Impoverished perspectives

When we began planning this move to Belize, we knew sharing our decision would have to be well-and sensitively-timed. We knew to expect shock, disapproval and negativity. That wasn’t too surprising so we coached each other to see all the what-the-hell-are-yall-doin?-and-where-the-heck-is-Belize-anyway? responses as love in reverse. What the mouth spits is often a skewed way of avoiding what the heart wishes to say: We love you all…can you please stay near?

So we broke the news about a year before we actually left. We broke it after we sold our wonderful home (with the hardwood floors, three porches and fresh, fabulous paint job) and moved into an apartment. We broke the news to explain what some thought was insanity (“But I love your house! You’re selling it?!) and to give folks ample time to absorb the idea: The Tewogbolas were trippin’ all the way to Central America.

Some responses, though, shook us. Ones like, “Is Belize one of those places where things break and never get fixed?” or “Isn’t that a Third World country?” and – our favorite – “Be careful, man. I hear they have pirates in Belize!”

And there were the folks who insisted, despite our own research, that we couldn’t drive here. Somehow the thought of the U.S. being attached to other countries and, eventually, a whole ‘nother continent seemed geographically impossible.

But count it all love, right? What sounds like dissuasion is really a plea: Staaaaaaaay! Or perhaps it’s a query: Whhhhhhy? Why leave here? What can you possibly find out there?

Six months into our relocation, we’re less rattled by our loving friends and relatives. Now we’re inspired to consider the power of perspective.

Before we left a friend, who works as an anthropology professor, said she often returns to the States from research trips to India and excitedly shares photos with her friends. She shows shots of smiling children, vibrant textiles, verdant countryside. But her friends see none of that in her photography. All they see are bare feet, dirty linen and trash-filled fields.

Where she sees beauty and resilence, they see unsightly suffering.

Same picture; different perspective. Same scene; different lens.

I admit to being nervous about my mother and bonus father’s lens. They visited just after Azizah the Great (heeey, a mama has to swoon, true?) was born and I got deep into what one of my sister friend’s calls putting on the “Big Show.” I wanted to enchant them with signs of our good fortune. I wanted them to see we were safe and thriving in a country with other safe and thriving folks.

I did not want them to see bare feet. If they did, I worried, would they be able to see anything else? Luckily, my Alabama-raised mama (who heralds the great many uses of paper and leaves in an outhouse) and my Mississippi-based bonus father were unfazed. Turns out my own fears and lifelong need to appear healthy, wealthy and wise to my parents got the best of me. What really got them, though, were the folks who ride babies & toddlers, water jugs, rakes and weed wackers on their bikes – while sending text messages. Agility!

From what we know & see today, many of the neighborhoods around us do not have socio-economic barriers. There are zones of sheer opulence, yes. (Turrets, moats, private islands, security gates, central air, Range Rovers, stainless steel appliances, you name it) and there are zones with much less (glass-less windows, scrawny dogs, outdoor toilets, paper-littered yards, you name it). Still, many neighborhoods have both – big houses with basketball hoops next to small ones with sagging porches.

There is little illusion here; life and lifestyles are varied.

Several weeks after our arrival, our 7-year-old said, “I used to think that people who lived in small houses were P-O-O-R.” (She’s in that if-you-can-say-it-spell-it phase) “But now I just see them as houses.”

That comment came after a visit to a new friend’s home where chicken scurried across the dirt lawn and every structure appeared to be held together by plywood and prayer. Yemu ran right in the dust and began jumping rope with the other kids – some of them in bare feet.

She saw the feet but she also saw friends.

That’s the power of the lens. Can we see beyond a first glance? Is there any beauty to see in a family that lives in a shack? Or just struggle?

Is there anything to learn, to enjoy, to praise among people with less?

Is moving to a country where the average salary is below $20,000 US a year an act of romanticism? A la let’s-learn-something-deep-from-the-poor-people or can those people just be people…some with more, some with less, some with shoes, some without?

Can we witness how other people live without succumbing to pity or self-celebration? Is the sight of bare feet solely inspiration to look at your shoes and thank God for His favor?

Can we travel to new places and see different lifestyles without toting arrogance (“OhmyGOD! People live like this?!) or salvation (“What they need is Jesus!”) ?

Is happiness and fortune, abundance and blessings, gratitude and wealth only evidenced by Nine West and Hondas? 401Ks and cruises? Vera Wang and mini-mansions?

Can the look of living well actually be seen in bare feet and outdoor stoves? In clothing lines and bicycles? In street food and stilted houses?

Does the woman handwashing her clothes and burning the family’s trash feel she’s worthy of pity? Does she believe her life is destitute? Is there more to her picture than what she doesn’t have? Is there something to respect about what she does?

Someone pondered if we’re taking this trip to gain a romantic view of poverty. They figured this is an extension of our no-microwave-and-toaster-having-homeschooling-Birkenstock-wearing-apple-picking-farmers-market-and-tofu-family-values. This must be some strategy, they figure, to glorify simplicity – by living in the “Third World” in a place where some folks walk around without shoes. (Quick question: do you really have to travel miles from home to see folks struggling to make it? And what is “making it” anyway? Is it the same standard everywhere?)

And we won’t lie: life is not always easy here. There are beachfront condos, yes. The other day I saw a man leaning on the latest Lexus. There is luxury and there is lack. But there is more than either of those words can convey, too.

Where there is struggle, there is creativity, too. (Ever seen a railing made of pallets?)
Where there is stress, there is calm, too. (Ever seen someone survive midday heat by swinging in a threadbare hammock?)
Where there is crime, there is community compassion. (Ever heard of an organization that offers the respite of a sanctuary to a mother mourning her murdered child?)
Where there are limited finances, there is culinary wizardry. (Ever met a cook who can make 1,009 meals from flour, water, yeast, string beans, diced potatoes and onions?)
Where there are health hazards, there is help. (Ever met someone amped to share their skills and resources with someone who needs them because they believe they should? And because they know they can?)
Where there is life, there is curiosity. (Ever wonder if joy can exist without material comforts? Can you really know happiness if you have no car? Or medical insurance? Or money?)

Man, oh, man, we won’t lie to you: every snapshot of Belizean life is not about white sand and scuba or jet skis and yachts.

But here, under the Caribbean sun, there is so much more, so, so much more to see than bare feet.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jana Reed
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 16:18:33

    What a beautiful article! Our families too are struggling with our decision to retire in Belize and what we see is so hard to explain to them.


  2. Jill Ouikahilo
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 14:27:57

    I think it would be a really cool book to expand on the perspectives of your children. Yemu’s comments are so, so powerful.


  3. Carol Charles
    Feb 25, 2011 @ 21:37:11

    Dear Tasneem,
    I’ve seen your mom a few times since you left. I always ask about how you’re doing. My girls “wonder” outloud about you as well!
    They were delighted to hear of the birth of your new baby girl.
    Congratulations!!!! She’s beautiful.
    I shared with your mom that my college roomate, Eleanor Castillo Bullock is from Belize. She has a Garifina Cultural group in the NY/NJ area and is always talking about moving back home.
    I’d love to connect the two of you!
    God Bless


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