Postscript- On a serious note: What Empathy Has Taught Me…About Poverty

“There is little to be said in favour of poverty, but it is often an incubator of true friendship. Many people will appear to befriend you when you are wealthy, but precious few will do the same when you are poor. If wealth is a magnet, poverty is a kind of repellent. Yet poverty often brings out true generosity in others”. 

(Nelson Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom)

Sympathy should become a redundant emotion. What good does it serve? Feeling sorry for either yourself or others? How does that help anyone? Empathy, now there is a more worthy emotion. It is a shame so few people seem to possess it.

I have often thought that no matter which life you choose to lead there will always be a kind of yin and yang at play, a natural balance of highs and lows. Nothing is ever perfect. There are always compromises to make just as there are amazing opportunities to embrace. To match the unthinkable highs I had while living in Africa, mostly in the way of travel opportunities and loving my job, there were always two persistent lows: loneliness and an inability to come to terms with the level of poverty I witnessed daily. My natural reaction to both of these was sympathy; but as I soon realized, this only served to validate those realities when in actual fact there was so much more to focus on.

Besides, how dare I feel sorry for myself when my life is so privileged in comparison, and what right do I have to feel sorry for others and take away the sense of pride they are entitled to for achieving so much with so little? Pride in being a good mother, pride in being a good husband, pride in being a hard worker, pride in being a good person. That was when I began to view sympathy as a defunct emotion. It still strikes back to hit me from time to time. When I see men with no legs begging on the side of the road, or even the askari (security guards) in my housing compound working their mind numbing, malaria-inducing 12 hour shifts. I feel sorry for the children who tell me their aspirations when I know the odds of them being able to achieve them are stacked impossibly high. I feel sorry for my housekeeper Martha who is an old lady, but must ride to work on two crowded dala dalas (buses) to support her unemployed daughters and seven grandchildren. I feel sorry for my friend Justin who leaves his home on the outskirts of the city at 4.45am each morning to go to work and doesn’t return until 11pm every night, 7 days a week. But how does this help their situation? It takes away the dignity these people do have. Yet even more than this, it blinds you to seeing who they really are.

Empathy is a more worthwhile emotion, because with it comes the inherent willingness to understand, the desire to act and do something and to be a better person. The world needs more empathy. We can all live with less sympathy because all too often it has no obligation attached. It is empathy that has compelled me to take a hot meal out to the askari, donate my time and material possessions to people who need it more than I do, to pay people a fair price without feeling the need to bargain them down. No matter where you live in the world, when you take a moment out of your own life to walk in someone else’s shoes- and in Africa that can be a humbling and sobering experience– it allows commonsense, compassion and practicality to override greed and egocentrism.

I once heard somebody say, that while travelling in Africa, they could not bring themselves to photograph people, as they did not want to be a tourist of poverty. It occurred to me recently, that when I take photographs of people here it is not because I want to capture their poverty, but rather because I admire and respect them for the other qualities I see. Beautiful, strong women, expertly balancing loads on their heads. Gorgeous children with the best smiles in the world. Proud parents. Entrepreneurial, hardworking vendors. Inventive problem-solvers. Determined students. Gregarious strangers. Amid the tragedy, hardship and poverty, these are things to relish and celebrate. Only empathy allows you to develop a unique appreciation of others and to really see who they are. One of the things I have come to love about living in developing countries, is that life is gritty and real and devoid of false pretense or misrepresentation. When people have nothing to lose and everything to gain, you see what we are made of, the real deal, with nothing left to hide behind. If you are open enough to accept and appreciate it, without putting up even higher barriers between yourself and the other world which makes you feel so uncomfortable, a strange thing tends to happen, you see what really makes a life worth living. Family, laughter, love for each other and even the most simple of pleasure like sharing a meal. It is life uncut and raw. When everything that we think we need in the Western world is stripped away what do we really have left? Relationships with each other, love, respect for others, generosity, kindness, genuine friendships. I know it is corny and perhaps even condescending making such observations from my comfortable-life perspective, but living in Africa has restored my faith in human nature. It is an unnecessary and devastating price that others pay for my knowledge, but I have seen first hand that without everything else that distracts us, when people have nothing, community prevails and people look after each other. When life to an outsider can appear so cheap, if you pause for a moment to take a closer look you see that in unexpected ways it is actually rather rich.

