Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Power and the prison of poverty

The more things change, the more they stay the same…..well, here we are another month on and while some things have improved somewhat in Malawi, there are indications that things may not have changed as much as one might have hoped.

Wishful thinking must have been invented in such places for desires often do not get far beyond wishes. There is word that some $8million dollars will be spent on re-furbishing the five palaces in the country and while those palaces may well be in need of a ‘little work’ it seems a strange allocation of funds in a country which remains one of the poorest, if not the poorest in Africa.

I find it hard to get my head around such decisions and can only conclude that I do not understand how people think in this part of the world. Does such expenditure on such issues of ‘image’ and ‘face’ mean things here which they do not in the West? Do the people agree that it is a priority for their President to be housed as magnificently and comfortably as possible, no matter what they lack or suffer? 
Perhaps they do! Perhaps in the same way that people in Africa ‘tug their forelocks’ still at their version of ‘royalty,’ the chiefs and those in power, so too did the masses in the Western world centuries ago. It is hard to see it is much different to India where despite massive poverty and illiteracy and injustice the people appear to support billions of dollars spent on military hardware and nuclear weapons programmes, and, even more ridiculously, on a space programme!

When I have asked about such things I am told: ‘But this makes the people proud and pride is good for those who have little.’

But surely when one can choose between offering people a dose of pride or a roof over their heads and education for their children there are few who would choose ‘pride.’ What those in power really mean is they can sell the ‘pride’ factor to the people because they were never going to get what they deserved anyway so they may as well settle for pride. It’s a ‘warm fuzzy,’ no matter how ephemeral, in a world ‘ of countless ‘cold pricklies.’

But there is one difference! India is in fact a massively wealthy country and always has been. The reality of its poverty is a matter of choice, sourced in what is considered to be priority. Even Ghandhi said that if India wanted flushing toilets for all of its citizens it could have them, but clearly it was not a priority.

I am sure the Hindu religion also plays a major part in keeping people in their place and while Islam is a sizeable minority it remains a minority and those who fear for their future will always ‘toe the line’ more readily. But why does it work in Africa where religion does not teach that one is born into one’s ‘place’ in this world and if that place involves poverty and suffering then that is what you deserve?

Why do people stare into the gaping maw of poverty  which they know is worse than it needs to be because of the actions of those in power …and smile? Metaphorically speaking anyway.  Are they used to poverty? Do they no longer remember that things were better in the past, albeit under colonial rule? Is it better to be free and independent and poor where mistakes are made by your own kind than ruled by others and better off? Probably. Although it really is a ridiculous question because there is no choice.

This is not a rich country by any stretch of the imagination and while it was in better shape under British colonial rule, as were all African nations of that era, it has not been economically sound for most of its history. This is not an argument for a return to colonial rule. Such days have passed and rightly so, but just as in India one still hears people talk about how much better things worked when the British ran the country, so too, there is a memory of how Malawi was and how Malawi might be again, if sound and just government can be maintained.

But something always seems to get in the way of justice and the needs and rights of the people. What is that something which sees ‘self-serving’ rise to the top of the list of even the most intelligent, educated and decent people? I wish I knew but it seems always to be the way of Africa that those who gain power, very quickly, turn that power to their own ends and their own gains.

To add insult to injury this is a seriously religious country – either Muslim or Christian but each preaching the need to help others! But they are empty words and it is more of: ‘Do as I say, not do as I do?’

And I don’t believe it is a legacy of colonisation. If that were the case then any ex-colony would be the same and they most clearly are not. It has to be cultural and it has to be a mentality that one finds more often in places like Africa and India – these being the two where I have personal experience. Indian and African cultures are quite different except for the fact that they seem to accept injustice from those in power more easily. In India one could argue it is the caste system at work and a religious belief in the superiority of others and in Africa one can point the finger at the tribal system – a variation on the theme of caste – where those in power, for whatever reason, are believed to be deserving of honour. Except it isn’t honour; it is acceptance of their actions, however honourable or dishonourable they may be simply because they hold a position.

