Campus Life

Practicing Poverty

I’ve always been interested in international development. Traveling to exotic places while saving millions of lives — what a double whammy! I call that the perfect job. My friend calls that a hero complex. Nonetheless, I signed up to take the D-Lab: Introduction to Development course (11.025J / SP.723) because it offered a once-in-a-life time opportunity to travel and make a difference. Little did I know that a small assignment called “Practicing Poverty” would change my perspective on international development.

At MIT, we are constantly in a physical and mental battle, stretching our stamina to the limit. But does the pain of problem sets and back-to-back tests compare to the hunger, disease, and death that those in developing nations face every day? More than half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Before this statistic became her mundane cliché, D-Lab Instructor Amy B. Smith asked her students in D-Lab, “Could you live on $2 a day?” Unfortunately, Professor Smith did more than ask, she mandated us to “Practice Poverty” by surviving a week at MIT living on $2 a day. We were given certain “freebies,” such as electricity, medicine, and water, but all our food, transportation, and entertainment expenses had to be taken care of by our $2-a-day budget.

I first thought this assignment was a joke. I could just buy an Odwalla Mango Tango every day. Then it sadly dawned on me that a Mango Tango was $3.05, excluding tax. This assignment just seemed cruel, inconvenient, and impossible. What was the point of this exercise besides the seemingly needless deprivation of food and energy that we need to stay productive at MIT?

The objective of our “Practicing Poverty” assignment was to raise awareness about the prevalence of poverty. It reflects the purpose of D-Lab, which encourages students to learn about issues that plague developing countries through experiential learning. “I can lecture about poverty or the students can experience what it is like for themselves,” Professor Smith said.

Cranky and hungry, most of my classmates and I completed our mission but not without trials and tribulations. The project pervaded every aspect of our lives. Valery K. Brobbey ’08 (also a Tech news editor), had to sacrifice a lot of precious MIT time to live on $2 a day. “I spent $13.72 in advance on cheap groceries and I had to go back to my dorm whenever I needed food,” he said.

Some were affected in other ways. “This assignment definitely affected my social life,” said Harvard University senior Jackie Stenson. “It was very awkward watching my friends eat, so I didn’t go down to dining and spent my time cooking my meals.”

I too had my share of trials in completing this project.

On Day 1 of the assignment, Oct. 23, I woke up feeling pretty darn hungry. I usually eat a big breakfast, something to the likes of eggs, bacon, or sausage and either pancakes, toast, or waffles.

But on an empty stomach that first day, I groggily walked to class. When I walked in, I saw stacks of donuts. For the first time, my professor was treating us to free food. I was pretty upset and so was my stomach. However, I resisted the temptation. After class, I helped myself to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (40 cents) but only ate half. I knew I would be hungry after my next batch of classes. Surely enough, at 2 p.m., I could not hold out any longer and devoured the other half in less than three seconds.

I walked to Shaw’s later in the afternoon and bought some basic staples — including potatoes, carrots, and onions — from which I could cook a variety of dishes. I spent a total of $10.48, which made me extremely nervous. There was no turning back now. These groceries would be my meals for the next seven days.

Walking back was a real pain because the groceries were so heavy. I wondered if this is how people in developing nations feel everyday and if perhaps I was whining way too much. I stopped thinking and walked back to Next House as fast as I could. For dinner, I made myself a curry dish that ended up costing a surprisingly low $3.18. I ate only a quarter of what I made and saved the remainder for the rest of the week.

Day 2 wasn’t that bad. I had another peanut butter and jelly sandwich — a recurring theme throughout this process. Dinner wasn’t so bad either — another day of rice and left over curry. To me, this was a big deal, since I am a picky eater and hate repeating dishes.

Day 3 was perhaps the most trying. I only had four hours of sleep because I was up late writing an essay. Tardy for class, I decided to bike. Let me tell you, if you have not eaten anything in 18 hours, don’t try biking. I felt woozy and started seeing black spots here and there. I think I pedaled as fast as the pedestrians of Dorm Row, who gave me curious glances as I zigzagged towards campus. Finally, after class I indulged in an egg salad sandwich, which replenished my spirits and my sanity, somewhat Later that night, I made spaghetti (which cost $1.50 total) with lots of leftovers.

Day 4 was very similar to day 2. Another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, another night of left over curry. My life has degraded to mundane repetition.

Days 5 and 6 proved to be the most challenging. Our sorority held Initiation for our new members and there was so much free food that I could not touch. Also, I had to cancel a Department of Urban Studies and Planning dinner outing. Sacrificing free food was definitely a mental and emotional challenge. I left angry, sad, and in the end, just plain old hungry. My friends have also been noticing my lethargic behavior toward everything. I was losing energy and hope.

I ended Day 7 uneventfully, and with 50 cents leftover! We cheated a little in this exercise, with the “free energy” we were allowed to consume and having a supermarket less than a mile away. So while I may have complained and moaned about being hungry all the time, do I have the right to do so when people die every minute of starvation? The past week was a roller coaster of emotions, but I walked away with a little taste of what half the world’s population has to live with every day.

It’s the holiday season. A time for giving, a time for sharing. Perhaps this is also a good time for appreciation. I strongly encourage you to attempt this “exercise” to realize all the “freebies” we have and take for granted. So maybe it is time we pay our respects to the hungry, the dying, and become inspired to make a difference.