One of my younger brothers, the younger twin, was watching something on TV and started laughing. The rest of us who did not get the joke turned to look at him and that was when he explained that the mother carrying a kid on TV had stirred some interesting memory. It was something awkwardly interesting that he had seen in a locally produced TV program. He told us that there was this young kid of 3 or 4 years old who was running around naked in the compound with the mother chasing after him. The mother who was hurling warning epithets as she chased her son had almost caught him when the father came on to the scene. After observing that rug rat race for a while, he told the wife to stop chasing after his son. When she objected claiming that she needed to dress him, this father interjected with his own warped wisdom saying and I quote, “Let the kid run around naked, I want the neighbours to see how well fed he is!”
This was an interesting but totally absurd perspective and which forms the basis for my argument in my quest to better your understanding of Kenya, Africa, or any other country that is not your own. A few years back when I was a second year student at Egerton University, I attended a presentation of several theses by our lecturers in an event entitled “Interrogation of the West.” The theses presented comprised many issues that affect our continent and most offered home grown solutions to the areas they covered. But others were just attribution theories meant only to place blame without taking responsibility for our part in creating the problems. It is said that a potent question trump present understanding. I was in my essence that day as I piled question after question after question to the panellists and though some murmured their answers hoping that amid all they said there was some sense, others like Prof. Kihumbu were articulate and spot on. I left that room, FASS Theatre 2, an informed man with a different perspective, a perspective that was recently brought to the fore by my young brother as he reiterated the story of the young naked toddler and his proud father.
That mental abstraction that you have right now of a young naked toddler whose father wants him naked as he does his thing around the estate may as well be the symbol that defines Africa. Anybody else me included would have thought that this toddler has come from a very poor family that cannot even afford to dress him in rags. If this was not a hypothetical scenario and I had some small amount of money to spare, I would have approached the mother with it and beseeched her to dress the young child. I would also with some farfetched sense of authority – a close friend of mine studied medicine and had just graduated a week back – advise her that there are dangerous diseases like pneumonia which the young toddler could contract. There are two things here: first I would be assuming that the mother is not only poor but also uninformed if not illiterate and secondly, if I had approached the father instead of the mother, he would have punched my face in. He does not need handouts. Not only can he feed his own kid well, he also wants everybody else to see it.
Most people who are new in Africa or in Kenya for that matter assume that most of us are poor and that we need help. They assume that the old man who sits in the village until the sun sets must surely be earning less than a dollar a day. They think that all those kids walking barefoot have parents who cannot afford mere shoes. In general, taking these as case in points, they rank our country and continent as earning less than a dollar a day on average. Ever since the missionaries set foot in Africa, they were on a mission to “rescue” Africa but from what, I do not know. They ended up messing up a hitherto perfectly working society. For instance, they introduced religions even though our traditional societies had they own ways of being spiritual, maintaining morality and respecting God. But religion was just the start. From what I got when my lecturers presented their thesis, we were civilised in more ways than the cliché history lessons taught in our formal education programs has made us believe. I was even more proud when I took a course in International Humanitarian Law in which I learned that most of the now text book practises in the Geneva Convention and in the Law of the Hague were common practises in the traditional African society. But I digress.
Based on our own backgrounds and experiences, we tend to observe the world from that very limited perspective, our own. We assume that how we grew up was the best way and that all else ought to conform for all to be well. It however takes a lot for us to discard our perceptions and embrace new ones. This is the only way that one can truly appreciate the diversity of thought and practice that make cultural exchanges such enlightening experiences. There are riches in our countries that cannot be explained in monetary terms yet they have been reduced to under a dollar a day in donor blabber. I am in no way blind to the fact that poverty is a grave reality and I know this to be true because I see it every day. I see the poverty in Africa; I see it in my country when people die of hunger and preventable diseases. But all I am saying is that not every kid running around naked with an extended stomach has Kwashiorkor; he might be the well fed kid whose proud father wants him to run around naked so that the neighbours can feel jealous.
A while back, I travelled north to my Grandmother’s place during the harvesting season to help in the maize harvest. After the maize was harvested and sold, I literally had thousands of shillings in my pocket but that meant nothing because I had no place to use the money while there. The food we ate was from the farm, milk from the family cows, flour from milling the maize in the store, and whatever we needed to be bought could either be exchanged with maize or bought at ridiculously low prices. While KES 5 would buy me one banana back in Nakuru, I was given five bananas when I ordered a banana in one of the stalls. At one point, several of younger cousins asked me to buy them sugarcanes and so I gave one of them a KES 50 note to go buy for the rest. They each came with sugarcanes as tall as them and gave me KES 30 in change. I was dumbfounded.
The point however is this. We have things that work for us and general attributes highly distort this fact especially when it comes to analysing where Africa lies in the world. People in most of these places live well for less. A dollar a day is more than enough to a man/woman with a farm where he/she grows food, rears animals, and more so a man/woman who does not need aesthetic materials to feel accomplished. My grandmother is ingeniously frugal such that she manages over five households and even the neighbour’s kids with petty cash and yet in the conventional “western” wisdom, she is a statistic in the poor category of under a dollar or two a day. It is for this very reason that there may be need to embrace the absurd in order to fully comprehend how things work in the different countries before making general conclusions. How the milk from the family cow, the flour and vegetables from the fields, the oxen driven plough, the fruits from the trees, the water from the well, the spacious mud thatched houses, the eggs from the chickens, not to mention the goats, sheep, cows and dogs, each with its own value, can be integrated in defining and calculating the dollar value of poverty is for those with bigger brains than mine to determine. All I know is that the above mentioned add up to more than a dollar a day when their real values are established.
Until then, find out whether the naked kid running around the estate lacks anything first because there is usually more than meets the eye. A dollar a day is more than enough in certain areas and behind every naked kid, there might be a proud father.
© Marvin Tumbo 2009
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