all became a family during training, a family brought together by our collective “suffering.” Many of us were homesick and/or bored with the monotony. We also bared our souls, although more so during in-service training in February than during our first two months in Cameroon. As I’ve said countless times, I can never regret my Peace Corps experience because I have learned so much about myself.

On encountering a resistance to change:

“‘The people aren’t accustomed to doing it that way.’” (55)

“But I think you guys carry humility too far; you’ve got a lot of problems here because you never fight back. If you want justice and freedom you have to fight for it; it’s never a present.” (108)

“Ramon: ‘Before you came, you know, we were living in blindness, yes, in blindness, and now we can see, but the change is very hard, and the one thing I am learning is that perhaps the pain and suffering of not being poor are worse than that blind poverty we lived in before.’” (124)

“But this work seems almost incidental to the main purpose of their life. They work only to eat today.” (167)

 People living in underdeveloped countries (though I can only speak for Cameroon) become satisfied with mediocrity. Life could be better, but there’s no point in fighting for better. If life was worse, than there would be a reason to fight. To go to bed with hunger sated is all many of them hope for here. Learned helplessness could be involved in a resistance and unwillingness to change. This is the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or animal perceives no control over repeated bad events. I will be writing a post about this.

On cultural barriers:

“We had been trained in the Peace Corps to see through, a little way at least, that cultural veneer to the common humanity that binds us together, but no one in Rio Verde had had that training. We were trained to give of ourselves, we were trained to overlook or partially understand the eccentricities of an alien culture. I don’t remember that anything was ever said about receiving this same understanding.” (74)

“I think anyone who has not lived the wholly public life of a foreigner in a small town, where every scratch and belch is noted with fascinated curiosity, cannot realize how essential is to have a place of refuge where you can hide from time to time and reform yourself.” (87)

 I wrote before about the spotlight effect, and how it is actually a reality here. Everywhere you go, people are watching, questioning your appearance and your behavior. We as volunteers may receive cross-cultural training during our first two months in Cameroon, but it is our responsibility in our two years at post to carry out informal training of our neighbors on American culture.

On being bored or lonely:

“I realized then that perhaps my main frustration with the town had been all that free time without any definite obligations.” (37)

“But it is a great problem to understand this sadness that arrives in the night without a reason.” (173)

 I was told before joining Peace Corps that I could become depressed as a Volunteer. Boredom was definitely the main factor in my bouts of depression, because with boredom comes “thinking too much”, as one of my health club students would say.

On feeling completely incompetent:

“Along with everyone else I had been under the spell of Washington Peace Corps propaganda, which reports on the experiences of Volunteers in their different jobs. They are all reports of success – how Volunteer W comes to the high, arid town of A and leaves it two years later with running water, a chlorination system, and communal showers; how Volunteer X with a couple of shovels and a hoe doubles the income of village B by establishing a tomato-marketing co-op; how rambling Volunteer Y leave behind him an endless string of latrines stretching from here to the far horizon, none of them ever used, if the truth were known, except for storing corn, but proudly exhibited by their owners as glistening symbols of status and the open mind.
As a Volunteer, you are oriented toward this kind of success, you want it desperately, unashamedly. When you make a mess of a project, as I did one day, it shakes you to your roots. It makes you feel, in fact, like the highly unpublicized case of Volunteer Z working in the mountain village of C. All his projects had gone to hell, and his girl had written him that she was getting married that week to friend Q; Volunteer Z lay on his bed without moving for three days and, when the old Indian selling ice cream stuck his head through the window and yelled “Helados,” suddenly jumped out of bed, ran outside, and bit the overeager salesman. Of course, the truth is that some days running outside and biting someone is probably the only rational move left to the Volunteer – especially if a Good Humor man is conveniently available.” (143)

 This is one of the worst feelings you may have as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We are used to having a boss who assigns us medial tasks that are never very challenging. Peace Corps is not just your job, but your life. Feeling incompetent at life is a terrible feeling.

