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Poverty stinks

· ​What society does not want to smell ·

Everyone knows that the poor exude a bad smell in one way or another. This nauseating, suffocating smell is unbearable, and when we smell it we try to keep at a distance. It is one of the reasons – and not one of the least – which keep us away from the poor. Hence an odour of poverty exists which acquires a symbolic meaning because it refers immediately to the disgusting aspect of a person who is unable to wash him- or herself, and does not even feel the need to do so.

A rubbish dump in Lagos, Nigeria

People who smell bad feel embarrassed at presenting themselves to others because they do not live in accordance with the social criteria of acceptability. This condition leads consequently to the loss of their sense of the dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. Poor children smell bad too, because their underclothes were not dried properly, or even because they live in shacks and their parents light a fire in them to cook or for warmth, and so their dwelling places are uncomfortable and unhealthy, crawling with rats, cockroaches and insects.

The odour of poverty involves the totality of the person and of his or her being. In fact poverty affects not only the possession of things but also every other reality which can give security, for the inclination to have possessions and to be comfortable is present in every human being from the very beginning of his or her life: we merely have to think of the child who before saying “I” says “mine”. The stench of poverty is thus a symptom of other evils: deprivation, suffering, need, anxiety, frustration, and the lack of things. It is for this reason that the lack of what a person needs creates a distance, which is not merely physical but also relational, psychological, moral and spiritual.

Among human beings, where the person is defined through a network of relationships, the odour of poverty isolates the person, and therefore the suffering endured is not only financial but also relational. The poor are despised by their brothers and sisters, and even their friends desert them. So it is that the human person is reduced to a state of anthropological poverty or a poverty of identity. Poor people have neither a name nor even the right to speak, because someone else must speak in their stead and explain or decide what these same poor people need.

We might say that the odour of poverty leads human beings to put an end to their relations with others, thereby giving rise to isolation and to difficulty in loving themselves and others, even to the point of rejecting God’s love. This leads to withdrawal, because the person thinks he is only an insignificant and ephemeral fact, a “stranger” in a random universe, as Benedict xvi affirms in his Encyclical Caritas in veritate (no. 53).

One example of the odour of poverty and of its consequences comes from an episode which occurred at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. A family was thrown out of it because of their bad smell: a couple and their child were wandering among the works exhibited when a museum guard ordered them to leave the museum because other visitors had complained of their smell. Thus, surrounded by four policemen, the little family was forced to leave.

Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister for Culture, declared this incident “deplorable”, while making allowances for the action of the staff: “I think they were doing their job because they also preserved the opportunity for these people to visit the museum in more dignified conditions than they were in at the time”, she said. A different reality is concealed behind these words. In ministerial circles, on the basis of the report by the Musée d’Orsay, it filtered through that the couple’s son had defecated in his trousers. Hence the bad smell during their visit, which lasted for several hours. The staff then intervened “to preserve the child’s dignity”, because the smell and the presence of a stain had justified the suspicion that this was the cause of the unpleasant smell. These poor were not regular people and in this case were treated by the other visitors in the museum with genuine discrimination caused by their social origin.

Society does not tolerate the odour of poverty because the poor person is bothersome, he or she is a suffering being and his or her suffering is total: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual and intellectual. Indeed poverty renders people vulnerable, subordinate and incapable of raising their eyes to look at others. The poor are thus inferior, weak, to be excluded because they do not adapt to society’s norms. It is for this reason that we can speak of discrimination due to the odour of poverty. Poverty stinks in the sense that the poor are ashamed and seek to hide their living conditions which socially marginalize them, making them vulnerable, without resistance, incapable of responding to the engagement of giving and of receiving.

Pilgrims in the Basilica of Yamoussoukro (AFP)

Poverty stinks because the poor are considered responsible for their wretched state and the stench is the proof that the poor make no effort to improve their living conditions. If the language regarding the poor has in a certain way changed, the way we look at these people in great poverty and who for this reason exude a bad smell remains a sign of their very harsh exclusion.

Extreme poverty ends by creating a sense of fatality, the poor begin to believe that they were created in order to suffer and that they must accept the condition in which they live, thereby losing every capacity for reacting in order to emerge from it. It is thus necessary to help them to realize that through reflection and action they will be in a position to improve their living situation and create the conditions for a dignified life thanks to a process called “empowerment”.

A positive example: in the penal camp of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, a nurse doing permanent voluntary service asked the prisoners to join forces to fight the poverty in which they were living. But at first these prisoners did not accept this, saying that in prison there was only suspicion and extreme violence. The nurse talked to them about a “club of knowledge”, and solidarity in accordance with the motto “Let those who know something teach those who do not know”. The prisoners then wondered what they could learn in a prison where they already had to make an effort to get enough to eat in order to survive. This nurse brought some chalks to the prison and began to write on the walls and doors of cells; thus a few prisoners started teaching others who were illiterate how to read. Others got busy because they knew how to act in the theatre. “The more the club grew, the more the group’s unity grew”, a former prisoner remembered later. And after teaching reading, after the theatre, other talents emerged.

Then in the course of an annual visit by the Minister of Justice, the prisoners wanted to offer a sculpture for the Basilica of Yamoussoukro. One of them had in fact taught the others to make wooden sculptures. Thanks to this knowledge, passed on year after year, the prisoners regained their self-confidence and prepared the model of a statue which was shown to the Basilica’s Rector. Some time later a beautiful statue of Our Lady, six metres tall and called Our Lady of All, was presented to the Minister and in February 1992, in the presence of officials of the penal camp and of political and religious authorities, it was installed in the Basilica.

The same former prisoner declared that at that very moment “the expression of the prison administration and of the authorities and supervisors changed. We also began to believe in ourselves. The solidarity we had created and which we are still living is a source of great pride to us. Our chains fell in creating this ‘club of knowledge’. Our group has shown that when people join forces things can change”.

Thus those who are courageous can emerge from the stench and from silence. In the case of those in prison in Côte d’Ivoire this demanded much time, much commitment and much courage on their part, as well as on the part of many others. The intelligence of people who live in extreme poverty is nonetheless a resource which our humanity cannot dispense with. To the extent to which it is recognized and taken seriously, this intelligence is a compass for progressing towards a world free from the terror and wretchedness that stink.

Therefore, although poverty stinks, the commitment of every individual who instead does not stink should be not to leave anyone behind. This means facing the profound causes of poverty to eliminate them completely; it means listening to the viewpoints and opinions of people who live in poverty and in its bad smell, and meeting them; it means joining hands with them in dignity to put an end to the stench of poverty.

Rita Mboshu Kongo

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