February 17, 2012 in All, Central America, Robert Wells

The Poverty Paradox

Robert Wells is motorcycling through the Americas on a journey to explore creativity, the arts, society and education. Spending time recently in Guatemala and Hondurus has helped him develop a new perspective on the relationship between wealth and happiness. In this article, Robert questions our conventional assumptions about poverty.

Having lived in London for the past 10 years it is hard not to be shocked by your surroundings when travelling through towns and villages in Central America. Upon seeing them for the first time I was struck by how much richer people in the developed world are than here. Towns in Central America look very different to those at home, buildings appear unfinished, roads are potholed or dirt covered. From a western perspective everything appears to be in a bit of a pickle. It is easy to pity the locals and wish for them to have the types of luxuries that I am accustomed to in England. Even my travel belongings include things they could never aspire to own, and the idea of travel itself is beyond most people I pass. Despite my material wealth, the experience of travel has made me question if I really am better off than the people I’m meeting, and ask what it means to be rich and poor?

I have a comfortable life in London with the trappings of a good lifestyle, however over last few years I was becoming increasingly aware that the objects I owned were mostly rarely used and simply things to worry about and insure. Before I started the trip I decided to sell most of my belongings. As an object left there was an initial pang of regret, but in every case this was quickly followed by an increased sense of lightness, and a feeling of relief.

We have assumed that by enhancing the quality and quantity of goods linked to our basic needs, we will become happier, and advertising has played an important role in promoting this myth. Moving away from selling goods, the ads sell ‘lifestyle choices’. Preying upon our eroding and contingent self-esteem, we are bombarded with images showing how much happier, cleverer, prettier, and productive we will be if we buy more things. Ultimately this fruitless search leads us to work more hours and accrue more debt, diminishing the very relationships we believed we were enhancing by buying the goods in the first place. The very nature of our society forces us to engage in a pointless charade that can lead towards destructive dead-ends, and in turn looks likely to destroy our planet.

Kids in the mountains of GuatemalaAll of which leads me onto what I’ve seen whilst travelling. I have been struck by the lifestyle of many people I’ve met in smaller communities. Whilst people in the mountain villages of Guatemala are materially poor their way of life has struck me as happier and healthier than mine was in the UK. Cars, houses, and clothes mostly appear worn out and basic, but despite this there is a calm, a stillness, and quality of silence. The air is clean and the views surrounding these communities beautiful. Their lifestyle is far closer to being self-sufficient than anything in Europe or the US. Consequently they are not so reliant upon money or material goods for their survival. Community is important. People are always seen outside houses chatting with friends and neighbours. Kids are a prominent feature, playing together outside and making their own entertainment. Parents and grandparents are nearby, involved in each others lives. There is a continuity of life from birth to death. They are not as rushed, stressed, or seemingly depressed as people in bigger towns or cities. Most importantly they have time, they stop and wave and want to chat. Living is more important than working.

A similar lifestyle occurs within the Garafuna communities I visited in Honduras. Culture makes more sense where people have time to make and do rather than consume ready-made cultural objects. Music and dance are spontaneous communal activities, and kids are frequently found drumming together on upturned containers, not because of an educational curriculum or as homework, but for the fun of it. I was lucky to see what must have been a small celebration in a Garafuna community near Tela, which involved dressing up, dance, and drumming. This was not put on for the tourists, it was done by and for the community. Talking with people from these communities you can’t help but be struck by the warmth and friendliness they exude. There is an innocence that we’ve nearly entirely lost within our society.

Visiting communities like these makes me realise that rather than pitying them we have something to learn. They embody models of living we in the west should to aspire to. Whilst we have knowledge to share, few of our material objects would enhance their lives, and I see the encroaching consumerism as a threat to a way of life that needs preserving. In the big Central American cities, where there has been a replication of western values, you find crime, substance abuse, and poverty in all of its forms. It worries me that in the search for material wealth by governments, communities are being persuaded, and at times forced, away from traditional forms of living to more industrialized versions of life. The cost of this is clear for groups such as the Tarahumara I met in Mexico.

Having seen people living a different style of life, I’m increasingly convinced that we need to re-orient ourselves, expanding our goals beyond the material and towards the relational if we really want to live rich lives.

You can read the full version of this article on Robert's website.

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