The irony of Africa being a very rich continent but Africans being some of the poorest peoples in the world is no longer lost on anyone. While we can argue about the historical, structural, attitudinal, personal and institutional causes of this state of affairs the fact remains that majority of our peoples remain in need amidst plenty. Decades of Aid, humanitarian intervention, prayers, activism, development plans, action plans, government declarations and so many other initiatives have not produced fundamental change for the poorest and weakest sections of our societies, writes the late Tajudeen in his last Pan African Postcard.
The irony of Africa being a very rich continent but Africans being some of the poorest peoples in the world is no longer lost on anyone. While we can argue about the historical , structural, attitudinal, personal and institutional causes of this state of affairs the fact remains that majority of our peoples remain in need amidst plenty.
Decades of Aid, humanitarian intervention, prayers, activism, development plans, action plans, government declarations and so many other initiatives have not produced fundamental change for the poorest and weakest sections of our societies. Yet Africans remain one of the most optimistic peoples, perpetually believing that ‘ tomorrow go better’ (ie, tomorrow will be better, as they say in Nigeria). The hope may be dependent on a few Chinese or Indian made wares hanging on the neck of the street hawker or a tray of fruits dexteriously carried by an underage girl rushing for vehicles on the streets of Accra or few sachets of allegedly ‘Pure water’ on the streets of Lagos or Obama paraphernalia in Nairobi.
It is always a miracle how majority of the poor whether in our urban slums or impoverished rural areas survive. Our cities’ overburdened road infrastructures have spurned entrepreneurship in the form of shops on legs meandering between armies of pedestrians and impatient vehicle drivers frustrated at the gridlock traffic. Similarly informal settlements have developed, several times the size of our capital cities with little or no infrastructures. Some of them like Kibera are even becoming ‘famous’ globally for poverty tourism. Unfortunately it is not the impoverished peoples in these settlements who are even the beneficiaries of their own poverty.
The Majority of Africans continue to survive not because of government but in spite of governments. They eke out a living to keep body and soul together, provide for their families, doing all kinds of dirty work with little pay or selling anything that is buyable hawking all kinds of household wares, fruits, vegetables and myriad of consumer items.
The concept of informal settlements in Africa is not just about where people live but extends to informal markets in all kinds of goods and services: road side mechanics, vulcanisers, local industrialists ho fabricate or copy anything from car parts to miniature planes! If the truth be told what is called informal sector is indeed the real enterprising economy of Africa delivering goods and services as and when needed
As the son of a hardworking woman who was a ‘petty trader’ I confess to a bias in favour of these small entrepreneurs who do not depend on any connections with government officials, politicians and big business / corporate sharks. You go to many neighbourhoods rich or poor you will find these largely women, entrepreneurs, selling food to those working on construction sites, cheap vegetables to other poor members of the society from their baskets, , trays or single tables at the corners of roads and streets.
So Living in Kenya, a settler apartheid type state in all but name I find myself in solidarity with ‘Mama mboga’ .These are women who sell vegetables from their trays, or traditional load carriers tied to their heads, carried on their backs.
From Mama Mboga selling daily perishable vegetables the ambition of many of them is to own a kiosk where they can have storage for more goods , stock more items, install a fridge and freezer that can preserve perishable items. When Mama Mboga becomes a Kiosk owner it is a personal triumph of hope over adversity , a long journey from grinding poverty to bearable survival and foundations for permanent exit from poverty. The bigger the kiosk and the better stocked it is the farther away the owner is from poverty.
Government policy is threatening the survival of the Mama Mbogas across this continent. In the name of ridding cities of illegal constructions, returning to the original city plans and ‘beautifying’ our cities City councils and governments at all levels are creating more poverty running lifelong savings accumulated through extreme sacrifice and hardwork . Of what use is a ‘beautiful city’ peopled by citizens who have lost their livelihoods? Would they appreciate the beauty?
The Mama Mbogas are on the street and in kiosks because they cannot afford the malls and most of their clientele cannot afford the price in the malls.
Our elite are embarrassed by the mass poverty that surrounds us but they are unwilling to provide leadership and appropriate policies to take our peoples to prosperity. They think they can lock it away from polite society. They engage in avoidance and denial mechanisms to pretend to visitors that ‘everything is ok’. That’s why they rid our capitals of beggars, hawkers, and other ‘undesirables’ before any major ‘international’ conference but out of sight is not out of mind for the Mama and Baba Mbogas in our midst. You can pull down their kiosks and destroy their tables but they will come back with new tables, under umbrellas and their clientele will know where to find them. By no means are their clients all wretched of the earth. I still call my favourite mama Mboga, Mama Sarah, or her husband , Martin, to send me top up cards from wherever Nairobi City Council have forced them to. But this couple like me driven back to the streets by government policy have had their hopes and dreams shattered by a government with a tunnel vision of development that only looks at the welfare of the minority rich and powerful at the expense of the impoverished and powerless underclass .While the elite engages in power struggles the citizens are only concerned about Livelihood struggles. Any society that threatens the livelihood of its own citizens risk permanent threat to its own survival and security.