Poverty or Subsistence? the non-esthetic details of our new setting

I have heard Vanuatu described as having both a large population of subsistence farmers AND poverty. I must admit, first off, that before I came I didn’t really know what subsistence meant. And when I pictured poverty, I pictured hunger, malnutrition, homelessness, filth, lack of education, and just a general lack of resources to do anything about all of the above.

Subsistence: The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level, according to google. Or-

Subsistence Farming:  self-sufficiency farming in which the farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their families, according to wikipedia.

Poverty: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions, according to m-w.

I can’t help but want to compare and contrast these ideas in relation to the place that is our new residence, an isolated village in a “third world” tropical country. (Though I won’t go into it too much here, if you read this blog entry and enjoy the topic, check out this page on poverty, it’s pretty interesting.)

I start with all this as a way to give you some of the framework I went to site with, then tell you a little about how this all plays out in real life; at least in one rural and isolated community on the island of Erromango.

Our village has more than 600 people, the average family having 8 children (according to my useful but maybe not perfect survey). Whew. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. 8. EIGHT.

Moving on…

Every family has 1-3 large gardens that they all work together to cultivate, harvest, and consume. Our community even has a committee that monitors and ensures that all gardens are adequate for feeding their respective families. As of now, they accomplish this task without too much trouble. You can plant anything in that soil, and it will grow. I have purchased soil probably of lower quality than the soil that composes the majority of our island. The locals choose to plant a lot of root crops (cassava, yam, sweet potato, tarro), coconut trees, fruit trees (banana, mango, papaya, guava, avocado, citrus, etc), and occassional vegetables (especially capsicum, or bell peppers). Very successful subsistent farming. In addition to their gardens, our community has access to huge amounts of fish and shellfish, of which they consume plenty (though they do have sea-life reservation spaces, often established by the families who claim the ground associated with them, though it’s unclear to me how well-enforced they are). They keep chickens, occassional pigs and cows, and nanny goats, all of which they eat. They also hunt wild pig. Needless to say, starvation is not an issue in our community (or this country in general). Not even malnutrition.

While many people do currently choose to build homes out of “white man” materials (concrete, metal, etc), very nice and climate appropriate houses (like the one we live in, if you replace the concrete floors with coral) can be and are made of plentiful local materials. While there are several dwellings that house a large number of people due to the huge size of families, homelessness is not an issue here either. In fact, they have a hard time conceiving of how it could be possible to have people who cannot find a place to sleep (granted this is also cultural–no matter how crowded a house is, they would never let anyone sleep outside due to a lack of space). And this is in a place where, apart from the mosquitoes or if it were raining, it would actually be quite a wonderful place to sleep outside. Homelessness is not an issue in our community and, I am guessing only, probably not an issue in 90% of the country (the few urban centers being the only places with much potential for homelessness).

As for filth, while there is plenty of opportunity for personal hygiene and sanitation education in our community with regards to preventing illness, the vast majority of “dirty” that is present in such a rural and isolated place is rubbish generated from bringing in “White Man Kakai”- or packaged and processed foods, and anything with an engine (in my village we have grass cutters, boats, and generators that create rubbish and pollution). By comparison to the average American city or even town, our village is incredibly clean. (ok, As an after thought I realized that there is a toilet issue in our village–which is undeniably relevant to this topic and is also one of the major projects I plan to undertake. So yes, perhaps what I may have once referred to as ‘filth’ does play into the nature of the poverty here.)

As for lack of education, our village is equipped with a primary school (grades 1-6), and secondary school (7-10), a Rural Training Center (like a tech school, with training in things like agriculture, business, tourism, and carpentry), and soon to be a kindy (or preschool). When we first got there, we were SOOO impressed by this. Still am. The trouble is that all of the above are dwindling and many, if not most, kids in our community end up going elsewhere for their schooling. For example, primary school is free in Vanuatu, but their primary school currently has one community teacher (meaning temporary and unliscenced), and a Peace Corps (Peter). Though school starts in less than two weeks, we are currently unsure of whether there will be a headmistress before classes start. There are currently about 150 students enrolled (an unrelated but interesting fact: about 80% of the students are female). All that said, our community (though this doesn’t go for all of Vanuatu, necessarily) highly values education with adults often making remarkable effort to both educate themselves and ensure the education of their children. I have met some mind-bogglingly intelligent people in my village who have taught themselves critical thinking and many other skills through the meager formal education opportunities they can find together with any other opportunity they come across to learn something (including exchanging food for books with visiting yachties).

