In his novel The Eye of the Leopard (as the title is translated from Swedish), Hans Olofson, a Swede, is the main character. The book is written by the well know Henning Mankell, whose fame is mostly built on his Wallander policy series.
After a rather complicated youth Olofson travels to Africa for a short stay, but in the end he stays there for nineteen years. He works in Zambia on a farm owned by a white woman. When she leaves, she offers him to take over her farm. White farmers, however, are less and less welcome in this part of Africa, and after having suffered a lot of troubles and violence, Olofson gives up and returns to Sweden.
It is a fascinating, but tragic, story that will, especially, touch people who have lived for some time as expat in Africa. Even though I never experienced this degree of racial hatred in West-Africa, where I lived for almost seven years, there is much in this book that I recognize. I have also visited the East-African country of Zambia several times so that I recognize many of the places Hankell writes about.
Besides Hans Olofson quite a few other persons play an important role, in particular Joyce Lufuma and her two teenage daughters Majorie and Peggy. Joyce’s husband was one of the 200 workers in Hans’ employ. He died in an accident and Olofson—who treats his workers much better than most other white farmers—takes care of Joyce and ensures that the two girls get an education. Olofson greatly admires the way in which Joyce and her family deal with all their problems. He visits them regularly in their hut—for their house if not much more than that—and comes to the conclusion that he—the rich farmer—is, in actual fact, in comparison with Joyce and her daughters, much poorer than they bare. They possess the kind of inner wealth that he does not have.
One of the (several) messages of this fine novel is that concepts like poverty and wealth are very relative. This past week this was confirmed to me by a report of a Dutch planning agency that indicated how currently over 7 percent of the population, or 1,2 million people, live below the poverty line. When we hear this we must be aware of how ‘poverty’ is defined. Being poor in the Netherlands means living on a minimum income. The report explained that it means that one does not have enough money to buy any new furniture or to buy new clothes on a regular basis. For some it means that they must rely on the ‘food bank’ and it also usually means that a vacation is out of the question.
Not for a moment do I want to suggest that we do not need to worry about the unacceptable level of inequality in our Dutch society. It is scandalous that in one of the richest countries on earth some people must rely on food banks! Nonetheless, we must not forget the relativity of such concepts as poverty and wealth. I am rich when I compare my situation with that of most one-parent families that must live on social security or with those of my age who only have their state pension. But I am quite poor when compared with the over 154.000 millionaires in Holland. According to the norms that are used in the recent poverty report, I must conclude that the family in which I grew up was extremely poor—even when seen in the context of the 1950’s. We barely had enough to eat, but not enough to have something on every slice of bread in addition to a thin coating of cheap margarine. Yet, I never felt that we suffered because of this situation.
There is still ample reason to continue protesting against all poverty in the world. And we can never accept that so many people in the Netherlands can not share in the high living standard that most of us enjoy. Yet, at the same time, more people should realize, like Hans Olofson, that true wealth does not primarily depend on the size of your house or the amount of money you have in the bank.