Every Tuesday, my morning chore is to put the garbage out for collection. The chore itself is not so bad, but it is the people I have to engage with when doing this that make me feel uncomfortable. South Africa has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor, and much of that is defined by race due to our past. About 40% of the people in the city where I live are unemployed. So that means that garbage removal days provide opportunity for some of the most marginalized and poor.
As I put my bags of garbage out, I encounter those whose lives are made up of moving from suburb to suburb on respective garbage days, looking for scraps to eat. I know them by now. And I am always caught a bit off guard, not knowing what to say to them. What is the right thing to say to someone who is going through your garbage bags, analyzing the contents carefully for anything of value, anything that can feed the crying mouths back home?
And what is the appropriate response to this inequality. I wonder about this a great deal. Should I sell what I have and give it away? Should I feed every person who knocks on my door? Should I pray harder for the poor? Shall I refer them to the church outreach? Should I invite them in to dinner?
In a developing country like South Africa, there is little social support for the poor. So poverty kind of becomes everybody’s business. Including mine.
I don’t know the answer.
But I have some strong opinions. Firstly I have worked out that I must take responsibility for myself and my own family. So selling all my possessions and giving them away will only add me to the poor. That is no solution. Secondly, no utopian society exists in the world as I know it. And thirdly, the issues of poverty are complex, and in order to understand them, I need to understand myself, and the inner source from which I operate. I must understand my own purpose on earth. I can only start there.
And this is where I find some respite from the chaos of thoughts; thoughts about what makes me so uncomfortable. By understanding my own self, and that as a human being I must acknowledge my interconnectedness with others. And that the gift/curse that I have of feeling empathy and pain when others suffer is to be used for good. And that my purpose on this earth is to be an open pair of eyes, that are unafraid to see what is. And that solutions come in the form of turning the garbage bag scrounger into a human with a name, a face, a history, a community.
But importantly for me, I am greatly comforted by the fact that no matter how big the problems around me appear, there is always something I can do. I as a human being do not have to accept the status quo. I can act. I do act.
For the last 12 years I have dedicated much of my creative energy to the pursuit of making tourism in my city something that affects the lives of the poor directly. In a positive, creative manner that creates opportunity. I have worked at setting up an NGO, which uses travel philanthropy as a strategy, along with other like-minded creative thinkers that provides support to poor communities, focusing primarily on education and skills development.
Tourism is my passion. Used correctly it’s a powerful tool that can make a meaningful impact in the lives of ordinary people. It can address poverty.
And it can help me feel better on Tuesday mornings.