As for other resources, our community has a building they refer to as the clinic, which is, on paper, a dispensary. This building has no water supply of any kind nearby, no nurse, and is currently run by two untrained village healthworkers who volunteer their time to do the best they can. They even get an alarmingly small shipment of supplies 2 or 3 times a year. I could go into much more detail, but I’ll spare you.

As for safety and security, there are no police on the entire island of Erromango. Any law enforcement and/or conflict resolution is up to the chiefs to handle, if and when they feel it is necessary.

They (the people of our village) have been told that the ministry of health will provide a nurse if they build a house. They built it, no one came. They were told they would get police if they built accomodations. They built it, no one came. It is no wonder our host papa had to take on the task of building our house himself and at the last minute, with very little help from the community, because no one thought we’d actually come.

So in conclusion, according to my original idea of poverty, the average city or town in the United States is absolutely drowning in poverty compared to our community, if not the majority of Vanuatu. However, perhaps I constructed my conception of poverty based on what I saw around me.

In fact, post-toilet project and if only they had the teachers, police, and nurse (all of which are hindered only by bureaucracy, as far as I can tell), I would argue our little village would thrive extraordinarily better than just about anywhere I have seen on US soil–and that’s with any kind of currency being a very minor component of their lifestyle. Though culture and lifestyle becomes more western every day, they live sustainably (it seems ‘sustainable living’ should be incorporated into the definition of subsistence farming…with merely a qualification or two), with an almost non-existant carbon footprint, and are (some days more than others–they are human, after all) dedicated to working together as a community to maintain the health of the community.

Is this presentation of the state of our village rather charitable? Yes, in the sense that it is a human community, meaning it is incredibly dynamic and complicated to represent holistically, and lifestyles, ideas, goals, and social structures are fluid and always changing. Given the average family size, these kinds of changes are likely to be rapid, and the sustainability of anything that grows so fast is always questionable.

My point? I guess mostly to explain a bit about where we’re living and working for the next two years. When I joined the Peace Corps I think I had some vague idea of going to live in an “impovrished” nation for two years. Now that I’m here I realise (or at least it’s really sinking in) I didn’t need to leave home to work among the impoverished–and in fact I feel I’ve moved away from it. I am not complaining. I feel very fortunate. And if my time here makes any kind of impact, I hope it works in favor of preserving all the strong and positive components already present here.

I end with a question: When you think of poverty, what do you think of?

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8 thoughts on “Poverty or Subsistence? the non-esthetic details of our new setting”

  1. I found this post to be interesting, not dry at all my girl. I look forward to your future posts. I’ve enjoyed the pics. It is nice to be able to place you and Peter in a more concrete location in my mind’s eye instead of a picture on a map. I think your observations about poverty are probably not easily realized by those who define poverty as anything different that the abundance we have here (material possessions, technology and what we view as survival essentials (plumbing, electricity, etc.) I’ve always thought of poverty as existing when a person is without access to the things that allow them to be cared for, to live happily, to be loved. Here we are surrounded by everything we need (however you define that) and yet so many live without…not because what is needed is not available, but because access is either denied because of some arbitrary rule or requirement, or because the person refuses to take advantage of what is available, or knowledge of what is available is lacking. Poverty should not exist is a country with so much, but it does and you are right that there is much that can be done here. I’m sure you guys will think of some ways to work on that when you return.

    1. Mama, “poverty as existing when a person is without access to the things that allow them to be cared for, to live happily, to be loved.” I think I will adopt this as my new definition of poverty. Assuming this definition implies an altered definition of wealth as well, I am one of the wealthiest people I know. 🙂

  2. Nicci I have to admit I am a bit jealous. Perhaps James and I can do something similar when our kids have flown the coop (and we’re old…hehe) Anyway. I am curious about something. You mentioned that they like books. Do they read English language books? And (if so) what kinds of books do they like/prefer reading? (I know many countries have English taught from grade 1 but I don’t know if they do so there.) My reason for asking is that I love books and reading, I love advocating reading and learning and I often end up with a lot of books over time in the work that I do that would otherwise be donated or thrown away. I get adult books, children’s books, fiction, non-fiction, how-to to, religious/spiritual, history… (you name it). Would that be something that would be welcomed there and is there a reasonable way to send them (if so). Just and idea.

