I have never experienced poverty, and so I will not claim to speak for the poor. That said, I have experienced the indignity of poverty, and will therefore speak for the dignity of the poor.
It was in the streets of London, where a“beggar” with a container approached me and asked for a donation to “save Africa and other poor parts of the world”. My contribution would send a poor child child to school, and provide a meal for a starving family. He looked tired from all the talking and efforts to convince passersby. I imagined the smirk on his face, as he went to bed with sore feet and a sore throat, but with a happy heart, having saved an African or two, with a container full of coins. As if this was not enough, advertisements on TV begged for money to “save poor Africans”. Miserable women in need of maternal healthcare, young girls and women walking many kilometers to fetch dirty water for their families, starving and emaciated children and mothers were the faces of such campaigns. As an African, I hated this representation of Africa, and every time I saw these “beggars” and watched the campaigns to “save Africa”, I felt my dignity stripped.
These campaigns made me understand why I had to go through so much humiliation when I applied for a European visa, or to get into a European country. They made me understand why I was expected to have nothing between my ears, and there was often surprise if I failed to meet this expectation. I understood why the colour of my skin was associated with sex work. As an African, I was the face of desperate poverty, hunger, starvation, ignorance, war and death. I was therefore perceived as ready to run from my country or even sell my body to escape my poverty. I imagined that these perceptions were often based on the idea that I was likely to be another African that had been saved by those who were charitable enough to “experience” my starvation by skipping a few lunches. I became so conscious of the “stench” of my “poverty”, I almost suffocated in it. I identified with Dambudzo Marechera when he speaks of the “identity crisis, self-hatred, self re-examination, both excessive Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, reversed racism, escapism and alienation” that he struggled with as a student at Oxford.
I identified with parents that I met in a research I had conducted, several years back, seeking to understand why children in Nairobi’s slums attended poor quality low cost private schools in the slums, yet the government had declared free primary education. The parents cited poor quality public education, as a key factor that had forced them to take their children to private schools in the slums.
When I asked these parents whether they had officially complained about the state of public education, some considered themselves to be “beggars”, who could not afford to be “choosers”. They took whatever was offered to them, “waiting for a better donor to bail them out.” While these kind of responses expressed the indignity of poverty, relegating the poor to the mercy of anyone that could help, I also got responses that demonstrated the basic need for human dignity. One woman observed that her poverty required her to withstand whatever was offered, without complaining. This observation led her to conclude that, “free things are bad”, and strongly believed that, “it is better to go for a service you have struggled to pay, no matter how cheap it costs”. These kind of responses made it clear that even though they were poor, they did not want to be at the mercy of charity. They valued their dignity and voice, and they wanted their voices to be recognised and listened to. I realised that, charity, while gratifying to the giver, and even to the recipient, it has this tendency to strip people off their dignity.
I am concerned that we are becoming a charity state. Public services have become synonymous with services for the poor. We have a state where elected representatives serve the poor through handouts, rather than develop laws that cause systemic transformation. It is no wonder the culture of “Mheshimiwa nisaidie” or “naomba Serikali” is not dying even with a Constitution that gives all sovereign power to the people. Sadly, the idea of a charity state, is extending from the government to the people; where the wealthy and middle classes “skip lunches” and “run marathons” to “save the poor”. The desire of the West to save Africa, and the gratification derived from it, is the same desire and gratification that Africa’s wealthy and middle classes derive from saving the poor among them.
I am concerned when I see people happy to “save the poor”, but not seeking to question the corruption and poor policy frameworks that underlie the state of our public services. It becomes even more galling when several of these “charitable” elected representatives, are rumoured to be making money illegally, by selling drugs, grabbing land and inflating tenders. They steal from the poor to give peanuts to the poor; gestures that are are met with loud applause.
I am concerned with the small vision that the government and its citizens have for this state. I wonder if there is anyone who is daring to dream differently. I choose to have a bigger dream. I see the vision of a dignified citizenry. I dream of a day when public services will not be for the poor, because services for the poor tend to be poor services. I see a day when our taxes will provide decent healthcare, quality education, affordable and decent housing, regular supply of clean and safe water, electricity, and security for all its citizens, and not just the poor. I long to walk into a public facility for treatment, confident that I will enjoy high quality and efficient service and treatment. I commit to give the best of myself to support a cause that holds a similar vision.
I know such a dream will quickly be dismissed as insane. Like Erwin McManus, I realise that I live on the bubble of insanity, because I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.
Insane as this dream may be, I choose to persist and not be quiet, complacent, tired or discouraged, until the campaign for dignity and equality is won.