“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Someone once gave me a fish, and quite the opposite happened.
Blasting Through Barriers of Mindset
On my third trip to Kenya I met a woman we would call “poor.” Her name was Jane.
A few years before our meeting Jane was diagnosed with HIV. Shortly after she got very sick, her husband abandoned her and her children, and she eventually became so ill her friends took her the hospital to die. At the hospital she joined a program called WEEP. The program paid her medical costs while nursing her back to health, then taught her a marketable skill (sewing children’s school uniforms). In only 2 years Jane was able to build enough wealth through her business to provide her family’s basic needs and her own medical care. It was a remarkable story, and almost the verbatim story of every other woman we met in the WEEP program.
Jane invited us to her home (a shack in Kibera slum), where she told us another tale: The day she encountered her detestable landlord in the street and off-handedly wished she didn’t have to pay him “anything.” It sparked an idea, and within weeks she started a second business: selling omena (nasty-smelling fish you fry and eat by the handfuls) in the slum streets to workers returning home each evening. Within the year (she happily told us with a sly smile) she saved enough money to buy her shack from her landlord.
Inspired by her accomplishment, she then decided to keep the business going and months later bought the shack next door as well — from the same landlord. She now rents it to other women in the WEEP program.
The Meaning of Poverty
I swear that smile didn’t leave Jane’s face for a nanosecond. I sat there smiling too, and in my little Western brain thought to myself, What a great story… Too bad it’s not possible in the States — everything is so expensive.
That instant a smarter self whispered, It’s exactly the same.
Jane wasn’t the one in poverty. I was.
I was the one held back by a mindset of scarcity. While Jane spent her days proudly walking the streets of her slum, single-handedly destroying the stigma of AIDS in her taboo-splitting trousers with a brilliant smile, I huddled in my ‘misfortune’ in a pseudo-suburban flat, wondering why O why I couldn’t find a job where I could finally get “on top of the money”. At home I played the victim to my circumstances. Meanwhile, there was the victorious Jane in her little shack, serving foreigners tea in all her joyous freedom.
In that moment it clicked: I need to start my own business.
“Business” till then had been a profane word. I knew plenty of people who had started one and were either 1) broke and unhappy or 2) stressed and unhappy. As far as I believed, those were the options. It took a “poor” woman in garish secondhand trousers in Africa to teach me that I needed to learn to fish.