    1. Laura! I miss you! How the heck are you? I need an update on your life. It’s been too long. You guys should totally do something like this if ever you get the chance. There is no cap on age, and the only problem I have with the older volunteers is they’re AWESOME and I want to be as awesome as them…as far as knowledge, experience, and overall wisdom goes.

      Anyhoo, as for the books, YES! Just, yes. 🙂 One of Peter’s projects is actually developing a library for the primary school, which could use all the books it can get. We have discussed fashioning said library into a resource for the whole community, not just something for the primary school students, since so many like to read. That said, just about any book could be put to use somewhere, somehow, by someone.

      Our country actually has three national languages: Bislama, French, and English. Anyone who goes to secondary school has at least a basic knowledge of either French or English. Our village is mostly Anglophone, in addition to everyone knowing Bislama and their local language, Sye. So far we have personally lent a Dan Brown book, a Salman Rushdie book, and To Kill a Mockingbird to our host papa–the first and the last are his favorites of the 3; and I’ve lent the Help to my counterpart, though she says she likes romance novels best. Meanwhile, Peter has become a personal tutor for a man who wants to understand a business textbook better. So, as I said, you name it, there’s interest for it.

      All that said, if you feel inclined and find the opportunity to send a donation of books, that would be so WONDERFUL!!! But make sure you keep the receipt for shipment, because it’s soooo expensive, and as a donation should be a tax write-off.

      Alright, this reply is getting excessive. Love you!

      1. I’m not sure if/when he’ll do it, but Peter just told me that if he runs a book drive, he should be able to get funding for shipping! I’ll keep you posted. 😀

  3. Nicci,
    What can I say? Wow… Your definitions and explanation of your new home is wonderful. I know the information that you relay back to us through these correspondence will enlighten us (me) greatly. I think that we may have more to learn from them and their culture then what we could give them. It’s easy for us to send books and teach them how to build composting toilets (maybe that would be a good book to send)?

    I’m sensing that there is a need to teach them carefully how to preserve there ways in nurture. I have heard that the western ways draw young people to a new way of living. I think that this could be a good thing if you could somehow leave out the inherent problems that come with it. There are many answers to growth that can leave out the “white mans” garbage. The US is considered a civilized country and one of the most influential in the world. I regret that they are one of the slowest to embrace natural and renewable resources. If a country was technologically developed from it’s genesis with these new and readily available resources, a complete new infrastructure based on new principals would be born.

    Sorry for sounding Isaac Asimov -ish. It already sounds like a garden of Eden.

    How often do you get to use and view the internet?

    Love Dad

    1. I absolutely agree with everything you said. It’s difficult to harness the desire to become westernized when the young adult generation is exposed to it–all the media, money, comfort, convenience and short cuts–for the first time and just wants it all and wants it all now. Then the younger generation is practically raised with it and often dive into a westernized version of their culture, all without considering negative consequences. We have had various conversations already about progress and change achieved in such a way that you acquire all the best things, but learn from other’s mistakes to avoid the problems. The individuals we’ve talked to understand this, but we’ll see how it goes getting an entire community hungry for change to understand why it’s so important to stop and think it all through before making any big moves. As it is now, they mostly use generators and some solar panels to obtain energy. If there were a green, extremely low-cost, low-maintenance way to store energy, it would be SO much easier to root their desire for everything energy-dependent in green energy before they’re more or less dependent (if only habitually) on petroleum. Maybe your expertise can help me maximize the likelihood of that happening.

      I don’t have access to the internet at all at site, but right now I am in Port Vila, where I do have access. I just found out yesterday that I’m stuck here for another 4 1/2 weeks. I say “stuck” because this city is an example of diving into westernized way of living without avoiding the negative consequences: the place is filthy with garbage, the air is disgusting with no regulation on vehicle emissions, and it’s not safe at night for a woman to be by herself due to inadequate safety and security infrastructure (i.e. there are police on Efate, but they’re no where near as effective as they could be). The upside is that yes, I will have internet access until March. After that I’m not sure~ I potentially will be internet-less until July or August.

      Love you Pappi!

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