I grew up in poverty. There is this vivid childhood memory of how my parents count copper coins before a trip to the supermarket. The amount is hardly enough to buy basic foods like bread, rice or potatoes. We eat whatever we can afford, it is enough to survive. These hard times last weeks, months or maybe forever, I don’t know. I am still a 12-year-old. I fear my friends will find out I am poor. I bend over every time my father drives me to school with his embarrassing Lada wagon.
One day my dad brings cheese. White, moist, salty feta cheese. Its umami taste explodes inside my mouth. I haven’t tasted cheese in months. In this moment, I am happy. Our situation seems to get better. A lively spark flickers in my father’s eyes. He pulls wads of money from his pockets. It is finally over. I imagine all the nice clothes I never had, all the delicious food I never tried, all the family vacations my parents never took me to. I can have a normal life now and this is all I want.
My happiness lasts until I find out where all the money came from. He has just sold our apartment. From this moment on, we don’t even have a home. We have to move with my grandparents. Goodbye, nice apartment, farewell dreams and hello cockroach-filled Soviet-style-furnished grandma’s flat. Up until this moment, I wasn’t ashamed to at least invite my friends over. Now I can’t even do that.
At least I did well when it came to studying. Two years later, I am admitted to one of the most prestigious high schools in my country. But I can’t keep up with my classmates and their expensive phones, parties, designer shoes, well-groomed looks. I am the poor kid among the rich ones. But for some reason, I make friends who love and respect me. They know I am different, even when I never let it show, never ask for favors or complain.
After graduation, the poor kid goes to study in London. My parents sell some of their inherited land so that I can afford to have this education. But their money only lasts for a year in the costly metropolis. Life gets even harder when I am responsible for paying my own bills, borrowing student loans, finding a temp job that doesn’t suck and handling all that while getting high grades. Quitting is easy, success is pure pain. Nevertheless, I choose the continue hiking difficult road.
At the age of 26, I managed to become an Account Manager at an international software company, Co-chair of a political party and a Travel Writer who has lived in four countries and traveled to many other. I am no longer waiting for someone else to bring cheese to my table. I go to Switzerland and eat fondue if I want to. ‘Poverty is not an excuse for failure. Do something,’ says Auma Obama. But somehow I had realized the meaning of these words when I was a child.
Poverty is not something we should identify with. We should view it as a temporary situation that can be changed. Being poor made me the creative and strong person I am today and for that I am grateful. Poverty taught me to set goals instead of having dreams, to go after what I want instead of waiting for it to come and to recognize the genuine people in my life. It was never an excuse not to do something, it was my motivation.
Featured photo: public domain by Danielle MacInnes