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How Does it feel like to be “dirt” poor! From selling peanuts in the streets of Rwanda to becoming an engineer in the United States.

Being poor sucks! I would not wish that to anybody. Trust me, I lived under a dollar a day for about 5 years. Not good at all. Also, Being poor is relative depending on a country. Being poor in a developed country ( i.e. America and European countries) is way different than being poor in a developing country ( Africa and Eastern Asia). What is considered poor in one country might be considered rich in another. When I came to the United States for college, I discovered when you could still be “poor” even if you had a microwave, a fridge, and a car. That was a total shock for me. Having a microwave and a fridge in my country means that you are not poor. Owning a car in my country puts you in the “rich” category. You see, it all relative.

My family became poor due to no faults of our own. This is my family in 1998; My mom, I, and my two younger siblings.

My ( only) family Photo (from back then) in 1998. I am the taller kid on the left, my two siblings ( Denyse and Serge), and our mom, the super-hero, who raised us by herself.

After my father passed away, my mom had to take on the responsibility to raise us on her own. She owned a small clothing store at the local market. She did the best she could raising us; sending us to good schools, making sure that we had a roof over out head, food on the table and clothes on our back. We were not “dirt poor”,but we were definitely in the low income category by our country’s standards. A few years later, she become ill and would miss work from time to time. As she missed work, her business started to slow down and was not making enough to pay rent, food, and other basic necessities.

She decided to sell the whole business and bought a house. She wanted to make sure that we had a place to stay no matter what. Whether she was working or not. She bought a small house, enough for 4 of us, which was a big step. However, her health became even worse and by 2005, she had stopped to work completely. At this time, I was about to start high school, my sister was in middle school, and my little brother was finishing up elementary school.

Although my mom was not working, she made sure that we went to school. My sister and I went to boarding schools ( very common in my country) and my brother was at a local elementary school. I was fortunate enough to go one of the best science high schools in the country because I had scored well in the national exams.

This is my high school, all kids in uniform. I am very sure I am in this picture actually.

In High School,

  1. Life in boarding school was very nice. We wore the same uniform, so you could not distinguish kids from poor versus rich families.
  2. We ate the same 3-meals a day ( breakfast, lunch, and dinner), so nobody was hungry.
  3. I was good with school work. I always came in the top 5 of my class. However, sometimes, I would get kicked out of school for failure to pay school fees. Mind you the fees for tuition was about 27,000 RFWs each trimester ( equivalent to $ 45). Sounds too small now, but this was a lot of money for my family. Per year, the school fees was a total of $ 135 USD. My high school was 3-years. The first year, I got tired of getting kicked out the school, which made me sad because I really liked school.
  4. However, the 2nd and 3rd year, I managed to secure a full-scholarship after winning the nationwide tax competition by the Rwanda Revenue Authority, which was a huge help in finishing my high school education. At school, I was sure I was going to eat. I enjoyed mathematics and physics a lot. Whenever I was integrating some functions or deriving some equations in physics, I would always forget my situation at home. Whether it was reading in the school library or working on my problem sets, I felt so powerful that I could do anything. I felt like a boss in those science subjects. I felt like I could be anybody, an astronaut, an astrophysicist, an engineer, a doctor, or just about anybody.

At home, it was very different. I had to work to help my family out or else, we would go hungry. Oftentimes, we would miss out on lunch/dinner or something. During the holidays, I did just about anything to help my family and put food on the table. Mom could not work most of the time due to her illness. So, My siblings and I worked hard to hustle to afford food. From selling sugar canes at construction sites during the day and kerosenes door to door to people in our neighbourhoods. In my home country, more than 70% of the population still don’t have access to electricity. The profits was solely used to buy food, and school materials for the next trimester. Life was tough back then for me and my family. My brother and I would sell sugar canes during the day and kerosene at night. This went on until I came to the US for college after securing a full 4-year scholarship to study physics and later engineering.

Selling sugar canes and kerosene was my hustle to afford food and school supplies.

Kid, studying on the kerosene lamp, we used at home.
Sugarcanes I used to sell to make money for my family’s survival.

Fast forward in 2017, my family has been lucky and we are very thankful. I am an engineer, I have a masters in Mechanical Engineering from CU Boulder, CO. I will be going for an MBA in finance in a few years. My brother and sister are all college graduates in nursing. They take care of our mom and cater to her medical needs back home in RWANDA. We are probably still average by any standard, but man, I am so thankful for what how far we have become.

Our family picture ( mom, brother, sister, and me with the Akon shirt) on a recent visit to my home country ( RWANDA).

Mom is really the real MVP. She made me who I am today and encouraged me to stay in school when life was tough and wanted to drop out. Now I travel regulary for work or pleasure. I can afford to fly home a few times a year. I am living my “American dream”. You people think it’s dead!? You don’t know how good to you have it.

Today, we are very thankful as a family. We treat our family like a small business. Mom is the co-founder and the president of our Family, Inc. I am the CEO ( Chief Executive Officer). My sister the COO ( Chief Operation Officer), and my brother is the CTO ( Chief Technical Officer). Each one of us love their job and works very hard. Nobody can be fired, challenges are dealt with, progress and cooperation are encouraged. We are a very happy, humble family.

Income distribution by annual income. The majority of the world’s population is at the bottom of the pyramid.

Check the pyramid markets from the World Resource Institute ( 2005). Although, the world population has increased to a little over 7 billion, the pyramid of income still looks the same proportionally. 65% of the world’s population still lives in extreme poverty. The kind I used to live in.

Now, I see lots of people complaining about stuff and I just laugh. You people in the West take so much for granted. You don’t really know how good you have it. Moral of the story, be thankful because lot of people elsewhere would love to have even a small piece of what you have. I am very sure everyone reading this post is in the top 1% of the income ladder worldwide.


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Peace & Cheers!

Didier Champion