The Face of Poverty (revisited, 2015)

This was Dickson ten years ago: a typical village of fifty households in the African country Malawi. Photographed and described, five short years after the United Nations in September 2000 embraced their Millennium Development Goals, of which halving poverty and hunger by the end of 2015 is by far the most important one.

We met Hammard Andsen, penniless but the ‘richest’ man of the village. And Margerita Rafael, who lost eleven of her fifteen children shortly after birth. We looked at Matrida Radael, one of the many women in the village who have been abandoned by their husbands. We met Luka Eliamu, the only villager who owns a book: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.

I portrayed members from nearly all the 46 households in their largest – usually also the only – room of their mud house. Surrounded by their meager possessions. Dignified but exceptionally poor. Journalist Dick Wittenberg described their daily lives. Their plans, their concerns, their shame. Their heroic attempts to lead an ordinary life.

There was a famine in the village at that time. The corn harvest, which was to provide eighty percent of the annual food, had failed due to lack of rain. Daily life showed the essence of everyday poverty: lack of choice, no control over your own existence. Villagers did not have the option to cultivate their own land, so that the following year they would, in any case, have something to eat. Hunger forced them to hunt for food. Villagers with a sick baby could not go to the doctor for lack of money for medicines. A woman did not have the freedom to say ‘no’ to a man. His food supply, however small, would be her salvation.

Publication of text and photographs in the monthly magazine M from the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad garnered more than 600 letters to the editor – a record number for this newspaper. The cover story under the headline ‘The face of poverty ‘ had touched its readers deeply. A spontaneous fundraiser among those readers raised nearly 80,000 euro. This money was used over a period of five years to support the village, in the form of corn, fertilizer and water pumps. During that period, Dick Wittenberg returned to the village eight times. A committee of readers was set up to make sure the money was spent in a meaningful manner.

Recently (April-May 2015), more than ten years later, Dick Wittenberg and I returned to Dickson. Just before the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals expires. How do things stand now, ten years later? Have the lives of the people improved? Has the help led to something? Has the poverty and hunger level been halved, as the United Nations had in mind?

Dick Wittenberg describes how the villagers’ lives have unfolded over the last decade. Who traveled to the United States for heart surgery? Who had to flee the village because he was accused of witchcraft? Who first appeared in the moonlight to dance? Who sewed a complete school uniform within an hour? And which scandal consumed the entire village?

For the book (in Dutch), click here.