I was twelve years old when I learned what poverty was.
Oh, I knew what poor was before that—in theory at least. The poor were some group of people out there with smaller houses, simpler food, less free time. They were people who worked a lot and shared a lot and made do without a lot. But I had never seen poverty with my own eyes. I lived in a bubble, one where “poor” meant you only had two TV’s instead of five; only two small cars instead of a monster truck, an SUV, and a hybrid; only hand-me-downs instead of brand names.
In 2001, Argentina suffered an economic collapse that left over half—over half—its population in poverty. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of the middle class lost their entire life savings. They plunged into poverty; those already impoverished sunk even further. Six years later, when our family moved to Argentina, the severe detriment was still evident, even to my young eyes.
Our family was in the car, driving to a meeting beyond the outskirts of Buenos Aires, in the country. I don’t remember our conversation, I don’t remember what day it was, I don’t remember how long we had been living there—
But I will never forget what I saw that day.
Sitting in the back left of our van, I casually glanced out the window next to me, did a double-take, and froze.
Beyond the strip of dirt and grass bordering the highway was a swamp. Rising out of the murky waters was an enormous landfill, hill after hill after hill of lifetimes upon lifetimes of garbage.
But it wasn’t the swamp or the landfill that made my heart stop.
It was the people.
It was the houses.
It was the poverty.
On top of this swamp and years and years of garbage were shacks—four walls made of who knows what, held together who knows how, but clearly inhabited. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked at one—so decrepit a structure that I wouldn’t have recognized it for a living space had it not been for the people coming in and out of it. Children scrambled over piles of trash. Countless birds wheeled over the place, a few diving every now and then to retrieve some scrap.
Stunned, I looked around at the rest of my family and said, “Look!”
My mom nodded her head and said, “It’s sad, isn’t it?”
No gasp, no shock, nothing—I was completely taken aback. How could it be that she wasn’t horrified as I was? Was it possible that this scene was echoed all over the world? That this wasn’t an isolated occurrence? That millions of people across the globe lived in these conditions?
That was the day I learned what poverty truly was. I’ve never forgotten.
While I loved the three years I lived in Argentina, it was always heartbreaking to see the extreme poverty. I believe everyone should be given the chance at a decent life, one built of dreams and aspirations, a life of security and thus a chance at lasting happiness. But the impoverished never even get a shot. The heartbreak came from knowing that those children playing in the landfill might never know a life of fulfillment, a life beyond the confines of their misfortune. The heartbreak came from feeling powerless to help.
With Mentors International, it’s all about empowering.
I am an intern at Mentors International, a nonprofit organization that pairs business mentoring with microcredit to help impoverished entrepreneurs in developing countries.
By uniting affordable loans with teaching basic financial and business principles, Mentors gives impoverished entrepreneurs the tools needed to work themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty. The best help these people can get is someone teaching them to help themselves—giving them the gift of self-reliance. That is the solution to poverty, one that has changed thousands of lives, thanks to Mentors.
Written by Anika Argyle. Anika Argyle is an intern at Mentors International.