Monday, August 25, 2008

True riches

There is an American expression, ‘bait and switch’, or something to that effect, that describes the business practice used to tempt prospective customers to buy a product, only for there to be a ‘sting in the tail’, some unexpected complication that will inevitably cost money, to the disadvantage of the customer and the advantage of the company.

A spyware programme on my computer, the free accompaniment to a free programme that I temporarily required, pointed out that I had not scanned the computer for the past few days. I agreed. With an excellent, free, regularly-updated programme provided by several universities, I rarely have problems with viruses, especially as I do not open ‘spam’.

Out of curiosity, I allowed the programme (now removed from my computer) to do a scan and examined the results. I do not believe that I had 56 infected files, complete with seven potentially disastrous viruses that could only be removed if I were to pay $19.95 for the full version of the programme. That message sounded the death knell for the newly-imported wonder worker, condemned to wander aimlessly around cyberspace, but not my laptop! Yet I was left wondering why, in the search for money, some people and businesses resort to untruth?

Recently, a man stopped me, claiming to be the victim of muggers who had stolen his money and mobile phone. Apparently he belonged to a wonderful charity that works tirelessly for those who are contemplating suicide. That immediately made me suspicious. The incredibly self-sacrificing, generous volunteers who give up countless hours of their own time would have been there immediately to help one of their own. The man’s story of needing money for his bus fare rang hollow, so he received nothing on that occasion… but did he have to use for his own dishonest ends some of society’s uncanonised saints?

Waiting in a shop the other evening I watched four gypsies sharing out the money they had gained from knocking on the windows of cars that stopped when the traffic lights changed colour. I presume that the women told of their hunger and need to provide food for their families, because this is the usual story, and yet the money that changed hands appeared to be substantial. Each woman held a baby. One also had two small children accompanying her begging. What sort of lessons is she teaching? Will those children grow up with any idea of ‘honest labour’? Will they look beyond begging to some sort of skill that could be usefully employed to benefit others?

There was a morning when I was in Zambia when a man asked for money. On that occasion it happened that even a search of pockets and bags brought forth only enough money to buy one, very small, bread roll that would have been eaten in two bites. He went down on his knees to say thank you.

There were also times when I encountered families with not an iota of food in the house, where, in one home, a full day of trying to sell six tiny bottles of sunflower oil brought in less than $1 with which to feed six children and their desperately ill mother.

Often, those who are in most need do not ask for help, or do so only when they have exhausted every possibility.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty or about working with the truly poor. It is hard, unrelenting and tragic, accompanied by frequent feelings of helplessness in the face of difficulties beyond the normal coping.

In this country, when we speak of the poor and disadvantaged, the children are still able to attend school. Their parents often manage to buy cigarettes and alcohol and go on holiday, perhaps even to another country. There are ways and means of obtaining practical help, admittedly sometimes limited and limiting, but starvation is not usually an alternative.

All the dice seem to be loaded against the truly poor in many countries outside this one, who yearn for education, who long to do a day’s work, but are so weakened by starvation that they become flesh-covered, living skeletons, where ‘poor’ means that children cannot go to school because without their labour, the family would starve. ‘Poor’ means clothes worn until they fall to pieces. ‘Poor’ means having absolutely no food whatsoever in the house, no money to buy any, and with begging, theft or death the only remaining options. Yet these are the very people who are exploited by the unscrupulous, by the multi-nationals and by those who look to their own advantage even if it means trampling on others.

Yet, look at the ‘truly poor’, and in their hardship, they somehow laugh and sing. Are they not the truly rich? They have nothing left to lose apart from their self-respect, and in clinging to that, they find God and make him the source of their wealth, the sustainer of their daily lives.

Perhaps, sometimes, the rich in the eyes of the world are the ones who are the most impoverished.

God bless,
Sr Janet