Of course I am sounding patronizing and hypocritical. Do you think I don’t go home and appreciate the size of my apartment, the contents of my fridge, the comfort of my bed? Obviously, I do. Would I be able to walk a day in the shoes of my Tanzanian friends and still make the same observations? I don’t think so. Does it mean I don’t ever see things that pull at my heartstrings? Sights so sad that my chest feels like it is being ripped out and takes the breath right out of me. I feel anger at the injustice of it all, guilt at the discrepancy that can exist between two lives based on life’s lottery, but empathy helps me to see beyond this a little. It enables me to catch a glimmer of what it is that makes these people get up out of bed each day and face the world with a smile on their face and determination in their hearts.

A friend once made the comment, that the best measure of a person is how they behave when no one else is watching. I agree, but surely the best measure of a person is also how they behave when they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Empathy makes me wonder how I would behave if I had been dealt an unfair hand in life. I can’t think of a better reason to be a horrible human being. Cheat. Lie. Steal. Murder. Would these be survival strategies I would consider? When so little seems to separate life from death, I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that I would not be capable of it. Yet what I see in Tanzania is the exact opposite. Honesty, integrity, generosity, kindness and above all, that wonderful sense of humour.

Perhaps it is just these qualities that come so naturally to the Tanzanian people. Where else does such a multicultural society enjoy so much peace? Christian, Muslim, Hindus living side by side. Religiously tolerant, respectful, peace-loving people. Of course there is crime, corruption, domestic violence, mob justice and often my idealistic tendencies tend to blind me to this reality. It is not always a good quality to possess, but I know that I prefer to view the world through rose-coloured glasses. I choose to see the best in people and assume positive intentions. What is reassuring though, is that I have never had to look very hard to see these. Good people are never very hard to find. They are not the exception but in my experience the norm, and in a region of the world where people just struggle everyday to survive, it is comforting to know that humanity is capable of such love and kindness and tolerance and respect.

There is an extension of community here that I don’t recognize from other places I have lived. It starts with people calling each other- brother, sister, aunty, mamma, father, grandfather, friend…even when they are complete strangers. It extends to the infectious laugh you can’t escape. Whether it be riding a dala dala packed with people and watching two men who have never spoken a word to each other before share a joke, which culminates in an uproarious laugh. Or having the high-spirited local support staff laugh with each other on the bus to school each morning, displaying a level of cohesive thought and good nature that I could never achieve at such an hour. These are qualities to admire and respect. When I return to my Western world and see the problems that people complain about on a daily basis. When I see how we walk passed each other on the street without managing any acknowledgement, when I see how we can sit on a comfortable bus with empty seats and not even smile at the person across from us, or erect fences in our yard so that we don’t even know who our neighbours are. I have to question who in fact has the richer existence?

What is poverty? It is not material possessions that make us rich or poor. It is life expectancy, health care and the opportunity for education. Yet it seems to be a sad irony of the human condition that we must have relatively little in order to appreciate fully the things that count the most. In my experience, it is the people who have the least that are often the most generous in life; perhaps it is because empathy comes so easily to them? 


Welcome back to the ‘civilized’ world:

Recently I found myself in the Swiss Consulate General’s office in Sydney applying for an Employment Visa. My employer had made most of the arrangements from Switzerland, and it had been my understanding that I simply had to turn up and collect the documentation. As I stood at the window speaking to the well-groomed consular official in his harbor-view office suite, it was clear that he was having a bad day and looked forward to making mine go in the same direction. After a few minutes of tedious and protracted conversation, which I might add included the charmingly hostile remark “what, you don’t speak French?” It soon became apparent that the process would be much more complicated and time consuming than I had been led to believe. In fact, if this man had his way it was entirely possible that I would miss my flight the following evening and possibly be denied a visa altogether. When I struggled to reason with the difficult gentleman, I found myself having a sudden pang of longing for Tanzania. I was unaccustomed to meeting unpleasant, mean-spirited people. Even the African bureaucracy, which I abhorred so much, and which was notorious for its overly time consuming delays and red tape, seemed a comforting alternative to this rather uptight, rule obliging, unhelpful stickler for regulation. Despite having numerous printers and photocopiers at his disposal, he asked me to come back with copies of my documents in triplicate before the office closed at the leisurely hour of 1pm.

