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African poverty and the Illusion of victimhood

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African poverty and the Illusion of victimhood

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is the largest urban slum in Africa with an estimated population of up to 700,000 people. Apart from the social problems associated with a low-income shantytown, it is also notorious for being one of the dirtiest places in all of Kenya. It has very little access to modern sanitation facilities, and as a result, Nairobians often make a tongue-in-cheek reference to Kibera’s “flying toilets.” If you passed through a Nigerian public university or the NYSC program, you can translate “flying toilets” as “shot put” to understand that reference.

Yes, that.

In 2015, Kenyan Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru was placed in charge of a government intervention program called the National Youth Service (NYS). The NYS had in its remit among other things, to tackle Kibera’s brewing public health crisis by constructing modern toilets and healthcare facilities. The problem was that Mrs. Waiguru was not very popular in Kibera. Apart from (unproven) rumours of corruption constantly swirling around her name, she had her colours nailed very firmly to the mast of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee party. Opposition leader Raila Odinga had a strong following in Kibera, where the NYS started building a public toilet and clinic complex.

One night in June 2015, following a public political faceoff between Mrs. Waiguru and Mr. Odinga, 300 young Kibera residents loyal to Odinga descended on the site of project, barricading it and setting it ablaze. They refused to let security or fire officials in until the buildings were damaged to their satisfaction, then they dispersed.

The following morning presumably, these youthful Nairobians answered nature’s call using Kibera’s time-honoured method consisting of a plastic bag and the force of gravity. Probably the day after that, and the day after that too.

These were not children, neither were they fundamentally irrational people. They were simply regular young men living in a slum who consciously decided that having no decent toilet facilities was an acceptable opportunity cost of voicing their displeasure at a politician.

Kibera incidentally, is often romanticized to tourists and other outsiders, presented as the land of poor and oppressed but noble Africans surviving against all odds without any of the amenities most urban dwellers take for granted. For a few bucks, you can even take a Kibera slum tour, complete with smiling children and a stall selling beads.

What noble victims these poor Africans are. They don’t even have toilets!

Conscientious Ignorance is a Form of Evil

While this is not necessarily the most popular take on the subject of African poverty and economic dislocation, any honest examination of the subject must account for the reality that the “poor, oppressed, helpless African” is largely a literary construct created for Western audiences. This construct is now popular even among those of us who actually live here on the continent and have proximity to several places like Kibera. According to the narrative, poverty and squalor in Africa is caused almost exclusively by thieving politicians and incompetent governments. It is a purely extraneous thing.

Even when instances like the Kibera toilet burning come up, many journalists, commentators and – of course – politicians adopt a well-meaning, paternalistic, almost indulgent tone to rationalize self-harming behaviour by those most affected. We hear things like:

“It’s lack of education. They don’t know any better. The country has failed them.”

– Unintentionally patronising middle class city dweller

I stand to be convinced that someone who relieves himself into plastic bags everyday needs any particular education to understand that – for whatever reason – torching a public toilet built specifically to spare him such indignity is not in his interest.

The perception is that asking Africa’s poor to exercise responsibility to themselves in order to lessen their already unthinkable pain is akin to blaming a rape victim for being assaulted. The key difference between both scenarios though, is that rape is solely the rapist’s fault – the victim’s actions are inconsequential to the final outcome. African poverty and its associated pains like “flying toilets” on the other hand, do not just happen to people regardless of their decisions. People often knowingly do things that eventually result in crushing poverty and its companions. Unlike rape, the resultant poverty and squalor is completely avoidable.

Before I moved out of Somolu a few months back, I had a barber whom I used to visit twice a month. He had a little shop where he and his friends would discuss Nigerian politics for hours. These guys knew everything that was going on in the country, from Fulani militia attacks in the Middle Belt to what happened in the Senate yesterday. Having a haircut there was like a front row seat at a newsstand free readers’ discussion. They knew that “politicians are bastards” and that “we the people” need to stop genuflecting to them.

A couple of days before the election, I got held up in traffic behind a House of Assembly aspirant’s campaign convoy. Said convoy was tossing out bottles of vegetable oil, packs of salt, small bags of rice and other vote-buying inducements. I spied my barber and his merry band of barbershop revolutionaries in the crowd struggling heartily for the “national cake” and cheering loudly as the bastard politician went past.

At my next haircut a couple of weeks later, they were back on the news and political analysis beat. Presumably, the rice and oil had run out at that point, so it was back to being barbershop revolutionaries once again.

“Poor, Helpless Africans” Are not so Helpless

Growing up as a Jehovah Witness, I used to get dragged along by my parents on door-to-door preaching expeditions in some very squalid places in Ikosi, Ketu and Mile 12. I hated it every single time, but I had to tag along, carrying a bag filled with colourful Watchtower literature and pretending to be interested in a message I did not believe in.

It used to strike me as extremely hypocritical how we would leave our swanky 8-bedroom house in Ogudu GRA, drive 6km down the expressway, park the car well out of sight, and then walk around Ketu and Mile 12 lying to people that what they needed to solve their problems was God’s kingdom – when perhaps all it would take was just a cheque for N100,000.

Over the course of two decades of doing this, I observed three recurring things about people mired in poverty whom we met. The first thing was that they just would not stop having children. Walking down a street lined with face-me-I-face-you houses, the first thing you would notice is that the street was absolutely packed with children playing outside in varying states of dishevelment. Most wore little more than briefs as they ran around rolling tyres and playing hopscotch. Some were completely naked.

Very often, they relieved themselves directly into the rudimentary open drainage channels along the street, and the houses often had the distinct whiff of urine inside. Yet we would hardly see 20 women without three of four of them being pregnant. It was to my eyes an objectively bad situation, but they seemed unwilling to stop having babies. These were not illiterates from the village, but people born and raised right here in Lagos; people who were literate and aware of contraception and family planning. But… babies, babies and some more babies.

