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Being poor in Kenya: A life of insults

Who would want to be poor in Kenya? We treat the poor no better than chewing-gum stuck to our shoes.

If you are poor in Kenya, you must never fall seriously ill. If you do, your descent into hell will begin. Assuming you have a local clinic, you will in all likelihood be given the shoddiest treatment there. Misdiagnoses are legion; but because the victims are poor, no investigation is ever conducted. If you are sent to hospital, you will not be allowed near a bed unless a sizeable sum is deposited. Seriously injured people often go from hospital to hospital pleading for treatment. Many die in the process.

If you are poor and in hospital, your kith and kin will be treated like animals when they come to visit you. They will be kept waiting at the gate for hours, even though you are in a serious condition inside and might be in your final hours. Watchmen take a particular delight in tormenting the poor, even though they are poor themselves.

If you are poor and you die in hospital, your grieving children might not even be allowed to see your body until the bill has been settled. Your children will be faced with the twin traumas of coping with the shock of your departure, and raising the money to clear your final bill (an amount beyond their collective reach). If your bereaved children gather the guts to ask the doctor why you died, they will very likely be shouted at and thrown out. Because you were poor.

If you are poor in Kenya, don’t expect the state to be your friend. Someone I know recently spent a night in jail. His ‘crime’? He happened to be crossing the road when the Head of State’s majestic convoy was passing, and he didn’t make way in time. Because he was poor, he was tossed into a cell without any further questions. It took the intervention of his employer to stop him from languishing in gaol for days.

If you are poor in Kenya, you are the easy target of every policeman. You will be frisked on any pretext, and more often than not relieved of your mobile phone and what little money you have in your pocket. If you are poor in Kenya, you don’t want to be in your slum when the police come looking for criminals. Because your life has no value, it will be easily extinguished in the melee. No questions will be asked later.

If you are poor in Kenya and have a job, you will spend every penny you earn putting your children through school. You will have outstanding loans hanging over your head all of your life. Despite this your children are unlikely to prosper, because they will have only received the most rudimentary education which will not allow them to rise out of poverty. They will inherit your poverty, your loans and your outstanding hospital bill.

If you are poor in Kenya, you don’t want to be a young female. Your poverty will sufficient license for every lust-filled male to view you as easy game. Your body will become the playground of others.

If you are poor in Kenya, you have no protection: not against criminals, not against the state, not against daily insults and derision.

If you are reasonably well-off in Kenya you may never experience these things. You will generally be treated with respect. Doctors will take the time and trouble to talk to you. Watchmen will never block your entrance. Policemen will be wary of incurring your wrath. Teachers will give personal attention to your child. You will lead a life of dignity, like every human being should.

Poverty is Problem Number One in Kenya. We can lose ourselves in all the fancy discourse we like; it doesn’t go away. The chattering classes can analyse the likely political scenarios in December; they can discuss how many tourists are coming to Kenya this year; they can have forthright debates on Tony Blair’s legacy, or whether Nicolas Sarkozy is a good French president for Africa, or whatever else preoccupies them. If they lifted their noses from their glasses and closed their mouths for a moment, they would see that they are a tiny minority, an affluent little island of fun surrounded by a heaving, seething sea of abject misery.

There is no easy answer to this problem. A certain amount of poverty is inevitable, after all. But to strip a large part of the population of all esteem is inhuman and unforgivable. Those with means, education and know-how are painting silly castles in the air, when those around them eat off garbage sites.

The causes of poverty are complex; its solutions have many dimensions. Better health, better education, better opportunities are pre-requisites. A thoughtful approach to economic participation is necessary. This requires big ideas and innovative schemes. But more concern, more awareness, more sensitivity is within each person’s grasp. A poor person is just you with less money. Step one is to realise this.

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