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Lessons from the (False) Heart of Darkness

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This past summer, I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa, to distribute shoes for a mission trip. My group visited, on several occasions, the shantytowns surrounding the city, where thousands have congregated to live in tiny sheet metal hovels.

In my childhood, I somehow came to believe in a romantic view of extreme poverty. I thought that in the absence of technology, people would entertain themselves with basic human interaction, which is in some ways true; the poor, it seems to me, are far more capable at reading facial expressions and empathizing with others, two fields in which the wealthier are handicapped. The interactions we had with strangers in the slums attest to this truth, I encountered the friendliest and least-inhibited people I had ever met. They spoke with smiles of how they longed to live in the United States, and of what they did not like about their community: the fetid water, the piles of garbage strewn along streets, the open sewers, the lack of food, and the AIDS epidemic.

The families with whom I spoke may have been well-mannered, but there were innumerable bums and criminals, laying in ditches and sulking around. It is easy to forget the dangers of that city. There was great reason that houses in even the wealthiest neighborhoods had barred windows, fences decked with razor-blades and barbed wire, and that the neon-green of security uniforms was the most-prevalent clothing on the street.

My beliefs were very foolish; poverty is misery; a life of forced asceticism warps the soul. Of course, having only simple means has made many of the impoverished adept at making the most out of their relationships; I am, in fact, jealous of their ability to socialize. It has been difficult for me to foster relationships of the degree I saw in the shantytowns. I have so many devices to distract me, if I feel uncomfortable, I can plug-in and bury my head in the sand. Lacking a place to hide, these people had been forced to become extroverts.

In no way do the communicative benefits trump the horrors of poverty, for relations alone cannot pay for medical treatment, quench thirst, or end starvation. But the poor have the ability to live far more fulfilling lives than the person who spends hours a day living in World or Warcraft, or whose social life’s epitome is the blog to which they devote all their time. If only because they have nothing else to do, the poor have access to one of life’s great wealth, a simple habit that Western nations have forgotten. Obviously, the poor try to escape their situation and model themselves after the United States, but, less clearly, another truth is that the United States should, to some degree, model themselves after the poor.





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