19 June 2017

Uganda: What It Means to Be Poor


Many of us talk about poverty from a bookish sense, never having experientially interacted with the malaise in its raw form.

Hence, we can talk indifferently and forever about fixing it, yet do almost nothing tangible apart from seeming to work. James Baldwin is one of those writers that so dramatically captured the predicament of living in deprivation.

In his lived view, anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how expensive it is to be poor. Such is the costliness of poverty that a person who has lived in it needs no illustration of hell. If hell is a place of fire, a life of deprivation is blue fire.

If it is a perpetual experience of gnashing teeth, what will be there to gnash for the poor that lose all their teeth in biting the rock that is their life?

Have you ever stopped minding that you did not have taxi fare, because it would fall through the holes in your pockets anyway? Have you ever patched up your trousers until it became impossible to recognise the original material?

Have you ever laid on your grass bed with a vacant stomach, watching the moon through the holes in your rusted iron sheets - wondering if up in those distant skies is some being aware and concerned that you exist?

Did you ever till someone's garden for the whole day, just to earn yourself a plate of food? Did you ever have a tree shade for lunch in the hot sun, envying ants that pass by with their little crumbs?

Have you ever watched your child die from a treatable disease, where all you could do was caress and plead with her: "Princess, don't die"! Only to watch her eyes close as the body goes cold, gone forever!

Have you ever stopped caring what the Haves think about you because you already have enough load of pains to carry in your heart? Too poor to pay attention!

But you know it. You know that they drive their huge cars through your dwellings with cameras because you have become an object of amusement for poverty tourists! It may help, though, that you don't know that the selfies they ask you to join in with a smile are for Facebook 'Likes' and indifferent 'photoshopped' jokes about your mud house.

Deep in the disguised expressions of the rich, the poor are subhuman beings; hence the joke that if the rich could pay someone to die on their behalf, the poor would make a wonderful living.

At parties, the poor can only get a seat after everyone else. In meetings, their views hardly ever find expression - they raise their hands in vain, as the Haves speak over and over again, without even waiting to be given a chance.

Did some motorist ever splash muddy pothole water at you as you walked in search of a job on a rainy day? And he drove off laughing! For, to them, you could only earn some respect if you had a car! It is, indeed, true what they say that some people are too poor, all they have is money.

Have you ever stopped crying because you were too hungry and dehydrated to produce a teardrop? So, you look at your starving child with a straight face and, like yesterday, tell them that things will get better. As hope is all you can afford!

Did you ever hear your rich neighbours plan to demolish your small house because it makes their neighbourhood look shabby? They actually approached you asking how much you wanted to be paid to leave - implicitly meaning that you relocate to your class.

That little boy seated on their single-room's veranda has never owned a toy. He only has his genitals to play with. Future is an extravagant thought.

Two sisters were buried before him. Like a drunkard's chicken, he is just lucky to be alive. Yet at school, he is expected to sit the same exam with all, being asked about things he studied on an empty stomach - if at all he did!

Many times, their poverty is not factored into the general scheme of things. It doesn't matter that they go to a school where laboratory tests are conducted on the blackboard. It counts not that they do their writing practice with a stick on a banana leaf or on the ground.

No one cares that you have to trek miles on naked feet to get to school. It is not anyone's concern what menstruation means to your studies. All that the cannibal nation wants to hear are your grades.

You are blamed for producing many children, not knowing that in your world, child survival is a gamble. With their privileges, they can produce three children with a high expectation that they will all grow. But where two or three often die before their fifth birthday, who would risk producing only four?

In the touristic studies of the rich, the poor reproduce for prestige and free labour in the garden! What can they learn about walking in the poor's shoes from their impersonal questionnaires?

You see, one man's poverty is another man's business opportunity, hence all the projects to study and write about the poor.

Just half of the money spent on studying the poor would be enough to make their lives better. To be poor is to have many people pretending to care about you, thus starting predatory initiatives cunningly packaged around your miseries.

They will hold a superfluous workshop at a luxurious hotel to discuss your hunger. By the end of the third day, money almost enough to solve the problem has been spent on the fifty belching participants. In real sense, bettering your life is a threat to someone's job.

The author works with the School of Postgraduate Studies and Research at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.


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