Throughout my schooling, I held a very stereotyped understanding of poverty. To my conditioned and ignorant mind, poverty was indigenous only to developing countries on the other end of the Arabian Sea, in the form of malnourished children or large, underprivileged families dwelling in slums struggling to get by. An incident then occurred that forever altered my perception of poverty and made me realize how much poor people are deprived of what we so thoughtlessly take for granted.
A few years ago my family and I were in Mecca for Umrah, the minor pilgrimage undertaken by Muslims. There was a row of shops across the road from the Grand Mosque, amongst which was an ice cream vendor. The only product he seemed to be selling (and selling well) was a cone with three multi-coloured scoops of ice-cream—red, green and yellow, like a faulty traffic light—stacked atop each other, all for the price of a single Saudi Riyal (less than a 100 fils in Kuwaiti currency). I recall my eyes widening in amazement on hearing the price; it seemed unbelievable even then. Every afternoon after leaving the mosque for lunch, my sister and I would dart across the courtyard, our fists clutching crisp Riyal notes, to slurp on the delicious ice-cream in the hope of gaining some respite from the blistering heat of July.
As I was walking towards the ice-cream man on our third day in Mecca, I noticed a little boy gazing at me. A street urchin dressed in worn-out clothes, he’d wandered off from his family that lived some distance away on the street. Having had a sheltered upbringing in Kuwait, I had never witnessed poverty in the Gulf. It was hard for me to comprehend that it could exist in a city such as Mecca as well.
The boy’s thin face called out to me and I began to feel ashamed. He could use the money to buy something to eat, something that was substantially more wholesome than a three-scoop ice-cream. I hesitated for a split-second, then handed him my Riyal note.
The boy’s face broke into a smile as he took the note. Then he dashed towards the shops and bought himself an ice-cream.
I was stunned. In my naivety, it had never occurred to me that poor people could desire anything more than the basic essentials of food, clothing and shelter. It was a humbling lesson and I have never forgotten it.
Since then, I’ve been a bit more observant about the plight of the poor in Kuwait. They may not be living on the streets, but they do exist. Through some of my friends, I’ve learned that we can get pretty creative in our compassion and charity. Charity doesn’t have to be restricted to handing out a percentage of your salary at the end of each month or dropping spare change in one of those fund collection jars that are so strategically placed at a store’s cash counter. Whether it’s handing a pack of juice to a cleaner at the beach, dropping off a carton of water at a construction site, donating clothes, toys and linen to your maid, or just smiling at a stranger, there are plenty of altruistic acts you can perform. The joy of giving is infectious—gather your friends and do some good together; prepare a few dishes and offer them to a local mosque in time for futoor.
Back in kindergarten, I remember being taught to carry out three good deeds daily. Most of us may not have such a great record (I don’t). Let’s change that. Grab any opportunity that may come by to nurture your humanity; make it a habit to carry out random acts of kindness every day and you’ll feel your stress and worries melt away into nothingness. More importantly, you’ll ignite a spark of good cheer in the people you show kindness to and people that witness your deed may be inspired to follow your example, thus creating a chain of good deeds.
Sometimes, change begins with one person. One person at a time.