Those Terrible Poor People

The need to play victim and blame others is found across Kenyan society. The poor are some of the worst human rights offenders. Many believe they are owed by society.–Wamuyu Gatheru, Governance Consultant

Kenya has too many consultants.

6 thoughts on “Those Terrible Poor People

  1. I am always intrigued by how the notion of “responsibility” functions, and by what we mean by “responsible.” My father, Lord love him, used to tell me that poor people were “simply lazy.” For him, personal responsibility was an individual thing, rooted in one’s character and habits. There was nothing structural to poverty–nothing about history, ideology, exploitation, opportunity, economics, nothing about the relationship between his position and that of others. It is, perhaps, a signal feature of a certain middle-classness to forget the vast underclass on which their own middle-classness rests. On these and other matters, many far more eloquent writers on class and poverty have written.

    I was struck, though, by a certain syntactical symptom: the movement from “each individual” (singular) to “their situation” (plural). I understand, of course, the reason we do so–to avoid certain gendered assumptions. But I am also interested in the notion of collective responsibility it suggests, perhaps unwittingly. That is, I do believe it is each individual’s “responsibility” to “better” our collective situation, even as I recognize that there are some why by dint of native talent, reach of resources, networking ability, and so on, might have a broader reach in certain circumstances. Here, I think of three young men who helped pull the cab I was in out of a ditch, with no anticipation of payment. Something about that act–its collective good–stays with me.

    Here we go into somewhat fuzzy territory–because I work in and around the arts, I continue to argue for the importance of poetry and fiction and (increasingly) photography to our collective being. What some would take as luxuries, I understand to be essential, fundamental, that we cannot do without. These things “better” us as they inhabit the world–and they open us up to thinking about a range of cultural, social, emotional, economic, and political ways “better” happens all the time.

    There are, of course, a whole host of ways we “better” ourselves, some flashier than others. We hear a lot about those who give away money and equipment–Kenyans for Kenya with 650 million or so, and the happy faces of corporate givers. We hear far less often about the daily actions, the barely noticeable things that make our collective lives better. These we can speculate about and map and document in various ways–I am not very empirical, but I can speculate and theorize.

    I do not like economic metaphors, but this I will say: to live together is to owe each other. That is how collectivities gain meaning. Bad things happen when we forget or ignore this rule. It is not clear to me how we can live together in any convivial way when our attitude toward each other–or toward some of us–is contempt.

  2. I do not negate the need to assist each other when one of us is in trouble. What am alluding to is the desire to better oneself and not be dependent on others’ mercies. For example: if you live in the North East of Kenya and you are literary poor (measure of wealth in that area being livestock); every year you are waiting on international aid to give you food etc. How long are others supposed to assist such a person? That same individual could relocate (and please dont say thats not possible cause thousands upon thousands of us have relocated) to a location where he/she is at least able to get food and shelter for a day’s work.
    Continuing to reside in an arid area where the only career is herding cattle; where water and food are scarce; where the possibility of opportunities coming your ways are zero indicates that this individual is either satisfied being poor, relying on aid and has accepted his/her fate.

    I am thankful that my situation is nowhere close to that, but I have had to make decisions to relocate thousands of miles for the possibility of a better life.
    Do you not agree there is a huge vacuum for personal responsibility?
    How many people do we have in Kenya who are waiting for the government to create jobs?
    How many IDP’s do we have (3-4yrs later) living in tents who claim to have been farmers? You want to tell me the father or mother could not get employed in a farm where he/she will earn approx 7-10k with housing provided? (am saying that cause I know of employment shortage in my home area where we grow tea)

  3. I hear you and I understand the frustration that can accompany giving and sacrifice, especially to what seems to be unending need. It is especially frustrating when, as you point out, other opportunities exist to alleviate that need, opportunities that also cost. Relocation is only one of those costs that many people bear.

    I try to pay attention (with varying degrees of failure) to what others around me consider a “good” life, a life they choose to live. Often, doing so is very difficult. I’m wary of imposing my vision of a good life on others, of claiming that the choices I have made are necessarily the right ones or the only ones. I am wary of reproducing the paradigms I grew up with that define a good life in terms of “building a house”–buying property, marrying, raising children. None of these things are on my horizon. They are not things I value for myself. I offer this as an example.

