I’m pretending to be poor when I’m really not.
The concept of a two dollar challenge draws criticism for this very reason. The argument stands that imitating a state of poverty does nothing but sling mud in the face of those who are actually living on less than $2 a day. It’s degrading and humiliating, as it would be for a man to sit on his legs and act like an amputee. I remind myself that I get to return to the shelter of health insurance and a plump bank account once this experience is over; a blessing many people do not have waiting for them when things get tough. Simulating a state of hardship will never allow me to actually know what its like to be poor, since I will always have a different set of circumstances at my back.
The argument has merit. So because the goal of the challenge is unattainable and the way in which I go about it is a form of disrespect to the truly poor, I ought to articulate why it is I’m doing it anyway. I found myself a deer in the headlights when confronted by this very problem, sitting in a small clothing shop downtown.
The Chambi family had worked hard for over fifteen years establishing their network of relatives who made hand crafted clothes in central Cuzco. Mr. Chambi had just finished telling me about his brand new export business of textiles, when he asked me why I was interviewing them. I told him it was for a project. I had been visiting the store once a week and had bought two articles of clothing. For the first time he turned to me and asked “What’s the project?”
That’s when it hit me what I was doing, and how I would have to explain myself. I would have to talk to him about the kind of poverty that his friends and family had possibly suffered through. And I’d have to inform him that I was treating it like a video game. I’ve struggled with the broader ethics of it, which seem lost in the grey zone, but on a personal level I know why I participate.
If I had the power to return to that moment, I would tell Mr. Chambi that it was a project to remind me, and those who I can reach with this blog, of what it takes to live on less. We take water for granted until we go to the desert. We take our friends for granted until they leave. The kind of sparkling and wonder we find when something is taken away and then brought back to us, gives us an entirely new respect for the thing itself. Suddenly we find an admiration that is potent and inalienable to the point where we treat it differently than we did before. For me, struggling on two dollars a day is to look through the invisible barrier at real life poverty and have the spectacle of human perseverance brought back into my line of sight. It shows me that even though I am experiencing the challenge, I do not know true hardship. Yes, in a way I am making fun of poor people. But walking into the home of someone who is poor, I never want to judge him or her on their belongings, their income, or their mannerisms. I want to see the strength it really takes to face poverty, as I do through the invisible barrier. I want to marvel at their embodiment of it, like water in a desert.
PS – Shawn Humphrey, creator and founder of TDC, recently posted a very insightful blog about this very subject.
And should I actually be taking pictures of people I interview? La Ceiba’s Santi Sueiro recently shared an interesting article on the subject.