Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Africa’s Poor: The Perceptions and Realities

By Brenda Evans in Lusaka, Zambia

Lusaka, Zambia
Many Americans have the notion that Africa is only mud huts and subsistence farming because of how the media portray it. Although many streets are overrun with litter and the average Zambian makes about $100 per month, this vast land is so much more than the images of hungry, eager children we see on UNICEF commercials. The cities have sky scrapers full of international companies; the malls are packed with busy shoppers and western clothes; and traffics jams are as frequent as they are in any U.S. city. The image of abject poverty is not a mirage, but it should not define a continent. There is so much that Americans don’t see of Africa due to our perceptions being influenced by the media and so much we do not understand about what poverty means to Africans.

A Small World

When I first arrived in Zambia, I didn’t feel like I was in Africa. We went from an airport to a high-end hotel and even the accents made me feel like I was in the British Virgin Islands.

The image I had in my head of the savanna and villages immediately was shaken and I realized that the world isn’t so big after all. I felt entirely comfortable, not at all like I had just traveled over 20 hours across the world. Although I knew that Lusaka was a more developed city, I had been preparing myself to be in complete culture shock. Instead I was greeted with a disappointingly western atmosphere.

The Face of Poverty

As we have gradually gotten deeper into the program, I have begun to see glimpses of the poverty that I had imagined. The market in Soweto was bustling with farmers and merchants hoping for the next purchase in order to get just enough kwacha to survive. But all they seemed to focus on anyway was surviving and family. Until I came to Zambia I didn’t know what poverty was truly like. Just like in the states, there are wealthy Zambians, middle class, and poor Zambians. But the disparities between the classes in the two nations are immense.

Home in Kalingalinga
When I walked into a man’s home in a village it was about the size of an Ohio University single-occupancy dorm room. The contents in this home were a bed, chair and decorations on the wall. Despite it all he was so kind to us. America’s poor often have televisions, refrigerators and all utilities. Even one of the wealthiest Zambians’ homes, which former President Kaunda lived in, was smaller than a good portion of the homes of the poor in America. I am curious to see a more modern home of a wealthy Zambian to compare the wealthiest citizens of both countries.

Zambia is home to a diverse class of people. The poor walk amongst the businessmen and women in traditional dress mix with those in westernized outfits of jeans and flip-flops. This mash-up makes Zambia stand out to me in a new way that is not defined by the media’s depiction. The amazing mix of class and culture has given way to a new form of development. I can only hope that the traditional culture is not lost in its move forward.

Brenda Evans is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession, about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism

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