”To me, poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed from the tallest tree in a tiny flowerpot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted; only the soil base that you gave it is inadequate.” – Muhammad Yunus
Before leaving for South Africa my brother introduced me Muhammad Yunus. Muhammad Yunus attended Vanderbilt University on a Fulbright scholarship to study economics, later founding Grameen Bank earning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and publishing Creating a World Without Poverty and Building Social Business. Though one of the most influential people of our time I only just got around to reading up on his approach to capitalism developing a sustainable economical solution to poverty.
We are often lost in the theme and definition of sustainability, it doesn’t mean the motivation to do good will doesn’t exist, but perhaps mislead sending productivity gyrating. Frequently we are caught up in our own world based off what is around us, as Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa we habitually jump from first world to third world in the same day. It is easy to forget what it feels like to give when wrapped up by the hastening pace and accustoms of the first world. I am hoping in my eventual return to the states these constant movements between places will have taught me how to keep both, what I have gained in the village while being able to approach Western World challenges. Whether PCVs are traveling, visiting home again or just approached by others confused by what we do and why we do it we constantly have to explain, defend and shed light on our service. Yes, it’s our job to encourage these conversations to build a bridge and draw those connections hoping that we may understand others and they may understand us and at times they are even enlightening, but just as much repeatedly frustrating. Maybe it is because we ourselves don’t have it figured out. We want to be selfless, understand, give and grow, but some days we also want to forgo the morning bucket bath routine or even the ripened mango pulled from a tree and make our way into a Starbucks to order a special holiday season pumpkin spiced latte (otherwise known as coffee) and an organic granola raspberry parfait (otherwise known as yogurt). Sure we gave into another corporate breakfast sponsored by yours truly America, but it feels ok because not only do we get to pretend not to notice our co-worker’s envious eyes, but the cup is biodegradable and we donated our 82 cents from our five dollar latte change to St. Elizabeth’s Children’s Footwear in Somewhere Fund. Part of me is glad there is no Starbucks, even I assure you in Cape Town, but it isn’t easy to give up all we have and all we know. Fortunately PCVs gather come holiday gather to release these tensions at an equal level whether that be signing up for an ultra-marathon, jumping off a 216 meter bridge with a rope tied to your ankles, riding an ostrich or gathering for a wine-tasting of South Africa’s finest and cheapest selection (5 Liter box for about $8). On a more serious note, I think we do it not because Christmas is now summer vacation, but because we know it could have been us.
When we make compost you need the right ingredients to get the best out of it, green leaves, dried leaves, manure, newspaper, maybe food scraps, and only by chance does that one random watermelon seed get dropped among the rich dark soil. When a child grows it needs the right support, education, tools and opportunities to be able solve problems, analyze issues, work in social situations and excel altogether. It isn’t about potential because the potential of each child is immeasurable from birth, it exists within each fertilized egg, but opportunity is different.
“Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds, but society never gave them the proper base to grow in. All it takes to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them. Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.”
How do we enable such an environment? I am still working on it, but Muhammad Yunus’s proposal on social business has been a growing affair saving the lives of millions, stirring up our profit versus charity conventional business system. Through a reanalysis of the word success and readjusting the management our economic system, having seen its failure, to make the resources we already have accessible to those in the poorest areas stimulating a new economy base we could live in a different world. I would be doing an injustice to anyone by quoting Muhammad’s articulate words any further, nor am I trying to write a sophisticated book report to dishearten my former professors almost two years out of college with an English classified somewhere between American, South African, British and village. So I will leave you here and hopefully carry some new thoughts with along with me through this unpredictable Peace Corps journey.
Mi Sala Kahle