The Complexity Of Poverty

A brief look at the complexity of poverty through Sarah's story.


Unsurprisingly, I often find myself in conversations with people, chatting about the work I am a part of in Uganda. I love discussing the impact our work is having but I know that I have limited time with this person before the bus comes/the lecture starts/their kids start demanding they're hungry. Whatever the reason, the time I have is short. I'm sure you know what I mean, when we simplify our work to fit in a sentence, only to think but there is so much more to it. Even when I have 20 minutes in front of an audience, I can give a comprehensive overview of the work we do but only really hint at the complexity of the issues that often lie hidden.

So I am going to use this blog to talk about poverty, global development and the challenges we face as a Charity/NGO working in Uganda. I will be referring to books, podcasts, news articles, academic research, real life stories and conversations that my friends and I are having in Uganda and around the world. Even though poverty is complex, I will try my best to break it down into easy to grasp blog posts. I am not an expert, just someone who has something to say. I would love it if you could join in the conversation too; share your thoughts in the comment section below this blog post or on our Facebook page. We would also love for you to recommend interesting articles, books etc. on the subject that you think that we should read too.            

So lets get a taste of the complexity by hearing a story about Sarah.



Sarah lives with her family in Uganda. At the age of nine, she had to drop out of her school in the village because her mother, recently giving birth to her fifth child, can not afford to feed the whole family, never-mind send even one of her children to school. You don't have to pay fees to attend the local school but you do need to buy a uniform, school lunches, and each term present your teacher with three toilet rolls, two brooms and a ream of paper, which was simply not feasible. Sarah was disappointed to be away from the class, learning with all her friends but at least she had a couple of writing books and half a torn text book to keep her satisfied. (It didn't help that she had learnt to recognise some words because the text book was written in a completely different language). Shortly after her mum got pregnant with her latest child, Sarah's father disappeared from the family home. For years her parents struggled to earn enough money though farming their small plot to care for the family, so Sarah's father attempted to find work elsewhere. After realising he couldn't find anything in the village, he left for Kampala, the city of endless opportunities!

In the meantime, Mamma Sarah persisted in tilling her land because what other choice did she have. She certainly didn't get schooled as a child, education was for boys in her family. All she knows it tilling, planting, harvesting, repeat. Up before the sun, black tea for breakfast, newborn strapped to her back, cracked bare feet, soil between the toes, hoe in the air, sun overhead. At least she was able to put her two eldest children to work in the earth, Sarah being one of them.


A year after Sarah's father had left, he had returned with some money, and news of the job he had in the city, unloading matooke, the country's famed staple food, into the bustling, vibrant market. Six months later the family of seven had sold their plot of land in the village and moved to the city with hopes of a better life. They moved to an urban congested slum, a community of mud and brick rooms built on a drainage wasteland. Through the sale of their land and the income Tatta Sarah was receiving from his job, they were able to enrol their oldest three children into school, as well as comfortably provide a big meal of rice, matooke and beans per day. 

Sarah was 12 when her younger brother was withdrawn from school because money was getting tight and 13 when her brother was finally caught by a shop owner for stealing (something he did in between scavenging and selling large sacks of plastic bottles). By now Mamma Sarah was selling bananas in rows of traffic to provide a little extra income but it wasn't helping as much as she'd hoped. She kept being threatened by the council and police to never return to hawking on the streets because she was unlicensed but of course, she was illiterate and didn't know how to fill out forms, or whatever it takes to get a licence! The money they had from selling their land has now all been spent. The main culprit was health, draining their savings on medication for malaria that the family kept getting now they essentially live on a mosquito infested swamp, and also the bribes the parents had to pay the doctors, to ensure their son got treated for severe burns when the charcoal cooking pot fell over. 

The family heard about an NGO working in the area who might be able to help. The first thing they were able to do was give the family a mosquito net for protection at night. A week later the mother had cut the net up, made it into scrubbing brushes and then sold each of them on individually, earning enough to buy a huge sack of rice. Next, the NGO suggested that Mamma Sarah should join a vocational training class and learn tailoring. After successfully completing the training, the NGO bought her a machine so that she could work and earn money from home. Two months later, someone had broken into the home and among other things had stolen the machine, not hugely valuable in its market price but extremely valuable if you know how to utilise the instrument.

Sarah is 14 when she becomes pregnant after being raped for the third time by a neighbour in the slum. She keeps it quite for fear of shame but her pregnancy soon becomes apparent and the school has no choice but to drop her out of school. At the age of 15, the NGO seek to support Sarah by offering the opportunity to further education or vocational training; she chooses to join the hairdressing class. On her first day of training she meets Laura, a refugee who has recently fled the civil war in South Sudan. Laura didn't live in poverty in her home country but now her family's home, business and possessions are destroyed, they have all moved to Kampala to escape the war and start again.



This is an example of the multidimensional poverty impacting many families all over the world. Clean drinking water without improved sanitation will not stop children getting malaria. Access to education means nothing if you get raped, get pregnant and are forced out of school. Theft can quickly destroy any livelihood opportunity that was provided. Violence within a community can mean that you loose everything you have worked so hard to gain. 

Join the conversation; what are your thoughts? Perhaps you can let us know by adding a comment below or on our Facebook page. Do you know someone who would love to weigh in on the conversation, click on the share buttons and let them know. The next blog in the series we will looking at Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.