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PenGwen's Footsteps "I have roamed from the yellow river to the eastern sea and now all these thousands of miles are resting within me" anon.

Looking at Poverty in the Face

INDIA | Saturday, 3 February 2007 | Views [3001] | Comments [5]

Most people are too scared to look at poverty in the face. Most people do not even admit this, let alone think about what it is inside them, that makes them look away. We are too uncomfortable with the thought of confrontation, even if it is only within in ourselves, that perhaps we prefer to stay ‘ignorant’, to have the luxury of not facing terrible things only because they are not happening to us, even though they are all around us. Don’t get me wrong, we all want to do something to help, something to make a difference to the world, but we cannot do this until we have confronted the very issue we want to change. I had always thought that I was the type of who wanted to help people, who was passionate about making a difference in the world. Ethnic conflicts, poverty, and environmental issues – I wanted to tackle them all. In coming to India, I thought that maybe I could do something about the poverty that was so widespread in the country.

But actually when it came down to it I found that I couldn’t even look poverty in the face. I could not look at it because I could not confront the ‘discomfort’ it caused me. I notice while traveling in India that I subconsciously tried to ‘ignore’ the poverty that was in front of me. Beggars came up to us on the streets and I looked away feeling a stinging pain my heart, a mixture of guilt and the feeling that I ‘should’ give them money as I do actually have more than them. Street children tugged insistently on our sleeves and I just wanted them to go away and stop annoying us. I was too scared to confront what poverty did to me inside that I wallowed in the ‘luxury’ of ignorance and the ability to brush away the discomfort this caused me. On another I level, I also began to ‘intellectualize’ poverty. I am the university student. I study development issues at university. I ‘know’ what to do about them. I ‘know’ about poverty. I even come up with theories in my head about why we should not do ‘something’ when we saw street beggars. At that time the only ‘something’ I knew was to give them money. And so deep down I avoided looking at poverty in the face. I hid behind the convenient mask of ‘ignorance’ to avoid the discomfort of my confrontation about poverty.

But one day something changed, planting seeds for a new and altered perspective on this issue. It was such a small insignificant event, yet it possibly triggered something deep and profound within me. We were sitting at a juice bar on the street, when a ragged little beggar girl holding a baby came up to us. She was just like the many street kids we had seen during our travels in India. Once again I subconsciously looked away, but then turned around when Claire suggested we buy her a drink. In my subconscious avoidance to face poverty I once again made excuses – ‘we shouldn’t do something’ as the shop keeper will get annoyed at us for encouraging her to come near the shop. Ashamedly this was my first reaction. Yet when Claire nudged me, I found myself ordering another glass of juice and giving it to the girl. She smiled a beautiful smile and sat down, pouring half the juice in another glass and feeding it to the baby. This time I really looked at her. And she was such a beautiful little girl.

Immediately after, two other girls came, hands held out as well. My second reaction, was once again to fight inner discomfort that bubbling up inside me, and the thought that ‘now we would have to buy juice for everyone.’ Yet we didn’t and instead of buying more juice we shared what we had left with the new girls. At first I thought they were perhaps slightly disgusted at being given a half glass of juice from a stranger, but then they soon smiled and shrugged, taking the juice and sipping it together.

And that’s when it hit me! Why does it have to be so hard to show a simple act of kindness!!! Why could we not share willingly what we have, without intellectualizing everything and making excuses for why we couldn’t be kind? They are human too and that makes them our equals, not people who are ‘inferior’ to us in some way. Why we are too busy worrying about the discomfort this causes us, the ‘privileged’ ones when they are the ones in the real plight.

This whole incident made me realize how easy it is to forget that kindness, happiness and compassion are simple things that everyone can do. Ignoring poverty is an excuse, a comfort we should not have when people are faced with such terrible plights. Why should we be allowed the luxury of ignorance? I also realized that through university I am learning about issues like poverty in only one particular way. And it is actually not the only way. We may learn how to do development projects, how to find the reasons for poverty and ways to overcome them. But before all that we need to remember the basics.  We are all human beings and all equal to each other. Compassion and kindness are universal and we must not forget this in the face of poverty.

