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Poverty, The “Gray Zone” of Life in Africa Part One

  • Teaser: In the book Behind the Beautiful Flowers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, author Katherine Boo describes the quality of life in one of India’s largest slums. Next door to this ravaged slum sits a five star hotel, evidence of the booming real estate in Mumbai.

Part One:

 Katherine Boo managed to spend considerable time in the undercity, Annawadi, where she wrote this book, in spite of opposition from local police, and initial suspicion from local inhabitants. In a review of the book by Pankaj Mishra, he begins by quoting from Primo Levi’s book, “The Drowned and the Saved”, in which Levi describes a “gray zone” in the relationships between people who were in Auschwitz concentration camp. The gray zone describes a dehumanized condition where individuals having been treated so savagely, submitted to such horror and depravity, that they then treat their fellow prisoners in a similar way. The debasement become so complete, that people forget what they have in common with one another, and resort to instinctual survival impulses. If debasement is curtailed, only then will benevolent impulses reappear. The reviewer makes the analogy of those subjected to gross and impoverished conditions similar to the situation and behaviors of people living in Annawadi. There, the dire living circumstances give license to a callous lack of regard for one’s fellow sufferers; an individual benefitting from the suffering of another is justified. Social solidarity, coming from a shared experience of suffering, is not the primary relationship. Instead, the nature of suffering, at the expense of another, is condoned. The best one can do is avoid the worst of it, which means that if one of your neighbors is going to get it, chances are you’ll be less likely to be subject to suffer the same thing.

The gray zone is evident in the collective story of Africa as a consequence of poverty, and a “perceived” lack; “perceived”, because in fact, there is much potential in Africa, many natural resources and the fact that many Africans are doing quite well; but even those who are succeeding are often still caught in the web of the miasma of poverty. It is a collective condition, not simply an individual matter. However, the experience of hunger on a daily basis for generations of millions of Africans feeds the perception of lack, and paralyzes potential. It inhibits the possibilities to make changes as those who do have money and power are simply concerned at preserving what they have. They don’t want to take the risk to share. They are still caught in the trap of “poverty consciousness”, the “gray zone”.

In Africa, more than in India, for example, there is greater social disintegration. There is less family, or other support systems that provide a basic sense of security, and life feels very tenuous with hunger a constant reality for many millions of people. One in four suffers from a lack of food to some degree and even for many others, there is often no long-term security.

Therefore, the consequences of living in poverty and the daily struggle for food can often lead to what is witnessed in Indian slums. Instead of coming together in solidarity to help share the burden of poverty, people undermine each other and there is a fragmentation of support and lack of solidarity within families, tribes, and the community at large. In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya and the second largest in Africa, hunger is a daily reality for many, while the wealthy shop in nearby malls.

What is being described is only one side of the story. There are areas with a strong sense of community, of family, and social harmony. In these communities women are mostly the backbone of society, taking care of the children and the feeding of families. Traditionally, in the villages, there is generally much more communal spirit in discussion and decision-making. Agreement is valued over imposing ones viewpoint on another. It is still on a human scale and in that structure African society is extraordinarily resilient. It’s when politics assumes a larger and more powerful presence that the temptations of authoritarianism, and the “Big Man” power dynamics take over and corruption becomes the norm. This has been one of the challenges in post-independence Africa, when imposed national boundaries and new and inexperienced national governments have had to take responsibility for a country. It is also the result of a rapid urbanization of African culture, where the predominant village based life has dramatically declined and major cities have rapidly grown, imposing a whole new challenge to survival, where little of the traditional support systems and connections exist. The urbanization of African society in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest in the world. Kenya’s population at independence in 1964 was about 8 million. It is now 48 million. One in 4 of the worlds population under the age of 25 live in Africa.

Africa’s history of colonial oppression, corrupt governments, social disorder, and the generational collective memory of hunger, has shaped the ‘perceived’ lack that affects people’s behavior and attitudes today. A strong hierarchical social structure has fostered insecurity and instability, especially for women, who have little social and economic choice. The dynamics of power often leads to a self-centered value system in which self-preservation becomes the most important thing.

In the African mind, the “perceived” lack justifies corruption because opportunities to gain wealth are so limited, and there is often a large family to support. The corrupt politicians and others in government as well as in businesses are about making the most of the opportunity at hand, as one can never be sure when it will come again. They are expected to bring money back to their communities, to share the opportunity they have. In Africa corruption is an accepted social norm, and to not take advantage when opportunity presents itself, is considered foolish.

