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Time to give the poor a chance

‘S’ works at night as a watchman. He was on his way to work one evening, when a frantic neighbour caught up with him and told him to rush back to his home – a one-room shack in Dagoretti – because it was on fire. S pedalled his bicycle like a madman, weaving amongst all the other routine madmen in cars and lorries. He got home to find virtually all his earthly goods being consumed by an inferno.

A neighbour had left her stove untended whilst she heeded the cries of her young baby. Her kitchen caught fire, and the flames spread to the neighbouring shacks in minutes. Now, a dozen homes were on fire, including S’s. There was no water available, and no fire brigade for these people to call. All that the assembled crowd of hundreds could do was gather dust in buckets to throw onto the flames. That, too, was futile: the fire would destroy what it came to destroy.

S plunged into the flames engulfing his home to try to rescue his few possessions. The flames licked at him as he ran in and out again, holding whatever he could salvage in his arms. After doing this a few times, he noticed that whatever he brought out and placed on the ground would be gone when he returned again. Members of the crowd – his neighbours, in all likelihood – would slip away with whatever he saved. When he realised what was happening, S sat down on the ground and cried like a child, watching his abode crumble and fall.

He called his employer to explain what had happened. He was told that he would have to report on duty that evening – no replacement was possible at such short notice. S knew he had no choice: his job was all he had. He placed his weary and singed body back onto his bicycle – which fortunately had been spared by his looter neighbours – and pedalled to work.

S’s story is a true one: it happened recently to someone I know. There is nothing at all unusual about it: incidents like this occur every single day in our slums. People like S periodically lose everything they have: to fire, to floods, to thieves and robbers, to city council askaris. Every so often, they have to start again from scratch, with nothing to show for their lives.

I’d like you to imagine what that’s like this Sunday: to find a fire cremating your home; to have your own neighbours steal what you save from the blaze; to lose every possession you painstakingly acquired after years of gathering savings from a meagre income; and to still have to report to work within an hour of this event occurring.

That is the brutality and the sheer pointlessness of the life we have bestowed upon the average Nairobi-dweller. Hard to imagine, I know, for those of us whose families, homes and possessions are guarded by walls, locks, private fire brigades – and by S and his fellow watchmen. Hard to imagine your genteel neighbours, with whom you shared a glass of wine last week, laying their fingers on your stuff. And hard to imagine your boss not giving you a week off to recuperate from any unfortunate event.

Now stop all that imagining and just visit any of our world-class slums. Or pay attention to the daily lives of those who cook, clean and guard for you. This is modern Kenya. All that economic growth, all those shopping malls, all that wireless connectivity, all that automated stock trading: all utterly irrelevant to a man like S, who is periodically swept out of his own life by forces he has no control over.

To those who are not poor, poverty is just one of those inconvenient facts of life. It’s inevitable, we say. There are always winners and losers in the system, and there can only be so many winners. The rest must lose, bring up the rear, make up the hindmost. We have worked hard, we have acquired skills, we have made sacrifices – therefore we must win. These others: work-shy, dumb, untrainable. Poor for a good reason.

We must stop being so dismissive and so lazy in our thinking. The person who cleans your house and washes your clothes works harder than you ever will – fact. That person probably grew up in abject poverty and probably never received the love and attention of two parents – fact. That person could only be educated as far as the state deemed fit – fact. That person has in all likelihood never had access to even basic healthcare – fact.

Had you faced that start in life and that set of circumstances, you would either have succumbed by now or would be a rabid criminal. Fact?

There is nothing ‘natural’ about the level of poverty we accept in Kenya. What we have is what we have chosen to have. What we see around us is the consequence of the way we have arranged our economy. It need not be this way. Throughout history, societies have realised that extreme inequality and deprivation is unnecessary and inhuman, and a severe brake on development. Throughout history, societies have rethought their arrangements and made their economies more participatory. We in Kenya just appear to be having a hard time waking up to reality. We would do well to rouse ourselves before the fire reaches all our homes.

Look around. Kenyans everywhere are engaged in battles over resources: forest land; water; livestock – and the public kitty. Kenyans everywhere have shrunk into ethnic enclaves for their own protection – in the mistaken belief that ‘my’ people will protect me from ‘them’. We are divided and insecure. Those who have it all are wracked by the fear of losing it. Those who have nothing exist in a cloud of resentment, gloom and sullen resignation. And when lightning strikes, violence flares up without warning.

Is this all we can do, all we can devise, all we can deliver? It is not. But before we think about solutions, let us accept the cause. The reason most Kenyans are ridiculously poor is not because we lack resources, or because we were colonised, or because the world is against us. It is because we are poor in the head. The only riches we lack are openness of heart and mind. We think of poverty as a disease to escape from by any means; and once we escape, we never have another thought for those we left behind.

It is not a communist revolution we need; it is a revolution in our individual heads. The answers are not difficult: we don’t need to patronise the poor or give them charity. We don’t need to pay more tax or plead with foreigners. The poor are perfectly able to develop themselves. If we have a duty, it is to give them an honest chance. How do we do it? Well, we could learn from a certain professor who’s just won the Nobel Peace Prize. We’ll hear from him next week.

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