Well, This is Uncomfortable: Pen Pals and Perceptions of Poverty

The idea of “pen pals” whiffs of summer camp friends and the distinct spice of Coppertone smeared over DEET. Or that beloved cousin who moved away in 4th grade with a sacred oath to keep in touch no matter how cool the kids were in his new town. Eventually, the tweens from Camp Wamapoke get smartphones and that cousin opens a Facebook account a few years later. Writing letters is harmless fun for the innocent and young.

When the idea of pen pals between the girls of Machakos Rescue Centre and Fayetteville’s Find-A-Friend (FAF) mentoring program first occurred, I thought the same thing—this is a cute, simple project that will hopefully be mildly fun for both parties involved. And it was! The letters exchanged were kind and encouraging. The girls asked thoughtful questions and talked about their lives in different cultures and continents. Both sets of kids were excited and enthusiastic (no easy feat with two groups of teenagers!). 

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Photo by a FAF participant.

The next step for our pen pals was a move from written to visual media. Mugumo facilitated photography workshops with each group, equipping the girls to photograph their lives as they see them. How would you portray your life to someone who knows nothing about who you are and where you live? What would you show and how would you show it? The result is a series of photographs that express the unique perspectives of two groups riddled with stereotypes: African orphans and American minority youth.  The hope and optimism radiating from the photos is contagious and powerful. To everyone who attended the opening of our pop-up gallery last weekend in downtown Fayetteville, I give our sincerest thanks. The FAF girls had a great time with their family and friends at the debut. From the start, this pen pal program has been a lovely patch of cross-cultural understanding.

Grim Realities

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Photo by a Machakos participant.

While at first glance the pop-up gallery is sweet and cheerful, a deeper look reveals some grim realities. In fact, this “cute” project has made me uncomfortable on many occasions about our perceptions of poverty.  

First, both sets of girls are struggling, but in different ways. Many of the Machakos girls have been rescued from severe abuse, child marriage, and other traumas. The FAF kids are fighting the pressures of low-income life such as food insecurity, limited educational support, and a lack of resources. Visually, the FAF kids have an obvious material advantage; they have more things compared to the girls in Kenya, more amenities like running water and wifi. In our comparative pen pal context, these youth felt like royalty where in other settings they are defined as “disadvantaged.” Several of the FAF girls felt empowered by this shift on the poverty spectrum.

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Photo by a FAF participant.

On the other hand, the public’s reception of the pop-up gallery shows that not all poor children are created equal. I watched as visitors gazed at the Machakos girls’ photos with awe and well-meaning pity. Wow, they’re beautiful and brave. So resilient. The FAF girls’ pictures—equally authentic and representative—did not seem to pack the same punch. Although after one conversation with FAF coordinator Shauna Hopkins about the home lives of the kids in her program and words like “resilient,” “brave,” and “beautiful” become extremely appropriate.  Are their images too familiar and therefore less striking? Or are we blinded by the presence of “amenities” and unable to recognize poverty in our own surroundings?

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Photo by a FAF participant.

Hopkins reported FAF’s top needs as youths’ shoes, socks, and underwear.  After school counseling includes how to cope with drug-addicted parents and how to avoid getting arrested. For a number of the kids, the meals they receive at FAF summer camp are their primary sources of food for the week. Yet, this lack of basic needs is nearly invisible to local donor communities. Why is it so easy to give money or empathy to children in need halfway around the world, but somehow harder to take action on local youth poverty that is arguably just as pressing? “Third world” poverty appears to be more palatable than the poverty a few blocks away.

Do the Right Thing (But, What is That?)

I was incredibly uncomfortable spending time at FAF and witnessing this injustice so close to home, knowing that my own inaction is in some way complicity. But, where on earth does one begin to tackle a problem like poverty in the U.S.? Giving to schools, food banks, or drug awareness initiatives—how much and in what priority? Campaigning to change laws and pass legislation—local, state, or national level? The U.S brand of poverty is a mass of sticky social and political issues. In our eyes, the Machakos girls carry none of that baggage. Their lives are neatly distilled into a few beautiful pictures on a wall. In reality, the injustice is no less complex or messy in Kenya, but our distance blurs the issues into simplicity. 

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Photo by a Machakos participant.

Ultimately, I think the uncomfortableness that I experienced is worth talking about even though that is also . . . uncomfortable.  All children deserve love and support. In Machakos, they are in severe need of money—money to buy school supplies, hire a special needs teacher, and start an athletic program. They have plenty of people with caring hearts willing to help, but limited means. In Fayetteville, they need money, but more importantly time—mentors to volunteer on Saturday afternoons, people to run exciting activities at summer camp and provide new experiences to kids with otherwise restricted opportunities.

One group is not necessarily more needy than the other, but differently needy. Perhaps a solution is to better calibrate and contextualize our understandings of poverty across a variety of settings. Just like humanity, poverty is extraordinarily diverse and overwhelming similar. Take a Machakos girl and put her in jeans and a t-shirt. Take a FAF girl and put her in a blue-checked school uniform. Would you be able to tell the difference?

Jessie Hagen
Executive Director
 

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