Headlines of CEO’s declaring their wealth and overnight billionaires popping on my TV screen with dodgy pasts have left me feeling depressed. I understand we are encouraged to celebrate wealthy individuals who have nothing to hide but somethings are best left unsaid. Declaring your financial well being only serves to remind every Kenyan trying to get by of how hard up they truly are.
To be hard up used to bearable. A man bold enough to declare he had no money to speak of was admired for his honesty. To be broke was a normal state of affairs that affected everyone. As normal as falling sick. Lack of money was not viewed as a permanent station. It was simply a passing phase of discomfort that people bore bravely. Not so much these days.
Kenyans are getting into the habit of stubbornly refusing to admit they are hard up. It is akin to the arrogance of public officials who won’t admit to financial impropriety even with overwhelming evidence to show. The declaration of poverty is often met with a chorus of disapproval. Shame! Shame! For that reason, people with no money would rather fake it as this is deemed more honourable than admitting you are broke. I was once called to speak to a group of enthusiastic university students about my ‘flourishing writing career’. The veneration was palpable until I brought up the unnecessary detail of the Volkswagen Beetle I owned and sneers popped up. Many looked visibly disappointed for I had ruined a fantasy. I have since learnt that while prosperity must be shared and celebrated, poverty is a topic one must never broach unless as a precursor to a rags to riches story.
Hard up is a subject that I am authority in. It is a town whose streets I know well. I had early training in meagre salary manoeuvres. Children of parents earning minimum wage work miracles to get their kids through school. In boarding school, I discovered that contrary to Jesus’ pronouncement, a man could live on bread alone. Children’s education was and is still viewed as an investment in many African households. It was instilled in children that the inability to excel in school amounted to economic sabotage. Children are assets and an under performing asset was a waste of money that would have been put to better use.
In the nascent years of employment, I assumed that my lack of money was a direct result of working hard as opposed to smart. Financial coaches claim that smart people invest and make their money work for them while they sleep. Hard working people spend all their money on the necessities of life and feel bad about it. Even so, not all hard up people are equal. There are varying of degrees. At the very top are the cash strapped. The only ones who say, they have run out of money and still keep a tab open. Middle class Kenyans can be classified as the ‘presently broke’, a state of inertia caused by living beyond your means in between salaries. The lower floor is occupied by the ‘ever broke’, those lower class Kenyans getting by on minimum wage. The money never stretches to meet daily obligations despite rigorous budgeting. Finally, spread liberally at the bottom of this hierarchy are the economically disadvantaged living hand to mouth, in economically depressed neighbourhoods better known as ‘Wanjiku’. Wanjiku is a Kenyan euphemism crafted by the civil society to describe the poor masses.
Yet, being broke is a state I would advise everyone to try at least once in their lives. It helps build character and puts things in perspective. One appreciates the value of money and the true worth of their possessions. Poverty is also a good reality check. Nothing puts a strain on friendship or relationships for that matter as poverty. Fair weather friends come to find your company unbearable. You will experience looks of pity and murmurs of disappointment from former school colleagues bemoaning your wasted potential. Labels such as ‘stingy’ are thrown about every time your contribution falls far short of the mark of a substantial harambee donation. The hard up do not have the luxury of being generous. Chinua Achebe called charity the opium of the privileged.
These small miseries of life have broken stronger men. Poverty can make quick work of ones’ reputation and soon there is hardly anyone left to borrow money from. The unemployed teacher loses his sheen as he wrestles with despair and destitution, growing doubtful of his daily prayer regimen.
The problem is not poverty in itself. To be labelled as poor is what many find deflating. If Chris Kirubi woke up with Mike Sonko’s money, he would slip into depression. It is this fear of humiliation that fuels corruption. We have stopped teaching children the value of moderation. That is okay to be contented with what you have. That greed is not good. That you cannot borrow yourself out of debt. Kenya is digging the national debt hole furiously and the tragedy, is the people who get to pay the price for this unchecked greed are the future generation of the perennially hard up masses.