|Naomi, posing for my camera in her role as poor African farmer’s wife|
Naomi was my first exposure to poverty as expediency in rural Africa. She and her husband are the responsible family unit for a multi kitchen homestead in Makueni, Kenya. They themselves own a Maruti van which he runs as a matatu plying a regular route to the county seat, Wote; a butchery and bar with a colour television and diesel generator in the nearest market town half a kilometer away as well as a healthy plot of land including an orange grove and a well.
Still, she insisted, they were just poor African farmers deserving of a handout from me, the mzungu. Due to the paucity of South Asians in this part of Kenya, I was often treated as a white and once asked if I was Chinese! Her attitude was “Here take this photograph of us in our farm like your sort want to do but be sure to leave your largesse behind for me”. As an Indian, born in Calcutta, I am no stranger to poverty and any family in the process of building a brick house, owning a vehicle, a storefront and a diesel generator to run the colour TV is firmly in the middle class in my eyes. No poverty here, Africa or no Africa.
Thus began the saga of my traumatic experience as a “rich white man” in rural Africa, where market women grabbed at my gold chain while insisting I spend money in their shops as a matter of entitlement and farm wives sneered at my meagre offering of a small solar lantern. Makueni falls in the drought prone and food insecure region that receives international food aid as a matter of course each year. Big name NGOs and their shiny white vehicles can be seen in most decent restaurants at lunchtime and the local populace have their scripts memorized by heart. We’re poor African farmers, give us food, O Walking Sack of Grain. Just ignore that TV blaring in grandma’s room or junior’s shiny bicycle.
Whose fault is this expedient shift in demeanor and roles? What happens when everyone looks the same to the humanitarian aid worker, equally needy and equally deserving of a handout? The pink fuzzy veil of altruistic do gooding blurs the world’s vision of what poverty means, after all, who ever heard of a rich Indian or an African with her belly full?
This is the result of decades of indiscriminate largesse; well meaning but unfocused humanitarian aid, my client tells me. He is an ex NGO type from Europe, who stayed behind in magical Africa (cue Toto) after 20 years in emergency aid and founded a couple of lucrative social enterprises. Not profitable businesses. There’s a difference. Of course she’s an experienced beneficiary, who wouldn’t be if you heard there was a free lunch to be had. The undermining of individual agency and the cynical view of dumb donors are two sides of the same unhealthy coin.
As an Indian abroad, I have dealt with my share of assumptions on my economic status. The shock of realizing that I was not poor enough to satisfy my European hostess’ need to uplift the 3rd world brown woman standing in front of her made me dig deeper into the motivating factors behind this phenomena of charitable good works and the bottom of the pyramid. Naomi, the middle class businesswoman in rural Kenya had already figured out this secret and learnt to play her assigned role when required. Expedience is a cloak one can quickly wrap around oneself.
Once I noticed this, a pattern emerged among those I met in the social impact industry, bent on helping the Bottom of the Pyramid cook, clean and poop the modern way. One that leads me to pose the very same question that Regarding Humanity asked me:
3. What does dignified, respectful humanitarianism look like to you in the context of the power dynamics you mention?
Given what I have described of my experience in rural Makueni in eastern Kenya last spring (February 2012) and given that these behaviours were more likely to be due to the benefiary experience, what does it tell us about the way the we need to change our approach?
I don’t know if this conversation will continue, right now, in the short term, on my blog, but I am grateful to the folks at Regarding Humanity – Lina Srivastava, Linda Raftree, TMS Ruge et al for this thought exercise and opportunity to introspect and ponder.