I am sometimes amazed at how isolated I grew up in my upper-middle class neighborhood. I now see that we had little or no contact with the realities of the world. Although there were sometimes tragedies, such as starving Ethiopian babies, which appeared suddenly in our televisions, and then disappeared just as quickly. There was no sense of the continuing struggle of most of the human race for the very necessities of life.
At some point I began to encounter the poverty existent in the US society. I made visits to soup kitchens, and even volunteered a year of my life running a homeless shelter. The poverty I encountered, however, as terrible as it was, was something potentially manageable. It involved a finite number of people. These people by and large had some element in their lives that explained their poverty. They were addicted to drugs; they were alcoholics; they were mentally ill; they were the abandoned elderly. Their poverty was ?manageable? in that if they could be placed into a program their lives would be improved. Although many resisted, others accepted assistance and turned their lives around.
It was with this view of poverty that I first journeyed to the developing world after the novitiate. It was a shock that I still feel deeply to encounter people who were young, talented, ambitious, and without any of the elements that I associated with poverty, who lived lives of absolute squalor without any hope of improvement. They would struggle for the very basics of survival. Through no fault of their own, they would live hard lives and die early deaths.
I encountered whole neighborhoods that shared one water faucet in the center square, which was only active two hours a day. The women would queue up with their pots and buckets and draw the water needed for their families that day. The water itself was contaminated, but it was all they had. I encountered three or four families sharing one house: each family having one or two rooms, five or six children sharing one bed.
I encountered people who took risky and dangerous jobs to survive, and who all too commonly fell to those risks. I frequently encountered families who would have a brother or uncle who died from fumes cleaning out a chemical tank or died from some other industrial accident.
I encountered substandard medical care, where people with significant but minor medical problems took their lives into their hand going to a hospital because of the associated risks. I encountered people who died because an inability to buy what we would consider common medications.
As terrible as these conditions were, the most shocking element from my perspective is the ignorance from which I first traveled to the developing world. I suppose information on the reality of these people is available if one takes the time to search it out. But I suspect that I was not all that unusual in my ignorance. I suspect that most people in the first world do not know the terrible reality in which most of the world lives. It is hard to believe that the rich would choose to continue getting richer if they knew the suffering that their brothers and sisters endure.