I’m about to delve into a topic that is quite sensitive and uncomfortable; one must tread lightly upon it.
It is always the hardest to provide commentary on topics that no one wants to hear about because it is simply easier to ignore.
I’m not standing on a soapbox, demanding attention; I’m writing this as a manifestation of a year’s worth of frustration, guilt, a sense of ineffectiveness and a feeling of despair because change will not occur overnight, if at all.
The gap between the rich and the poor is not a new cause for concern or topic of debate. Since Biblical times, people have faced this moral struggle. Of course, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the gap became larger and more obvious as capitalism and materialism permeated society. The “need vs. want” mentality became blurred as people saw hard work as the tool of upward mobility and material possessions as a means of social status/class.
The struggle for wealth is not limited to the West or other developed nations, and certainly the struggle continues with the marginalized communities in these developed nations. But as a witness to a very upwardly mobile middle class in Kenya, the gap between those living in Lavington, Westlands, Karen, Langata, Muthaiga, etc. (posh suburbs of Nairobi) and those living in Kangemi, Kibera, Kawangware, Korogocho, Mathare, etc. (the largest slums in Nairobi with Kibera, topping the list of largest slums in all of sub-Saharan Africa) grows wider and deeper every day.
The disparity between an affluent American and a poor American is less jarring and shocking compared to an affluent Kenyan and a poor Kenyan. An affluent American will live in the suburbs, just as an affluent Kenyan; a poor American will live in the ghettos and a poor Kenyan will live in the slums. Yes, both the rich and the poor have designated areas of a particular town or city, but the poor American is still far better off than a poor Kenyan.
At first glance, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between rich and poor Americans, especially among the middle-class Americans. Chances are both sets of Americans have access to all of the amenities one needs for a healthy, prosperous life: Clean water, health care, electricity, personal transportation, smartphones, etc. Unfortunately, a first glance of a poor Kenyan is usually pretty obvious: Ragged, dirt-stained, threadbare clothes and worn-out shoes, if any at all. And a first glance of a rich or middle-class Kenyan is where the disparity is obvious and jarring: Intricately coifed hairstyle, high heels, “bling” and a Range Rover or similar luxury vehicle.
I’ve seen more Range Rovers here than anywhere in the US, despite what the celebrities, athletes, cast of “Jersey Shore” and the various “Real Housewives” display. I’ve also seen more people walk without shoes and go hungry than anywhere in the US. I realize that life in many places is very polarizing, the haves flashing what they have and the have-nots longing for what they do not have, but the effects of a materialistic society are exacerbated in marginalized areas, such as parts of Kenya and specifically, Nairobi.
Perhaps I’m more aware of the disparity because I am in an unusual position here: I am a minority. Yes, I am white and yes, there are white Kenyans and other ex-pats, but unlike the white Kenyans and ex-pats, I do not live in a mansion or ostentatious flat; I do not drive or own a car and am not on a high-paying salary. I am a volunteer, living simply in a foreign land. Yet I am perceived as affluent at first glance because of the color of my skin.
I realize that people must be desperate enough and sometimes, courageous, to ask a complete stranger for money. But what is off-putting about the tactics among some in Nairobi is that they almost expect an mzungu (white person) to hand over a couple hundred shillings. I have had several instances (and one involved the same man over the course of a few weeks) run from across the road over to me and ask me for money. To that I respond with, why did you seek me out when there are lots of others walking around? Is it simply because of my skin color, you see me as an ATM?
I cannot dole out a few shillings here and there because that perpetuates stereotype of “the white savior” abroad and frankly, we as members of developed nations should not condone these hand-outs. I see great strides being made by a new approach to aid and emergency relief/funds to developing nations: Work alongside, not above nor in front of, local NGOs in establishing sustainable projects to benefit marginalized groups.
Yet it breaks my heart and makes me question my own morals when I have to refuse to give 10 shillings to a chokora (Swahili for “street kid”) because I cannot continue to be seen as THE answer to eradicating poverty. Sure, 10 shillings is not a financial loss for me, but it usually is not a financial gain for the chokora either; if they were sent out by their parent to beg, that perpetuates a vicious cycle of lack of education, which will keep them in poverty. But if this chokora is abandoned or orphaned and is begging to survive, how do I know if he/she will use the 10 bob to buy food or to buy glue, to sniff and get high?
In most instances, both here and in the US, when I’m approached by a panhandler, beggar, chokora, whatever, I go for this approach: If you are truly hungry, take this banana or I will buy you a banana. Is this any better than refusing to hand out cash? I think so. Does it still make me question how society takes care (or lack thereof) of its most downtrodden? Yes, absolutely. But I figure food, something which all humans need, is a better alternative than giving out money, which could be used for unsavory purposes.
The conscience and moral struggle is a daily battle not only in Nairobi but all around the world. I already dread my first encounter with poverty in the US, one of the greatest countries in the world, yet there are millions struggling to survive; according to a story in the New York Times that ran on 13 September 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/us/14census.html?pagewanted=all), 46.2 Americans are living below the official poverty line.
When I return to the US in three weeks, I will be inundated with advertisements for the latest iPhone or the newest fashions this fall or a new line of luxury vehicles. Even as I am typing this, I feel a sense of guilt because I need (or is it want? It is hard to determine sometimes) a new computer since mine is over five years old and on its last legs. How can I justify purchasing a new computer when the one I have works well, despite the fact that the battery is shot and is now a functioning desktop laptop.
But does this sense of guilt and frustration bar me from being an American consumer again? It shouldn’t, but it comes with a heavy heart. Not only will I feel buyer’s remorse (of which I am a chronic sufferer even before my year here) and shame for indulging in a luxury because of my shift in perceptions from life here in Kenya but also because I know that there are millions of Americans, Americans!, who cannot afford many of life’s basic necessities. And here I am, due for not only a computer upgrade but a cell phone upgrade, and I feel sick about it.
How do I transition back into the consumer-driven American lifestyle? How do I justify my spending after the year I’ve had? I certainly do not know the answers, but I suppose that is one of the many purposes for the forthcoming YAV Re-Entry & Transition retreat in New Mexico this September. As my time in Kenya comes to a close, I will try to focus on living my life as normally as possible and enjoying my remaining time. A hard task, for sure, but one that I accept the challenge gladly.