We can make a difference in the face of poverty even if is as simple as sharing a class of juice! It is the spirit of giving that counts. You may not have enough money, or even food to hand out, but you can give something which will never run out and that is compassion and kindness. If you give in shame, guilt or annoyance, then you are taking something from them. You take away their dignity as human beings. Giving in the true spirit of giving, no matter how small, is a fundamental thing as it acknowledges people as human beings, not as invisible beggars.

This is something so simple we do not need to get a university degree to do!

That is not to say that just having compassion will ‘solve’ all the worlds terrible situations but it is a start. By first accepting that poverty is ‘uncomfortable’ to face, we can begin to let go of the focus on ‘ourselves’ and our own inner discomfort. This frees us up to feel true compassion for others. Only when we have compassion for others and respect for them as fellow human beings can we take a real step to make a physical difference to the situation of poverty in the world.

Even though I have had this profound realization about myself and in facing poverty, I am not perfect. In fact the very next time I walked past some beggars, I cringed. But now I know this is only a reaction, a challenge to overcome, instead of a hidden trigger which turns my face away. I say not that I ‘know’ poverty, but I say that my eyes have been opened to what it takes to look at poverty in the face.

Tags: Philosophy of travel



Hey, poverty in India is tough by any standards. I first went there when I was 25 years old and panicked the first time I saw a family of kids on the street, the eldest of which was perhaps 5 and was looking after 4 or 5 other sibblings including a baby. The look on their faces haunts me to this day. Checkout our footprints program as this is our small way of making a difference . Simon

  simon_monk Feb 3, 2007 11:21 PM


What an amazing piece of writing on an experience and letting your knowledge help others understand. I am in the same boat as you wanting to help and change the world but not knowing where to start... I am living in Vancouver at the moment and your story hit home, no it's not a 3rd world country & for those who have never been it is a sad place to live when you think you are going to visit a country where this sort of issue is not so prominent because you are going to a country that is full of opportunity, wealth and plentiful land, only to find my first welcome is homelessness, drug addiction and begging from people younger and so mucholder than myself, someone's children, someone's mother, father, grandparent, sister, brother and a government and city who care more about hosting the olympics than the blatant escalating problem of poverty and homelessness and addiction. This is a place that is expensive to survive in for the every day middle class let alone those who have lost their way. And yes it gets hard to look it in the face every where you go and the guilt of not being able to give money or aid, as how can you choose who to help and who not, but to put it into perspective of just sharing your compassion and accepting and being kind to our fellow human beings is so simple and takes little effort. Thank you for a beautifully written sentiment I know it will stay in my mind :)

  nomadicvixen Apr 11, 2007 5:44 AM


One can notice that the people who are homeless are more into drug addiction. so once we eradicate this poverty and homelessness, i guess a considerable amount wud be reduced from the total percentage.

  Sandra Mathew Oct 29, 2009 12:14 AM


Poverty and homelessness will never go away.They are a symptoms of over population, a historically segregated society ,scarce resources like water and electricity ,and a lack of political willpower. Bombay/Mumbai has a population of over 40 million people - nearly the whole poulation of South Africa. I think it is a great mistake [and offensively patronising] for people from first world western countries to think that everyone should live up to their lifestyle standards. A bit like missionaries insisting everyone become Christian. It is easier to look a hopelessly poor fellow human in the eye [and soul] if you accept that you do not know their life and therefore cannot judge it. Poverty relief and funding will almost always make a difference , but it will never change a society. Your moral conscience will be more robust for looking honestly into the face of a poor beggar/child/mother than any amount of charity . You will recognise how much like you they are , and be grateful for what you also have. Being thankful is also redeeming , and guilt a waste of energy. For a fascinating insight into the complexities of a city like Bombay , read MAXIMUM CITY ,BOMBAY LOST AND FOUND by Suketu Mehta. It will change the way you understand a city like Bombay.[and hints at all the mega-cities of the future]

  jacky Jul 30, 2010 4:47 PM


Poverty might be a part of society but it has nothing to do with overpopulation.

There has always been poverty, even in very small societies, over all ages and places from state to a simple town, there is always poverty. You will find that especially countries which are underpopulated are very, very poor.

Preventing poverty has more to do with our inner self and morals and finally USING these morals for REAL instead of a single issue root. The OP is on a good way.

  Kate Feb 25, 2011 11:50 PM

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