As I went out to scour the streets of Bondi Junction in search of a photocopier, I found myself comparing a similar experience I had had only a month earlier in Tanzania. I had visited one of the derelict-looking Government offices in downtown Dar to acquire a police record check (a requirement for my Swiss Visa). Upon discovering that the only photocopier in the entire 8-storey building had gone on the blink (who knows when? Possibly that day, that week or even a few years earlier? Such is life in Dar), the apologetic and obliging official had attempted to give me directions to the nearest location where I would be able to photocopy my passport. Half way through his extensive spiel, it must have occurred to him that it would in fact be easier to take me there himself. So abandoning his post and leaving his colleague in charge, he generously escorted me on an adventurous outing outside, across the road, along a side alley, through a construction site and down some steps leading under one of the neighbouring buildings. Squinting as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found myself standing among 20 Tanzanians who were congregated around an ancient looking photocopier, patiently waiting their turn to use the machine. The room was not much larger than the photocopier itself and had a low ceiling, which meant everyone had to stand hunched over as they waited. Given my surrounds, and its popularity, I got the impression that it was quite possibly the only ‘high-tech’ piece of office equipment within a few kilometers radius.

Now, here I was on the streets of Sydney negotiating my way unsuccessfully in search of a photocopier. I had been rapidly transported back to the 21st Century. To a world of gleaming multistory Westfield shopping malls and modern conveniences on steroids. Yet, as money ticked over in my parking meter and I raced against the clock to get my paperwork completed before the consulate closed, I couldn’t help but wonder what has been the price of such progress? When commonsense and basic courtesy, gets railroaded by over officious rules and inane procedures.  It may well be one of the poorest countries in the world, but I will miss the civility of Tanzania

8 Responses to “Postscript- On a serious note: What Empathy Has Taught Me…About Poverty”
  1. Blake says:

    Great article Nat….thanks for sharing and for making a difference. We often need a reality check as to what is most important in life…cheers, Blake, Fi and Xavier

    • Hey Blake, nice to hear from you and thank you for your comment. Happy Father’s Day is in order I believe? Your first? Congratulations on your achievements with Pay It Forward Day, I am not sure if you have any contacts here in Switzerland, but I may be able to do something at school when it comes around. Hope you and the family are all well. nat

  2. Soukeina says:

    Natalie, I loved reading your insightful observations about Tanzania and its people! I concur with your sentiments and my heart pangs when I remember the genuine warmth and love that Tanzanian people always seemed to have in limitless abundance!

    • Thank you Soukeina for your message. I think Tanzania is perhaps very unique in that way. Wonderful and warm people. I learnt a lot from my time there. I am enjoying living in Europe, but there is definitely something missing in my day, bright smiles, friendly greetings and infectious laughter is a little harder to encounter in strangers here.

  3. Viv says:

    Just discovered your blog. Wow! It’s amazing. You are personally responsible for me having done no work at all today. Who cares about marking internal assessments?! Made me laugh, made me cry, made me think. Thanks for so eloquently capturing the spirit of Africa. It’s so easy to stop seeing these things, so thanks for helping open my eyes! Sounds like you’re having a good time in Switzerland too – obviously very very different! Got to go pick Kyle up from school and get him to bed so I can continue reading…

    • Viv, don’t even go there blaming me for the marking 🙂 Glad you enjoyed and sorry I made you cry. I started the blog when I arrived in Dar. I was writing a blog every month while there. So far Europe has not inspired me in the same way, but I shall give it time. Nice to get your message and send Kyle a big HELLO for me. nat

  4. Elizabeth Fong says:

    Hi Natalie, Colin introduced me to your blog yesterday and this morning I have just read your article on empathy. What a wonderful person you have become and how wonderful that you know yourself so well. You had me in tears. Well like Viv I think the remainder of my day has been decided.

    • Hi Liz, Nice to hear from you. Thanks for your message. I love writing about my travels and mostly do it for myself and my family back home, and it is nice to share the experiences with others. Living in Switzerland has been quite the change from Tanzania and I have not been as inspired to write since moving here. I will try to find the time to get back in to it. I often read the blog on empathy, it reminds me how important it is no matter where I am living. Sadly, I don’t encounter enough of it. Hope to catch up one day back in Sydney. Nat x

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