The link between poverty and prolific childbirth is well established, and I suspect it wasn’t news to them as well. The few times I ever had the courage to cautiously pry into this decision to bring more babies into an already dire situation, the answers I got went along the lines of “Na God dey give pikin.” Additionally, I apparently did not know which of the myriad children “God” would raise up to uplift everyone. You see, having children was basically a game of Roulette where if they had enough kids, “God” might just decide to gift the jackpot to Tolulope born on 32 Red.

The second thing I noticed in my 20-year amateur anthropology sojourn in Ketu-Mile 12 was that women were treated terribly. It was very common to knock on a door with my dad and end up inside a dingy bedroom “settling a quarrel” between a man and his wife. The quarrel typically involved his fist and her face. It wasn’t even seen as domestic abuse, wife-beating or anything out of the ordinary – just a quarrel between a stubborn woman and that man wey too dey beat hin wife.

Even inside the most squalid of squalid conditions, the men felt it important to assert their hierarchy over women. Outside they might be emasculated nobodies with feet of clay, but inside their slum dwellings, they would readily use said feet to stomp out any woman who dared to challenge their authority. On at least one notable occasion while out preaching with my mum, we encountered a man who informed us that he could not hear the word of God from a woman’s lips, and he would only listen to me or my dad.

The Muslim areas took the misogyny to a different level. It was there for the first time that I learned the term “Eleha” referring to houses under Islamic Purdah. The only sign was a little string curtain at the front door, but apparently in such houses, the only males allowed in were the direct relations of the female residents. They would only come outside wearing a full body Niqab and men were not allowed to talk to them. Needless to say, they also apparently existed just to have as many children as possible. You could walk from one end of the street to the other and count over a hundred children under the age of six.

There is of course, well-established data linking female empowerment and economic development. Any place on earth where women are treated like childbearing commodities, is almost without exception dirt poor. This is either a remarkable coincidence or common sense if you factor in the economic drag of making half of the population into economically dependent baby-making machines. I think we all know which it is, but the poverty-ridden patriarchy in the Ketu-Mile 12 area wasn’t having it. I haven’t been there in a few years, but I suspect not much has changed.

The final thing I noticed in my weekly journeys to the other side was that these people were not in any way ready to give up any of their religiosity and try something else. Almost every week, you would see a new shop space or apartment with a banner outside announcing the presence of a new church or fellowship. There were several such churches on every street. Almost without exception, if you saw a new real estate development going up in that area, you could be sure that it was a church.

The proliferation of churches was such that in time I even got over my long-standing guilt about preaching hot air to disadvantaged people from a position of extreme privilege. I realised that these guys did not want realistic, workable, scientific solutions to their problems. What they wanted was ‘miracles’ and in the absence of miracles, they would take all the religious hot air in the world. At least when we went out to sell hope to these people, we took nothing from them except their time. These churches on the other hand, were taking even more of their time plus the little money they had – selling bullshit and dreams to impoverished people.

And the people liked it like that.

Infantilising People is Dishonest and Counterproductive

A few weeks ago, when I made a point on Twitter about Almajiri in the north of Nigeria being a threat to national security in the long term as evidenced by Boko Haram, more than a few individuals from that part of the country jumped into my mentions to make the point that I was an ignorant southerner speaking about an “ancient system I did not understand.” One even helpfully informed me that the Almajiri system has “produced many of the millionaires and notable people in the north”.

Dubious veracity aside, the epiphany that comment gave me was that a lot of people who write and comment about poverty (myself included) do so from a fundamentally dishonest position – we assume that everyone is like us at heart. Going by our narrative, people only need access to the ‘right’ education and enabling system to make the same choices that we do.

That is a lie.

Many people covered by the “poor African” label are actually intentional and strategic about the choices that they make. I may see the idea of having a child one cannot cater for without charity as a crime against humanity. Someone in some village on the other hand might see it as an important expression of their cultural identity. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to patronize and infantilise such a person by inferring that they make the choices they do because they simply do not know better. What if they do ‘know better,’ but they have simply decided that this is what they want?

What if the things some of us see as “poverty,” others merely see as their culture manifesting in their environment? What if they are prepared to deal with whatever indignities come their way as long as their culture is not erased?

When thinking about poverty in Africa, whether in a sprawling Nairobi slum, a township in KwaZulu Natal or a remote village in Katsina, we need a new way of engaging with those who are not productive in the context of the modern economic system. Top-down solutions like Anne Waiguru’s sanitation and healthcare projects in Kibera or Goodluck Jonathan’s now-abandoned Almajiri school system across Northern Nigeria will not cut it. They suffer from the same tunnel vision that afflicts well-meaning NGOs who fly in European gap year student volunteers to Bless The Raaaaiiins Down In Aaaaafricuuuhh for 12 months.

Rather than parachuting in ‘education’ and ‘infrastructure’ to rescue starving, oppressed Africans who exist in our minds like 2-dimensional characters from Tintin Au Congo, a more useful method for interacting with African poverty is probably to acknowledge that the people in question may genuinely see life differently – they are not ignorant children. A lot of what we perceive as “African poverty” is actually cultural and not merely situational. Culture of course is not static, but recognising their situations as cultural and often self-inflicted will better inform an effective strategy for disrupting the poverty,

Instead of the paternalistic “What can we do to help ‘the poor’?” perhaps the question we should be asking is “What exactly do ‘the poor’ want from life and how can we help make this relevant to the 21st century?”

David Hundeyin is a writer, travel addict and journalist majoring in politics, tech and finance. His work has been featured in the New Yorker Magazine and the Washington Post. Hundeyin is a US Department of State nominee for the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP).

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