By G Oguda via Facebook
One of the reasons I find it difficult stomaching Mutahi Ngunyi’s sentiments is because he used the subject of poverty to drive his point home. I have always been of the feeling that if I was to be confronted with choosing the lesser evil between the guy who mocks my tribe and the one who makes fun of poor people, I would, grudgingly, let the ethnic buffoon go.
And I will tell you why.
As Kenyans, we should never allow anyone in this country to make fun of poor people. And it doesn’t matter whether you are the President’s consultant or the blogger who thrives on blood-stained handouts dripping from the leaking tap at State House. Anybody who disparages poor people deserve to die. Death, by waterboarding.
I am talking about the rural poor, those who have no energy left to speak for themselves. I run around this country collecting data and hugging trees and I want to tell you here, today, that Kenyans are a very resilient people.
My first real field work experience, as a baptised anthropologist, was in Laini Village, Galole Constituency, Tana River County. This was the moment I came face-to-face with chronic poverty. I still have that picture in my photo library. It pains me whenever I look at it. Five hungry children, barely in nursery school, with no clothes on, their skins drier than the surface of Chalbi Desert, were fighting over a mango that had fallen down on their farm.
That mango was in bad shape, it was oozing maggots, a larger portion was too rotten to even feed insects. But they were fighting over it, because it might have been the only meal for them that day. You should have seen the tears down the cheeks of the youngest one so weak and defenceless he relied on his siblings’ mercy. As recently as 2008, people in this country were still gathering rotten fruits as their main meal.
In that photo, still in my archives, there is a squirrel in between nibbling at leftovers in a dumpsite nearby. Leftovers of mango peels too raw and bitter to have passed through the digestive tract of an alert person. The people in that part of the world harvest premature mangoes to try and starve off the hunger as they wait for something from somewhere, anywhere.
The squirrel was getting very comfortable being closer to the feet of the five children because it knew the kids would never mobilize the requisite energy to give it a competitive chase, if ever it decided to poach the fleshy fruit from the weak arms of the child having a tight grip on it.
I couldn’t believe it. In that place, animals in the lower end of the food chain have this arrogance that is only reserved for the king of the jungle. Humans beings – conquerers of the Earth – looked down upon by things my late dog ‘Bingo’ would kill in our cassava plantation and throw away in River Awach to rot. Poverty is so dehumanizing it makes rodents believe they can start World War III and beat humans hands down while at it. Holy Cow!
I asked that I meet whomever was taking care of the children and I was taken to a very desolate hut – so porous and weak it was leaning on one side. More of a death trap than a habitat. The grandmother they lived with, partially blind from the stinging smoke from her fireplace, which, obviously, was powered by wet wood oozing white sap, conveniently gathered across the fence, couldn’t even gather the energy to welcome me home. You get the feeling she was surviving on basal metabolic rate.
Those of you who have cooked food in traditional kitchens will tell you that the greatest nightmare any cook could ever have is the nature of firewood at their disposal. Wet firewood takes time to light up, produces smoke the size of cumulonimbus clouds – smoke that is so thick and poisonous if it doesn’t choke you to death it corrodes your cornea, drains your aqueous humour and takes out your vision completely. Poor people who cook on three stones with wet firewood are the stonewall face of rural poverty. I shook the hands of that grandmother and I felt like a malleable stick with tentacles was closing in on my palms. She could barely raise her voice let alone sit upright to make a coherent speech.
My late grandmother always told me that whenever you go to visit someone in the rural areas, do not ever forget to ask that you see where they prepare their food. A fireplace is one of the foolproof poverty indicators known to man. A kitchen, any kitchen, can tell you a lot about whether a family is surviving, thriving, living, existing, or celebrating. When I got to that grandmother’s fireplace, I felt like cursing the world. That place had been cold for, she told me, one week. The ashes were compact – a result of moisture accumulated from the cold – the aluminium cooking pot was beyond description. It was only one, it had seen better days, and it had a hole at the junction where the waist meets the bottom. That hole was plugged by a wooden stick, from a dry soft wood, sculptured by the weak teeth of a frail woman. I asked that it be filled with water and the exact spot was still leaking.
My first dive into full-blown research exposed me to the darker underbelly of this nation that we choose not to talk about because we neither have the time, nor the resources, for domestic travel, or we choose, like Mutahi Ngunyi, and Kipchumba Murkomen, to use poverty as a convenient tool to settle political scores.
â€œHistory is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.â€ – Jeffrey D. Sachs
And that is about to change.