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Poverty is Also a Mindset

As much as poverty is expressed through the people who live out their lives in lack, without regular income, with little or no food, and poor housing conditions, poverty is also about mindsets.

Thought patterns and personal beliefs, when attached firmly to hopelessness, can act as heavier chains than the physical presence of poverty itself. Mindsets are based upon want and lack of satisfaction. Some people can break free of these beliefs when given the opportunity, but others find they can’t see their way out, even when they are encouraged and have others offering open hands and hearts.

Living in Cambodia, I have been able to meet and assist people who live in poverty. I’ve found that most of these lovely people are honest, hard workers, who are smart and full of innovation, but unfortunately, there has been little or no opportunity for them as they seek to break free of poverty.

I’ve shared time with humble rice farmers with rough-hewn features engraved by the Khmer elements, earning little more than $1 a day. I’ve played volleyball with kids who hunt their local streets for recyclables, their little frames slim and slight, missing the bulk that their developing bodies would have grown had they had enough nutrition. These young ones scour the streets in the hope of making enough so they can buy fish sauce and rice for their families to eat each day. I’ve visited sick people with shrunken bellies and broken hearts, people who couldn’t afford medical treatment for the most basic of aliments, but instead have followed cheap folk remedies only to be left fighting for their lives.

These images and experiences will stay with me long after I am home in Australia.

A local Cambodian friend of mine works with people trapped in poverty. He teaches and trains people so they can provide for themselves. At least a few times a month, he visits provincial communities working to change mindsets.

He teaches people how to grow vegetables.

Simple and basic family-grown vegetables. Staple things like cucumber, tomatoes and beans.

World-changing stuff.

These training days are open for anybody to attend. They use the local church as a resource center, where people are invited to learn new skills and receive assistance, as they require it.

The problem is that many of the people my friend works with don’t see the need for providing for themselves. They believe his ideas are too hard to do, that they can’t possibly have the time or ability to grow their own food. That’s what farms are for, and if you want to grow vegetables you should go work for the people who own the farms. It is truly surprising to see how common this mindset and thought pattern is.

It’s like a curse, sapping the foresight of people caught in the trap of poverty.

Local loan agencies have caught on to this lackluster vision some of these people share. Regularly nice- and healthy-looking people wearing clean-cut suits knock on doors and visit homes. They represent their businesses with a level of class and style, the type of ease that their prospective customers could only dream of. These visitors observe the poor living conditions of these families, and they offer assistance: loans.

To encourage success, these loan-pushers make a show of the cash they are offering—often flashing hundreds of dollars in front of the families, politely making their offers: “If you’d only sign on to our loan, I could give you this today.” “You look like you could really use this.” “All I need is a signature, that’s a small price to pay for this money, isn’t it?”

People are reminded that they are poor, they need handouts and they can think of the now and let the future worry about itself. As the loans rack up, these people are being tempted to live above their means. Even though they have no way of paying back the organizations they loan from (especially with the high interest rates), many of the families fail to budget any of their money, leaving themselves open to loss of land and home.

In some of the most exploited areas, people lose their family land, only to be employed at a pittance to maintain that very land by the people and organizations that take it from them.

When my friend conducts his seminars in the provincial areas, he often starts with a question: “Who considers themselves poor here today?”

Usually 90 percent of the group raises their hands.

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He then asks, “Why are you poor?”

The most common answer; “Because I don’t have any family land left to sell.”

This is his launching pad into breaking mindsets. Most of the people aren’t poor because they don’t have more resources to sell, but because they haven’t received the needed education to best manage their current resources. They have lacked most the opportunity to learn how to develop their family’s ability to produce. 

Sometimes, when I hear my friend at these seminars, I feel like he’s changing me as much as he’s working to change others. He’s giving me the vision to break out of my own faulty mindset; one where I’ve spent based solely on my wants. I’ve carried a certain type of poverty in my own personal mindset. One where I expect to have my individual desires met at all times. Where I expect assistance or even handouts to see it happen.

But here in Cambodia, I’m presented with people who have real and dire needs.

Money helps for a little while. But once it’s gone, what are we left with?

Money, when used in union with a vision for the future and a healthy mindset, can see people through hard times.

Giving people the means to produce for themselves, and the belief that they can break free of poverty. Like the credit card advertisement says: priceless.

Chris Foster is an Australian living in Cambodia.

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