Whisper it quietly: Poverty is sometimes a choice
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.
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, and made sure the buildings were damaged to their satisfaction before 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 one after that too until this day.
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 opposition to 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. Why, 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 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 corrupt politicians and incompetent governments. It is a purely extraneous thing that just “happens” to people. 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.”
I stand to be convinced that people who experience the indignity of relieving themselves into plastic bags everyday need any particular education to understand that – for whatever reason – torching a public toilet built specifically to spare them such indignity is not in their interest.
The perception is that asking Africa’s poor to exercise the most basic responsibility to themselves in order to lessen their already unthinkable pain is akin to blaming a rape victim for being assaulted. The key difference however, 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. Africans often knowingly do things that eventually result in crushing poverty and its companions. Unlike rape, the resultant poverty and squalor is completely avoidable.
A couple of years 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 piped up 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 (self included) often do so from a fundamentally dishonest position – we assume that everyone is like us at heart. We assume that people only need access to the ‘right’ education and enabling system to make the same choices that we do. That is absolutely not true.
Infantilising people is dishonest and counterproductive
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. Many African ethnic and cultural groups on the other hand, see unsustainable and industrial childbearing as an important expression of their cultural identity. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to patronize and infantilise these people by inferring that they make the choices they do because they simply do not KNOW any better. In fact they DO ‘know better,’ but they have simply decided that this is what they want.
Many of the things some of us see as “poverty,” others merely see as their culture manifesting in their environment. They are prepared to deal with whatever indignities come their way as long as what they consider to be their identity and 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 industrial and post-industrial 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 Aaaaafricaaa’ 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, if at all it can be disrupted.
And that is a very big “if.”