A revolution of the heart

“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” – Nelson Mandela

Limpopo is the poorest province in South Africa. It falls into clear last place for all the areas of the 2011 South African Census, save a few times where it lands is an almost indistinguishable second-to-last place behind the Eastern Cape. These indicators include:

  • The highest proportions of people aged 20 years and older with no schooling with 17.3% (nearly twice the national average).

  • Only 50% of houses have electricity for cooking, heating and lighting

  • The proportion of households with access to refuse removal by local authority/private company at least once a week: 21.8%

  • Highest unemployment rate at 38.9%

  • Lowest average household income of 57000 ZAR a year (the equivalent of ~5700 USD)

Statistics about poverty are shamefully unmoving. In my experience, they manage to obscure our understanding of poverty more than they hone it. Though it is necessary to measure poverty to be able to sustainably address it, they way that we talk about these numbers becomes crucial to their capacity to retain any meaning in people’s lives.

I personally find it very hard to talk about poverty in a genuine way. As well versed as I am in its indicators and its consequences, it is incredibly hard to make poverty relatable. Like the plague, we know it ought to be avoided but we’re unsure whether its so bad that we should do our part to protect everyone from it or if we’re just obliged to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

The existence of poverty begs the question of what we are entitled to. Is the fact that you own private property more significant than you living in a country where you can own private property? Does the fact that you qualify for medical insurance mean you deserve it more than others? How impressive is your bachelor’s degree if you didn’t have to pay for it?

I can imagine that a quick answer to many of these questions would be something along the lines of “I worked for it.” And you’re right, I believe! Or at least you are partly right.

You are right that it is hugely significant that you could work to gain something that would better your life. The right to work is necessary but not sufficient to eliminating poverty. The right to productive work is.

One of the most important pathways to productive work is education, and the University of Venda represents just that in the lives of their students. In the poorest province in South Africa, UNIVEN offers a way out of poverty to some of the young people in their communities by offering more affordable tuition than almost anywhere else in the country. All of the students that we have worked with this summer belong to the most popular program at the university, the School of Nursing.

If you were to transplant nurses in Limpopo to the States they would be a closer equivalent to Nurse Practitioner-Midwives than to nurses. These young men and women are trained to do everything–and I really mean everything. One of the first conversations I had with our friend Rendani, I asked him what his clinical curriculum had been like.

“Well for starters,” he said, “I’ve already delivered more than thirty babies on my own.” I was floored.

“Thirty?!” I asked, incredulous.

“Thirty,” he answered, amused at my disbelief.

Whether they themselves are religious or not, the nurses and nursing students that I have met in South Africa practice Christianity in the sense I feel it most to be true:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

The only thing that I am sure of is at this point is that the challenge of grappling with poverty is not so much a question of the head as it is of the heart. To borrow again from Dorothy Day:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?