Poverty waiting for opportunity

Written by on March 31, 2011 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 0 Comments

I took a group of Japanese to a school in a very poor community. They visited each grade level, sang songs, then asked and answered questions. Each time they asked the kids, “What is your dream for the future?”

A first grader said he dreams of having a job, that’s it, followed by another who said he wants to be a motodop (a motorcycle taxi driver). Several others said they dream of having a factory job. What dreams? I thought. Working in a factory is a hard life: 12 hour days, six days a week, about 60 dollars a month (25 cents an hour). That wage is just enough to survive on, barely.

Some¬† second graders also mentioned factory jobs, with a couple exceptions, one who wants to be a teacher and another who wants to be an engineer. The third and fourth graders gradually abandoned the factory theme in favor of more stereotypical dream jobs: doctor, lawyer, engineer…

I think the youngest children were¬† repeating what they overhear their parents and older siblings hoping for–steady if brutal work they can get. The older kids have learned the list of obvious jobs that are supposed to make you rich and give you a better life. But they don’t know other options in between, and likely only have impressions of what engineers, doctors, and lawyers actually do.

I have another Cambodian friend who is older and wants to start her own business. She grew up in a distant province in a very poor family. I asked her when she began to dream with such ambition, and she told about going to an English school as a child and the teacher who inspired her there. Her dream business is to run an English school making money and giving hope.

Finally, a few days ago, I met a young woman who worked in the garbage dump here in Phnom Penh from age six to sixteen. She collected stuff (plastic and items) from the trash and sold it to recyclers for a dollar or two a day. Now in her late teens, she speaks English and has a decent job in a shop at an international school. Several years ago, a foreigner sponsored her to attend school and get basic vocational training (computer and English).

I asked her how she feels when she thinks back to her life at the dump, and she said: I feel so proud of myself. I never thought I’d do anything better than working at the dump, but now I speak English and I have a good job. And I feel thankful for the man who sponsored me.”

These stories remind me poverty is not merely about money or ability. It’s about freedom, access and opportunity — and relationships.

And that….reminds me of this video…

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .

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