Underpinning this feeling of lack is profound insecurity and this perpetuates actions that are self-serving. Although what has been described as a significant aspect of social behavior is apparent in many African countries, this is no indictment on Africa alone as most people in similar circumstances would act the same way. It is simply a reaction to the crude and limiting circumstances of an impoverished life. The historical and daily experience of poverty often leads to behaviors that have destructive effects on social development. It is the same everywhere in the world. The poor in more developed countries often behave in ways that compound their poverty and make decisions based on this “lack”.

Issues such as colonial oppression, and the consequences of imperialism, are major factors for the poverty in Africa. In his book “Blood River”, Tim Butcher describes the complete social decay of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when retracing the explorer Stanley’s steps along the length of the Congo River. The DRC, more than any other African country, has fallen apart since independence, the situation no doubt compounded by the nefarious influence of greedy western corporate powers mining precious minerals like coltan. Butcher discusses this perspective with a Malaysian U.N. employee who commented that blaming colonialism was “rubbish.” He said that Malaysia suffered similar experiences for hundreds of years, but has since been able to establish itself as a successful nation state. The descriptions in the book about the state of the DRC as a land with no government, no laws, no “social” identity, an utterly fragmented place, exemplifies a complete breakdown of all social order. The one thing not discussed in the book is how many African countries, the DRC included, that were literally carved out of nothing; there’s no intrinsic reason for the shape and size of a country, based on geographical, cultural, or other political motives. At least Malaysia had some cultural and racial identity (even with the large number of Chinese and Indian people there), giving it some natural cohesion. That cannot be said to be the case in the DRC and other countries. Also, in the book, Butcher describes how the jungle simply takes over when the influence of man abates, and swallows up everything in its path. Even though Malaysia has jungles, the overwhelming nature of the jungle in the DRC is unique, being bigger than Western Europe or the Indian subcontinent. How can anybody create political and economic cohesion in such a place?

The experience of hunger has been with Africa a long time, and one can make the argument that what is unique about much of sub-Saharan Africa, is that the struggle for food, and survival, is more difficult than most other places. Factors such as limited rainfall for crop irrigation, barren soils, living in tropical and sub-tropical equatorial regions that pose the constant challenge of disease, all make life intrinsically harder than elsewhere. It only takes one bad rainy season for many to die. There is a fine line between surviving and perishing, and this has always been the case, especially in certain parts of the continent. The memory of hardship is there in the land and passed on through generations, along with behaviors and actions that perpetuate impoverishment. The “gray zone” contains the immediate sense of despair, where it is hard to see beyond the needs of the moment to a future wellbeing for all. When the stomach is empty, compassion for one’s fellow sufferers is difficult to summon.

Compounding the above mentioned is the lack of social cohesion in many countries. The identity and meaning traditionally seen within tribal families has been eroded through the influence of modernity, urbanization, and the influence of imperialism. The Christian church has played its part too, by dismissing traditional cultural values, and then imposing their own. Perhaps out of the need to find a new form of social cohesion in a society with little other security to offer, many Africans have adopted Christianity, and Islam. Notably, Europe has gone through similar transitions over time.

The history, the hunger, the continual challenge of surviving diseases like malaria, and the absence of social cohesion in the society at large, puts Africa in Levi’s “gray zone.” Instead of instilling common values and a shared experience, the opposite occurs; a self-centered survival mode of ‘get whatever you can get’ at the expense of others if necessary. It is not in any way as extreme as the experience in a concentration camp, although some of the horrors of famines, often induced by civil conflicts and the degree of violence seen for example in the eastern parts of the DRC, come close to that experience. However, the “gray zone” influence still tinges the reality for many in Africa, a pervasive dynamic that inhibits the possibility of change.

How can a country really develop and look after its citizens when there is so little sense of social cohesion? This is the challenge now facing many African countries and the solutions need to come from many quarters; predominately though the need for enlightened political solutions are needed to help create the economic and social stability necessary to give people greater confidence for their very survival. However, it is still the case that African is seen through the veil of political and economic interests by Western powers and now China. Previous natural resources, fertile land and water resources are seen as commodities to exploit and too many African leaders have been willing to sell out their own resources for immediate gain at the expense of their country as a whole.

Primo Levi also observed that when oppression is lifted, compassion comes to the fore, as seen in the concentration camps he described. In spite of the deeply challenging life circumstances, many Africans exhibit hope, optimism and an amazing capacity to endure. The capacity for a more enlightened relationship to survival is possible, but until the memory of hunger is erased, likely to take a generation or two to accomplish, progress may be slow.