To be totally honest, I didn’t think a beauty salon business was going to make the most compelling ‘poverty alleviation’ story I’d ever seen. Um – why are people in this highly disadvantaged part of the world popping off for a manicure? Surely they have better things to be doing with their money?
This, I confess, is the narrative running through my sweat-addled brain as we haul up in a hilly neighbourhood outside West Timor’s capital of Kupang, where motorbikes clog the winding streets and the air is thick with humidity. And then I meet Ana and Aron, clearly delighted but also a bundle of nerves to host us in the small home they share with their four year old son Ryder (…I know. I’m not sure where that came from, but Ryder is wearing Power Ranger shorts pulled up to his chin, and he’s entirely awesome).
It’s a beautiful house, tended with loving hands. Stones line the paths; there are handmade shell windchimes and mobiles; plants and colourful pots are carefully arranged around the door. Whatever else you think you know about ‘people living in poverty’, plant this one right here: creatives are creative no matter where you find them and how much money they have to “spare”.
Simple humanity is a complex thing to deal with. Taking in the scene of creative domesticity before me, a handmade wind-chime hits hard: you are like me. You value beauty and self expression. It’s life-giving. You’ll fight to preserve it no matter what. And that makes you no longer ‘other’ – the poor West Timorese woman – but a mum like me, finding the hopeful and the happy, the quirky, in the midst of the mess.
Many of us are curiously reluctant to acknowledge simple humanity in people who have less – the right to leisure time, investment in beauty, choice. Somewhere deep and un-named there’s a sense that surely every cent, every moment should be spent surviving. Yet here’s the truth: the same tiny fires of elation are lit in hearts everywhere by things we all share – the joy of making something perfect with your own hands; the first smile of a child; sunsets, stars and potted plants.
These are the vital reminders that we are all human, equally wonderful and worthwhile but not equally resourced. Why? A simple toss of the dice places some of us here and others there. And this is a deeper challenge to us than simply being able to hand out cash or charity to ‘the deserving poor’ – for whom we can feel sorry because they’re so unlike us. It serves up some bigger questions and unsettles us deeply.
Ana, it turns out, has a spinal birth defect that means she stands only 1.3metres tall – she’s tiny and has struggled all her life with pain. She walks a little unevenly but she’s tenacious. Her husband Aron and son Ryder both have eyesight problems – Aron is functionally blind and Ryder has recently had cataract operations. He turns his head like a little bird to follow the sound of our voices and gallantly attempts to see us using his unaffected peripheral vision. The three of them sit close on a bench outside their home and tell us about the business they run together.
Beauty and massage, they tell us, are the heart of their work – hair cuts and shampoos and sometimes nails; massages for tourists and people who need them for health reasons. Not everyone in West Timor lives on $2 a day. They came up with the idea because Aron is good with his hands and can work easily without sight. He has a mobile phone, fully voice equipped – while we’re talking he takes a message and lines up an appointment, shyly chuffed to be able to show his business in action. He has strong hands, Ana tells us, also proud of her husband. And her passion is for cutting and styling – people will always need haircuts.
The low-interest business loan the pair manage through TLM – the social services agency of the Protestant Church in West Timor – was a godsend. It meant the family could turn a small profit – afford Ryder’s cataract operation, restore the well that is their only water supply, invest in the equipment they both need for their businesses, and also to plan for the kind of schooling Ryder will need as a child with a disability.
Because make no mistake about it – life for people with disabilities in the developing world is beyond tough. No social security. No NDIS. No respite, counselling or advice from experts. Ana, Aron and Ryder are pretty much on their own in a city where eating means working – crooked spine, sightless eyes, whatever your challenge.
Here’s what’s impressive about this model of poverty prevention: microfinance loans give people the skills and confidence to run businesses in a vast range of areas, doing stuff that they know other people need. It allows them the dignity of real work – and in Ana and Aron’s case – creative work that gives them what’s clearly a certain amount of joy. And why should we, in the ‘let’s go to Uni, choose our careers and live happy, fulfilled lives’ be the only ones to experience that? Why shouldn’t Ryder, in his hand-me-down Power Ranger pants, have the same dreams as our own kids?
Here’s the confronting truth of the human condition – any one of us could be Ana or Aron. Opening our hearts and hands to this reality is freeing – helping us to live with solidarity, generosity and simplicity; assessing how much we really need to be happy; and where and how we find beauty. It’s in standing together to bring life to each other that we discover what it means to be fully human.
UnitingWorld is a valued partner of the Australian Government, receiving flexible funding under the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) each year to implement development and poverty alleviation programs overseas. Every donation you make to this project will be combined with funding from the Australian government to reach more people. We have committed to contribute $1 for every $5 we receive from the Australian government. Your donation will allow us to extend our programs.
That means your gift will go five times as far toward ending poverty and providing dignity for families like Ana and Aron’s in West Timor, Bali and Zimbabwe.