You have poor people in America?

The attention I had been paying to carefully pick my way along this mud pie of a road was shattered for just a second as I wrestled with how to answer, and I could only wince as I felt the cold trickles of muddy water oozing into my boot from the ankle deep puddle. “You have poor people in America?” The obvious answer was yes, but I knew from experience at this point that that wasn’t going to cut it for Patricia.

Trekking along beside me in her pink flip flops, the past 20 minutes had been one question after another; comparing and contrasting everything from how good mangos tasted in Kenya (amazing!) to how they tasted in the US, to the state of the roads in New Orleans compared to Kisumu (sadly very similar). The only word I could think of that accurately described Patricia’s desire to KNOW things was “voracious”. Despite being the youngest of the women, it was obvious that this combination of insatiable curiosity and boldness had earned her the respect of the other representatives.

Every question so far had turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg, and even with the simplest of them Patricia seemed to have something deeper she was trying to uncover. Even the question of whether America had chickens had turned into a discussion on “Free Range” farming techniques. And THAT had lead to questions of how to run a business like a chicken farm.

As I finished shaking off my boot I looked over to at her piercing gaze and wondered if this was how a towel felt when someone tried to wring water out of it.

And, so gave the only answer I thought she might be satisfied with.

”It depends on how you define poor.”

I could tell from the way she started toying with that one loose thread on the hem of her shirt that my answer had really gotten her thinking. And if the deep wrinkles between her eyes were any indication, this new question seemed to be something of a dilemma.

“How can you have more than one poor? Poor is Poor.”

As I opened my mouth to answer her I realized that the look of concentration on her face had only intensified and sure enough she started to answer her own question.

“I went to some school but not all. I don’t want what you see in the movies, that’s too big. I’m starting too low. But I have some things that others don’t, am I poor? I have a cow now because of our women’s group, I run my shop and I earn my own money, does that mean I’m rich? “

As we continued our walk to the small farm run by OLPS she continued to wrestle with the concepts of wealth and poverty. With only a few comments here and there from me she quickly progressed from the stereo typical images of Africa being poor, and the West being wealthy to questions about health systems, government programs, retirement plans. As I told her about some of the homeless people in New Orleans who had lost everything in storms she seemed particularly disturbed and her questions took on a new angle.

“No one should have no home. Wont someone take them in?”

“If they have no food can they farm?”

“What if the land is empty can they use it?”

As we reached the gates of the farm Patricia thanked me and went to join the other women gathering wood to start the cook fire. But I could tell from the tightness around her eyes, and the distracted look as she joined the women that the wheels were still turning.

By the time I had finished touring the farm with Anastasia and Eric I had almost forgotten about Patricia’s earlier questions. All I could think about was the wonderful smell of cooking chicken wafting over from the fire pit made out of an old broken water tank. But as we sat down at the table that had been pulled out of the farm’s little office, Patricia pulled her chair right up close to mine. With a conspiratorial look she leaned in close and in a single sentence taught me something I hope I will never forget.

 “Poor is when you can’t make a difference, I am not poor.”