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The sum of all our hungers

Print edition : Nov 01, 1997 T+T-

I LIKE the bold concept of a year dedicated to the eradication of poverty, the refusal to throw up hands, internationally, and accept that a certain level of poverty has been part of the human condition since Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, and will be with us forever.

Others better qualified than I will point out how the untapped and/or wasted resources of the world, in its soil and in its seas, could indeed eradicate what the term "poverty" means as it is immediately conceived: lack of food. Feed the world, and that will be the end of poverty. And, of course, no one could argue that sustenance itself is not the priority. And that, further, with the wars that plague us, in the case of the communities of the oppressed and the communities of the aggressors, ordinary people are starving victims alike, and must be succoured without moral discrimination. To quote Bertolt Brecht in my own rough translation: "First fill the belly, then talk right and wrong."

But poverty has aspects other than lack of bread or rice or maize meal - basics that keep the body alive.

In my own country, South Africa, lack of clean water has become one of the definitions of poverty, existing in communities that nevertheless have enough to eat.

The apartheid regime callously accepted that this kind of poverty, among others, was the lot of black communities; a trickle in a polluted river bed serving as both drinking water and for washing clothes and flesh was the reticulation available to them. An academic named Kader Asmal came back from political exile and as Minister of Water Affairs in our Government led by the African National Congress defined this aspect of poverty. In two years he has extablished installations that pipe clean water to thousands of people who never before had access to it.

Food and water; they go together in eliminating the material aspects of poverty, along with shelter. For a long period, for many people in the more prosperous parts of the modern world, homelessness was something that existed elsewhere. It was truly a Third World phenomenon. The few clochards in Paris, picturesque rather than a matter for social conscience, the panhandlers as part of the tough bums-and-millionaires character of New York - at home, theirs was token destitution that could be bought off with a handful of small change. But now the Third World of poverty rather than geographical definition is everywhere; every city in the world is a warren of people with nowhere to live. Plastic and cardboard shelters are the defining architectural style of the late 20th century. Feed the world, and that will not be the end of poverty while men, women and their children squat in mud and dust, sun and rain.

Even beyond these material manifestations is another poverty. I want to speak of the deprivation of the intellect, of the world of ideas, from which millions suffer often without knowing it, condemned to plod through their lives at the lowest level of human consciousness. This goes beyond mere ignorance, though it begins with the fact of vast-spread illiteracy; many who can read and write can do so only listlessly in respect of the most humdrum demands of daily life.

The exploration of the truly human fullness of existence and of the ever-expanding limits of our consciousness with conceptual tools that rouse curiosity, wonderment at why we are here on earth, what influences and forms our attitudes to one another, to other creatures, to that layer of being, our environment, which encases us - the mind that has no access to these, no access to music beyond pop jingles, literature beyond the bubble text of comics, beauty of form beyond the poses of cover girls, is in a state of poverty. First feed the belly, then talk aesthetics? Yes. But let us understand poverty as the sum of all its hungers, the conscious and the unconscious ones of its victims. Our responsibility is all-encompassing, this and every year.

Made available by the United Nations Development Programme.