If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely then never more so than in such places. Demanding accountability from one’s government or leaders is an absolute if there is ever to be anything approximating justice for all. But people don’t! They complain, they condemn, they criticise and often in the most venal of ways, but they don’t actually seem to do much. Occasionally they riot and sometimes they organise protests but given that nothing ever seems to change it hardly counts as effective.

It took the peasants of what we now call the West centuries to learn how to demand their rights and some nations are better at it than others. But things seem to happen so slowly here that the learning progresses, if at all, at snail’s pace. At some level it is depressing. One can believe, as I do, that all works ultimately to the good and serves a purpose but to see things change and yet not change is disheartening. It is right and just to wish better for people; to want for them the freedoms and justice which exist in the ‘best’ of worlds, not a continuation of the same lack of freedoms and injustice which have dogged them for decades if not centuries.

Is it fear which fuels corruption? A belief that if you do not look after yourself then no-one else will? After all, things have been better and then gotten worse and there are no guarantees. But surely if someone is intelligent, well travelled, educated and responsible they will know that self-serving leads to corruption and leads to slow if not fast social decay? Surely? But they seem not to.

I remember being told in India that if you were in a position of power, any power at all, and you did not make use of it for your family then you were shamed. Perhaps that is also at work here where ‘face’ is all and in many ways, as demonstrated, would put the Asians to shame. So much is about ‘face’ and the demonstration of power from the way one bows before or kneels to a chief and the lavish nature of lifestyle for those at the top of the ladder, not to mention the displays of sometimes epic proportions, shades of Cecil B. DeMille, for official functions and presidential appearances.

To be fair, the British still do the same thing with their Royalty and the Americans do it with their President, but in the main, such displays of pomp, power and presence are less rare in this day and age and have even less place when carried out at the stinking feet of poverty.
But it is what it is and in truth, at the end of the day, whatever I might wish, it is not my problem. I can do my small part and help a few to have a better life and that is it. The rest is up to them. There is a long way to go but people must want to go there and must be prepared to take the first step on that journey no matter the risk.

When you see how people live you cannot imagine them not wanting other but perhaps they do not. Driving down to Mangochie on Lake Malawi the other week, some three hours from Lilongwe, we passed through dozens of small villages. Mud huts with thatched roofs; herds of stupid goats wandering across the road; dry-dust compounds and snaking paths through tall grass and the endless lines of people walking, and sometimes riding bikes, on the sides of the road – this is life in poor Africa. The largest buildings are religious – a mosque here, a Catholic or Evangelical Church there; a Christian school or a Muslim school.

The other reality is that it is not just those in power who spend money on their own ends but the do-gooders, the religious ‘helpers’ of all persuasions, who pour more money into demonstrations of their ‘might’ with their churches and mosques, than they do into villages where the quality of life is basic, if not subsistence.

Perhaps poverty breeds a sense of powerlessness and for those who have dragged themselves from the very depths of it, also a sense of fear that what has been gained might be lost. It takes enormous courage to fight for justice and risk all when one acts as an individual, but perhaps it takes too much courage and far more than courage to fight for justice when you risk the welfare of your children. It is one thing to risk all your own and your life for a cause – but quite another to risk that of those who depend on you.
There is no denying that it takes remarkable people of courage and determination to bring about change but there is also no denying that it is easier to demand accountability and justice when one lives in a nation which can trust both the society, that means others beyond the immediate family, and those in power, as well as the political system which both provides power and protects us.

The stark reality is that when we take to the streets demanding change in the modern world, the Western world, we do not in the main, risk our lives or our security. Most developed nations provide a welfare safety net which will catch us if we fall and a political system which can be held accountable without  risk to our lives or our livelihoods. Sadly that is not how things work in what we call the Third World in general and Africa in particular.

Poverty is its own prison and perhaps those in power know that all too well. And the best way out of poverty is education. Africa would be better served if there was more focus on education and less on spreading religion. But self-serving is a human trait and is not particular to Africa!


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