“Mama, What is Poor?”

After picking up my daughter from school, we pulled up to a red light where homeless people with signs were begging for money. My four year old daughter sat up in her car seat to take a look, and then quizzically frowned.

Her: What is he doing?

Me: He’s asking for money. Remember, I told you that some people don’t have a place to stay? So they ask for money.

Her: But why do they need money?

Me: They need it to buy food and get a place to stay… because they’re poor.

After a contemplative pause, my daughter resigned to her car seat and had one last question.

Her: Mama, what is “poor”?

 My daughter is naturally curious, and one answer only begets  follow-up questions, so we’re used to having in-depth conversations about everything from why she isn’t allowed to say bad words, why an omnipotent God won’t give in to her whimsical requests, why we need law enforcement, and recently, why some people experience suffering while she doesn’t.

That day, her question brought me to tears because at points in my childhood, we were not only poor, but lived in poverty without food, running water, or electricity. While staying with my father in Nairobi, I knew what it was like to accept that we would go to bed hungry, after staying up late waiting and hoping he would come home with food. What it was like to walk several miles to a relative’s house to ask for a meal, daily. I knew the shame of being sent home from school, for weeks at a time, because my father could not afford the school fees. What it was like to own just one dress, which I only took off to wash, and then waited in my undergarment as it dried in the sun.

This past year, I transitioned from working in public health research to start my own business. The journey to entrepreneurship has been a lesson in humility, introspection, and self-awareness, where I was no longer privy to all perceived comforts provided by a lucrative corporate career. My career was going to be an extension of my values and centered in service to my community, and I would do whatever it took to see this through.

This transition also meant financial strain, and like many entrepreneurs before me, making the best out of very little, and being happy with the passionate work as the reward. That’s how I have survived this past year, barely able to stretch my budget to cover expenses, yet my daughter still had to ask me what poor is.

Her articulating how foreign the concept was moved me deeply and I knew for sure that I will never be the same. I had to tell her what the word poor means because she had never come close to even being familiar with it. No matter how tough this year has been, in that conversation with my four year old, I was reminded of the cards I was dealt, and how I have played the hand.

There are painful stories my daughter will grow up hearing about but may never experience and for that, I am lucky, grateful and almost privileged.

Plus she learned a new word.


This post is dedicated to my wonderful daughter who when asked how she was doing on Thanksgiving, responded: “Everything in my life is good”. I believe her.

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  1. Absolutely awesome!

  2. alicia cohen says:

    I’m moved. You briefly told me the story about your daughter last week but seeing the whole story moved me more. Now, we have our work cut out for us to ensure our children here and around the world can take “poor” or poverty out of their lives and vocabulary in our lifetime.
    What a challenge!

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