Monday, October 25, 2010


Heading for Donguila, as we passed through yet another Gabonese village, we saw a monkey (a skinny mandrill, to be specific) tied to a tree next to one of the houses. We are tourists, in the end, and an unexpected possibility of taking a cool monkey picture is always more then welcome. On our way home we thus stopped, got out of the car - camera all set in my bag - and approached the three men sitting in front of the house, in order to be issued an official photo permission. Here's what happened.

Three villagers in their thirties, forties or maybe fifties (in the case of African people it's impossible to tell!) were sitting in the yard of what we assumed was the house of at least one of them. They were chatting and drinking palm wine, which they merrily poured into tall glasses from a 10-litre canister they'd placed in the middle. After the usual hellos and howareyous, straightforward as we are, we asked if we could take a picture of their monkey. They laughed good-naturedly, said they had absolutely no problem with the plan but insisted that we sat down and at least had a chat with them, if not a glass of palm wine. Eager to get the photo, we sat.

They told us the story of Eulalie, the mandrill. She's been with us for six years, they said. She's nice if you give her a treat. Right. Poor monkey, I thought, and suddenly, as if reading my thoughts (or rather, sensing the word poor had passed through them), one of the men asked the last question we would have expected: What is poverty, my sister? (for some reason, he directed his philosophical problem at me). Luckily, it turned out to be a rhetorical question, for he soon started answering it himself.

His reasoning was not far from what I had discussed with Jandro a couple of days before, inspired by an article in the Polish magazine Polityka. The article, discussing the situation in the poorest countries of the world, featured a picture of an African man sitting in front of his wooden hut. This scene, so easily spotted in Gabon, was supposed to illustrate poverty and the resulting misery of those who live in similar conditions. And here we were, in the middle of such a gathering, sitting in front of a wooden hut, drinking palm wine from a canister - well, all right, we weren't exactly drinking - and it seemed we were among the happiest people on Earth.

What is poverty?, the man continued. In the media, they constantly talk about poverty. Am I poor, though? No! I have my house, which I like. I have a small plantation, where I work. I love nature, and I've taught myself to work and live on nature. I have palm wine with my friends on Sunday. I'm very happy. He explained how God had given all these goods to man, and how man must learn to profit from whatever God had given him. Because man had received so much from God! Surely, palm wine does make you much more grateful for whatever God has given you, but I suppose that the gist of what he said would not have changed under different circumstances.

This man, mind you, probably has one decent pair of shoes and his wooden hut has no floor. He lives on what his plantation brings him and makes the palm wine himself. Considering his living conditions, income and whatnot, any European would say he's poor. But... what is poverty? And why do we need all those statistics and spreadsheets to define it?

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