The irony of Africa being a very rich continent but Africans being some of the poorest peoples in the world is no longer lost to 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 will be better. 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 roads and 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 Slum in Nairobi 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.
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 influence. You go to many neighbourhoods rich or poor and you will find these largely female 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 is to own a kiosk where you can have storage for more goods , stock more, put 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 further 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 central governments are creating more poverty. Of what use is a ‘beautiful city’ inhabited by people 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. Instead they engage in avoidance and denial mechanisms to pretend to visitors that ‘everything is okay’.
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/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 there 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.
by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem
He passed away on Monday morning May 25, 2009, on the eve of Africa Day. That Tajudeen became an activist for the Pan-African cause for so many years shows that a continental consensus is a distant dream. He died in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital from a car crush. May his soul rest in eternal peace.