    And so the ongoing challenge is to ask how my vision and version of a good life–mine involves many books, many of them having to do with poetry–can cohabit with, make space for, and, at times, enable someone else’s vision of a good life. A good life, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a comfortable one; instead, it can be deeply meaningful in ways that an outsider cannot understand. (My mother doesn’t understand why I choose to buy books instead of a car, for instance.)

    Because other people’s visions and versions of a good life can so often (too often) seem incomprehensible, I try (with varying degrees of failure) to be attentive to what matters to them, understanding (or trying to) that what matters to them might not matter to me, and that I might not be able to fathom why they hold on to what appears to be a dead end, an unprofitable way of life.

    Much of the way I think about these matters stems from my training and reading in slave and colonial histories, especially when I think about the ravages of the civilizing mission. I think of what it must have meant for entire systems of living to be dismissed as backward and dirty and for new, foreign paradigms to be imposed on (sometimes) reluctant populations (I simplify a much more complex paradigm).

    I’m not sure that other people’s choices ever really make sense to us–I’m still trying to figure out my friends who chose to go to law school. I think part of living collectively, though, means enabling others to have a range of choices. Sometimes even understanding other choices exist is an immense privilege.

    I am not an expert here–I am simply trying to think through this with you.

    To return to the original quotation: I was thinking about the kind of privilege it takes to know what a human right is (educational and otherwise), the economic privilege it (often) takes to name others as poor, and the ideological demand that “the poor” be “like everyone else.” The statement felt unfair and, worse, unthinking. As I’ve written elsewhere on this space, some of the worst injuries occur through indifference–the casual remark, the “I didn’t see you there” that negates one’s sense of being.

  4. Since you enjoy books, here is a quote from Maya Angelou: “Each of us has the right and responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have travelled, and if the future roads looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”
    My fear is that some people seem to have given up on life…maintaining the status quo in a terrible environment while roads have not been closed for them.
    As you mentioned, we may not be in a position to define “a good life” for others, however there are basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing that every individual should yearn to have (all this items need not adhere to western definition) irregardless of their culture. If the environment that a person lives does not provide these three basic needs and opportunities exists elsewhere then I fail to understand the urge/need to relocate where these items available (working for them ofcourse).

    Sometime the international community perpetuates poverty because “some” of these people now know that there are merciful people out there who will look out for them. I feel like I am putting a lot of people in the same category, kindly pardon the generalization.

  5. I think @empowerkenya here brings in a little insight into what the antithesis of the Kenyans for Kenyans initiative might be. It’s all very interesting, that the main points of people who are for or against such a campaign standardly dwell on a statement like “none of x and y matter, we should help (or not) these people”. @empowerkenya brings in a shift into the main line of thought, why should we help those people? and goes on to give one reason or the other and so does this consultant. A radical rethinking would be based on “why should we help these people when they brought this upon themselves?”

    I think it is extremely selfish for people to propose all these huge plans for other people which, they think, if followed, would lead to some sort of change for these people. I wonder about the place of government policies which have consistently neglected he Northern Frontier or the poor, or people living in rural areas are in the consultants mind. How does a history of economic, social and political marginalisation of large numbers of people fail to make its way in the mind the consultant? And I also have to add to this a favourite of many, the rags to riches story that we consume in droves, I think most of them obscure a lot. Noam Chomsky points out that when Obama said that nowhere in the world can a country choose it’s leader like it chose him (something like that), go out of its usual choices and so on, he points to the not so read, not wealthy Lula da Silva.

    I never want to lose sight on the various systems that lead to poverty, we could draw lines of such systems even in the anti-corruption discourses rife in the country and so, I am sometimes very impatient with people who conclude the sum up the suffering of people in a few words like the consultant up there, more impatient with guys who are likely to sum up in the same way via charities and giving and monetizing human suffering in order to keep the Other away.

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