On those moments when you seriously question if the Peace Corps is actually doing anything:

“Poverty isn’t just hunger; it is many interlocking things – ignorance and exhaustion, underproduction, disease, and fear. It is glutted export markets, sharp, unscrupulous middlemen, a lack of knowledge about the fundamental aspects of agriculture. It is the witchcraft of your grandfather spreading its values on your life. It is a dozen irrational Latin qualities, like your fear of making more of your life than your neighbor and thereby gaining his contempt for being overly ambitious.
There is no single way to smash out and be freed. A man has to break out in a dozen places at once. Most important, perhaps, he should start breaking out before he is six years old, for by then a typical child of poverty in a tropical nation is probably crippled by protein starvation, his brain dulled and his insides eaten up by worms and amoebas. No, more brutally true; if he is a typical child, an average child, by six he is dead.
To work harder a man has to eat better; to eat better he has to produce more; to produce more he has to work harder. And all of this is predicated on a growing knowledge of nutrition, basic hygiene, and the causes of the diseases that ravage his body; an understanding of agriculture and a respect for new farming techniques, new seeds, new ways to plant, new fertilizers, new crops.” (260-261)

 Lose faith in Peace Corps, lose faith in Cameroon, lose faith in humanity…lose faith in yourself.

On the unexpected:

“As Peace Corps Volunteers we come to give of ourselves, but we are almost all a part of the Puritan ethic, and we make rules and set limits as to what we will give and on what terms, and what is legitimate to ask of us. We want to be loved because we’re lovable, not because we’re rich gringos. But the people in the town don’t know the rules. After six months, when they know that you’re not there as a spy or to exploit them or to live apart from them, they claim you; they want to touch you, watch you when you eat, own you; they want to be Number One with you; they want you to solve their problems. They start twisting the relationship around trying to make a patron out of you, and it takes another heartless year to convince most of them that you aren’t a patron.” (282)

“I thought of one of the Peace Corps definitions of itself, ‘an agent of change,’ and shook my head helplessly. When you start bringing about change you often wonder what you’ve set in motion. I had been so anxious to get new money into the town, to get families earning more, that I had scarcely thought about the new problems that new money might bring.” (283)

“And this thing about the town that I had been afraid to think, the town’s black, unspeakable secret? They mentioned it on a news broadcast one night, sandwiched in between the stories of wars and riots, announcing that 60 per cent of the world’s children were suffering from protein starvation and that this deprivation in the first five years of life permanently and irrevocably destroyed up to 25 per cent of a man’s intelligence.
Twenty-five per cent.
If 75 is the I.Q. in the town, what is the medical word that describes this poor, doomed people, this wasted human resource living out its unproductive destiny in the impregnable prison of a destroyed mind, in a twilight, idiot world where nothing really makes much sense?” (286)

“It wasn’t the people in the town who bored or enraged or terrified me, it was the town itself, the capacity of each individual to submerge his personality as a part of the town and to display all of the worst mob qualities.” (293)

 Sometimes things happen that you cannot prevent. Things change, YOU change. Or, things will never change.

On breakthroughs:

“Occasionally, more often that it would seem possible, someone – a friend – would begin to appear out of the crowds of people with whom I lived and worked. These came a time when I realized that someone regarded me as just another human being rather than as an exotic curiosity. It was always miraculously when it happened. It was a break-through, a transcending of all the things that made us look at each other strangely or suspiciously.” (74)

“Later they would have to learn the harder lesson; that the outside powers had never abandoned them because they had never had the slightest interest in them, that these powers really couldn’t help them much, and that their progress lay in their own hands.” (180)

 The little things are how any Peace Corps Volunteer makes it through. Set small goals, appreciate small moments.

I highly recommend reading this fantastic memoir, whether you are a PCV, an RPCV, a prospective PCV, or just someone who wants to understand the PCV life and culture better. It made me laugh out loud at times and almost cry at other times. The Peace Corps experience always comes with cultural barriers, negative feelings toward other people and toward oneself from time to time, and the unexpected. Thomsen shares his own experience and, for me, I was grateful for the moments when I was able to relate to him and even more for those when I could appreciate how Peace Corps and the world have changed in five decades.

“Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he views it rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitable takes he would kill himself.” (173)