My close friend Uzo Iweala just wrote an incredible blog on poverty. It is a must read, thank you Uzo.
In a world where value as a human is all too often associated with the value of the stuff one owns, the person who has less is often considered less of a human being. Poverty is considered the physical manifestation of some horrendous character flaw. We have so internalized this way of thinking that our descriptions of places in this world considered less materially wealthy automatically resort to standard images that act as shorthand for whole peoples. There is the brown skinned child wallowing in the dust, swarmed by flies. There is the brown skinned woman with a sadness in her sagging eyes and cheeks her mouth half open in lament or hunger. There is the brown skinned man with distant eyes, his body covered in the sweat of his sickness or the futility of his toil. Poverty as part of person is often depicted as inevitable and as such romanticized. It breeds simplistic images and descriptions that allow the haves to define themselves in opposition to the have-nots. That I have is a result of who I am. That you do not is a result of who you are. That is all. The barriers however much we attempt to break them remain unbroken for the simple fact that such a stance does not allow for genuine communication. Those we consider poor are not allowed, beyond their representations to speak, and speak their humanity. And yet as a security guard who works at the gates of the housing development where I live in Abuja said to me one evening, “Even if you have a house with ten thousand rooms, you can only sleep in one bed like I must also sleep in one bed. I can bleed like you bleed. I can speak like you speak.”
Dignity is not bestowed as a gift. It is an expression of force. We are scared by its insistence and as such try to mute its intensity.
That I – who have not known poverty in my life – am writing about poverty is perhaps one of the great absurdities of our century. As a writer who is interested in representations of poverty, I can use my eyes, my pen to try and influence the way that we speak about the global poor, the way that we treat them in our media, in our minds. But this is not enough.
I would love to say that poverty does not describe who someone is, but the truth of the matter is that until we step back and let the “posessionless” speak in unmediated terms, it does.