Sunday, July 04, 2010

Lessons in poverty

Lesson In Poverty
by Petra Gimbad

My father's first job was in a prawn factory. Being poor, all he had that was presentable for work was his school shirt. He turned up to discover that his job was shelling prawns. By the end of the day, his shirt was ruined.

I cried as a child when he told me the story. Even now, it is difficult to write about it when I imagine the pain he felt when he came home, exhausted, while peeling off his only collared shirt.

Growing up, I have often and silently questioned my father’s deep faith. He is the spiritual structure upon whom my family is built: insisting that we attend Sunday school and church.

Even now, there is something comforting about his presence. When he returns, it always feels right to attend mass together. He reminds me of certain things, primarily of the importance to returning to my humanity as a spiritual being.

In contrast to my father, I sometimes question the worth in holding faith or hope. I can see the value of hope to keep one going, but despite my belief that there is a God, I have no faith that everything works out for the best.

Recently, I had the fortunate experience challenging my views, by virtue of attending a child protection course at a theological seminary in Penang.

Part of a masters in holistic child development, this was good exposure to spiritual approaches to poverty and development. Most of my course-mates came from African and Asian countries.

Hungry for new perspectives on poverty and development, I devoured my roommate’s books at night. A lot of the analyses were uncomfortably simplistic, but some of the views resonated.

Poverty is not just material, it is also spiritual. The rich, too, feel loneliness and depression. The poor are not exempt from the love and warmth of family and friends.

I dislike immensely happy-clappy persons who declare, "As long as you have God and religion, all will be okay," – a view often propagated condescendingly by the upper and middle-classes.

Even a child from a loving family who plays happily in the streets of a red light district feels hunger, the lack of medical treatment and the shame being jeered at in school for his or her inability to perform academically through lack of affordable tuition.

However, I could not help but feel moved when an Ethiopian girl said, "To me, being in Malaysia is like paradise. In my country our water can be cut off any time, electricity is inconsistent. People there are not only poor, but they are destitute. But we do not feel poor, because we have Jesus."

Uncomfortably, I started to reflect on my father’s faith, as well as the masseuse who cared enough for my family to recite verses from the Quran and a close friend who brings refugees to Buddhist temples to pray.

A lecturer, who works with children who were trafficked and sold into sex slavery, challenged with the perspective that our lack of genuine connection in the world can be a cause of poverty.

Slowly, I started to see. When people practise compassion, kindness and justice on behalf of the other they stand a better chance of survival, even if they struggle. We must not gloss over the fact that being poor is a struggle.

He also questioned the school of thought that children who have been trafficked and sold into slavery are beyond redemption. Children can still feel happiness and we must hope. Otherwise, why do this work?

After the course, it was my father who picked me up at the station. He asked what I learnt. Grateful, I said I was thankful for the love and respect he holds for my mother. Had he philandered and left, its impact could have prevented us from becoming who we are today.

Humbled by his experience of poverty, one realises he holds an understanding of God and how society works to a depth that I may never comprehend.

He brought me home and we celebrated Father’s Day.

The author still learns from her father. Happy belated Fathers’ Day to all.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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