While idling my car on the corner of a traffic light, I am approached by a young woman – probably in her teens still – with a baby on her hip.
It is cold and they are both not dressed warmly enough for the weather. I brace myself against the onslaught of divergent emotions.
I want to be angry because no one should have to do this, to live this way. I want to feel compassion because the baby is blameless and I imagine the mother probably doesn’t know much better. I want to be annoyed because she is using emotional blackmail to solicit for money instead of finding something to sell, like so many other people who find themselves unemployed, but with responsibilities.
I want to be anxious because I don’t know if she will spend the money on what the baby really needs. I want to be disappointed that 30 years after independence there are still scenes like this all over our country, and because instead of getting better it is getting worse.
Yes, I have to brace myself against any kind of emotional engagement and so I choose a cerebral one instead. I am thinking about poverty. The general definition of poverty involves the absence of basic human needs such as clean water, nutrition, healthcare and education.
Poverty is something we are all too familiar with in Africa. We’ve all read all too often about how a large percentage of our population is surviving below the poverty datum line.
We’ve heard reports from the UN, the IMF, the WFP and the World Bank on the subject of our poverty. We’ve been witness to various programmes and projects that were touted as the ones to end poverty, and we’ve gazed with hope at each new Messianic leader, imagining that this one will be “the one” who will actually really care. And yet we are still poor.
The UN defines poverty as “the total absence of opportunities, accompanied by high levels of undernourishment, hunger, illiteracy, lack of education, physical and mental ailments, emotional and social instability, unhappiness, sorrow and hopelessness for the future.
Poverty is also characterised by a chronic shortage of economic, social and political participation, relegating individuals to exclusion as social beings, preventing access to the benefits of economic and social development and thereby limiting their cultural development.” (www.un.org)
When I was growing up it used to be that in the very conservative Christian community we operated in, poverty was looked upon as a positive thing. Or more accurately, wealth was frowned upon. Overt signs of wealth in particular, were taken as confirmation of a sinful nature or actions!
The psychology behind this was very noble: We didn’t want people to focus on avaricious accumulation of material possession. We wanted them to focus on “…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8 KJV). Accumulation of wealth was not one of “these things”.
Of course there is a difference between dire poverty and shunning wealth. Many Christians struggle with the idea of embracing poverty. If you are a Christian of the “stumbling and falling down” variety like myself, you will find the idea of living modestly and moderately a lot more palatable than the “poverty, chastity and obedience” of the religious vows taken by our more extreme brothers and sisters. In contrast, there is a whole new wave of prosperity teaching which has arisen which supports the exact opposite of this.
Poverty has many causes. There is the “bad luck” variety of causes such as floods, famine, disease etc, and then there is the “other” variety, such as bad governance, corruption, unfair trade practices, which tend to be man-made and can potentially be ended by the same.
In a communal society like ours, your poverty affects me whether I like it or not.
Even if the resources I have are sufficient for myself, they will need to be spread wider if your resources are not sufficient for you. When you stand at the traffic lights with a baby on your hip, begging for food, it affects me. When you cannot pay your children’s hospital bills it affects me. When you get evicted from your residence and have to find somewhere to stay, it affects me. I don’t have a choice about being affected.
It stands to reason therefore that we should all be diligently looking to end poverty. Not just our own poverty, but also that of the people around us.
While we may not be in a position to build schools and hospitals, there are a few things which are within our control, and which if done consistently, can make a difference.
We can complain. If we complain long enough and loud enough, someone will surely hear us. We can stop acting in ways that compound our problems.
Poor performance at work may seem like a small thing today, and you may not see a direct relationship between the food you waste and your children’s school fees, but in the end every small act makes a contribution.
We can teach our children differently, so that we safeguard the welfare of the next generation. We can encourage them to exercise choices, to refuse cheating, to make a connection between work and reward, and not to expect freebies.
We can vote.
So today I’m going to work to end poverty – not just my own, but that of the people around me. I am going to participate in something that widens someone else’s possibilities, that multiplies the choices available to them and that breaks the cycle of silence and scarcity.
About the Author
Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to email@example.com. Follow Thembe on www.twitter/localdrummer