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Where Do The Poor Fit In the ‘Africa Rising’ Narrative?

Over the past two decades or more, the portrayal of Africa as a continent scabbed over by war, famine, hopelessness and ignorance has given way to depictions of a continent brimming with new and untapped promise. The ‘Africa Rising’ anecdote is now as ubiquitous as the ancient story of the phoenix rising from the ashes, from which it draws its inspiration.

Silhouettes and Sunsets

The covers of glossies will often show an image of a lone, venerable acacia tree with a glowing orb in the distance, visually forcing the point that this is a new dawn and age for Africa. In between the pages of those glossies one is guaranteed to discover an editorial or three about new developments in the tech sphere, new urban works projects funded by Africa’s generous partner to the east, China and perhaps a paragraph or two about a girl who engineered a way to turn bamboo into bicycles. If she’s lucky, she may even have space to sell them in one of the shiny malls bankrolled by a country in South America. This is the Africa they never show you. It is the version of Africa we desperately wish travel and adventure channels would promote to the world. The grim – and shameful – reality is that this version of Africa – with its glitz and modern trappings is hardly accessible to the majority who make their home on the continent…to the ones who still live in the landscaped scabbed over by conflict and unresolved consequences.

Photo credit: Kristin Freudenthal

Now more than ever, Africans have the means to re-forge our future, collectively. We have the means to promote more trade within the continent. There are more Africans educated at the tertiary level than ever before. Our connections within and access to global markets are at the highest levels they’ve ever been. And while these are all laudable achievements, they are accomplishments reserved for the classed city-dweller and their offspring. With a minute exception, the Africa Rising dream is one that is out of grasp for the vast majority of the population, which is not only poor but poorly educated.

As it was in the era of colonialism, power and access to wealth is centralized within the hands of a small group of families and their surrogates. These families have benefitted from their ties and fealty to the West for centuries. The introduction of democracy allowed for a new political class to join those ranks. An assemblyman with no credentials beyond a high school diploma could find himself firmly nestled in the halls of power as an MP, now in a position to affect policy that would improve the impoverished areas from which he hails. Instead, he diverts funds into his personal coffers, fully participating in a culture of loot and share.

And then there is the citizenry itself. Ijeoma Ogwuegbu Udum (@IjeomaOgud) recently shared a story on Twitter about a woman named Auntie Blessed seeking to employ a girl to come and work as maid in her house. She engaged Ijeoma’s housekeeper for a referral, which she supplied. These sorts of informal arrangements for sourcing and supplying work are common, not just in Nigeria. The girl is summarily worked to exhaustion. She starts her day at 4am, sometimes ends her “shift” at 1 am. She has been promised a salary of 10,000 naira (it’s unclear if that’s for a week or a month), which is the equivalent of $27. You read that right: twenty-seven dollars. In all the time that she’s been working she’s never been paid.

The girl cannot keep up the pace and informs her new “employer” that she is resigning with immediate effect. Naturally, she asks to be paid for her labor. Auntie Blessed’s response was to seize the girl’s clothes and bags, saying that she needs to go through everything to make sure she hasn’t stolen anything from her. She sends the girl away from her house that very day with nothing else but the clothes on her back. She ends up at Ijeoma’s house pleading for sanctuary.

It didn’t have to get this far if Auntie Blessed had any decency, compassion or a basic working knowledge of the law, but the situation turned into a police matter. Auntie Blessed goes into hiding because she is “too busy” to return the girl’s clothes and is “too broke” to pay this girl “because she’s a poor widow.” Auntie Blessed’s sister then threatens to have Ijeoma & Co killed for messing with her sister the saint. It sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? You would be surprised how common this behavior is among the middle and upper classes. I may have never met Auntie Blessed in Nigerian flesh, but I have grown up with and around men and women of her caliber my entire life. It’s horrible, but it’s normal.

These are the people who will spend $300 on a Louis Vuitton handkerchief, but haggle with and berate the girl selling pineapples at 70 cents each. The humanity of the street hawker does not rival that of the retail store worker… nor does the labor of the unseen farmer hold the same value as the celebrated brand. Where, therefore, is the place of such people in the hallowed narrative of Africa’s Rise?

Misplaced Priorities

The Continent will never – I repeat: never, EVER – ascend without the participation and the contributions of the poor. They are an integral and vital part of our society and economy, and their destinies matter.The sort of tokenism that we have become accustomed to celebrating and propagating won’t be sufficient to carry out this task. No one needs to catch this wake up more than those at the highest levels of government.

Kenya’s president has aims to introduce golf to public schools, and Ghana’s has his sights set on the construction of a national cathedral, all while students under each of their purview languish in conditions such as these.

Students study in deplorable conditions in Kenya. Image Source: @mirigwi/Twitter

And while free education is a noble cause, one certainly can’t expect Ghana’s next wave of IT aficionados to be hewn from an environment where they have never interfaced with a real computer.

It is a disgrace that ever since this particular photograph has gone viral, Microsoft has stepped in with pledges to provide this classroom with computers before Ghana’s government did. These kids, and others like them who languish in equally deplorable conditions, make up the fabric of OUR future, not Bill Gates’. It is not his duty to furnish them with the hardware in order to pass national exams.

The status quo must change. It is unfair to canvass the country burdening them with the responsibility of carrying our future, and then sabotaging that future by ill-equipping them to face it. It is ruthless to bar them access to the opportunities that the children of the classed get because of nepotism masquerading as better “luck”. There must be real, quantifiable and achievable goals to close the gap between the wealthy and the poor. National development and progress hinge not on how well the well off are faring, but rather on how the marginalized and disenfranchised are. A nation can’t get stronger if the majority of its body is weak; and a continent certainly can’t rise if the captains keep adding burdens and strain to the anchor.