The disappointment of 5,000ks (Kenyan Shillings)

I am writing this post for the World Blog Action Day 08 about Poverty. I won’t explain what this is, you can read about it over on their site and all of the thousands of blog posts too. But the basic premise is to create a conversation on one day around the subject of poverty.

To be honest I have been a bit stumped as to what to say, and have deliberately not looked at everyone else’s posts as I would confuse myself.  However, seeing as this is what each blogger can share with their readership, and hopefully be a catalyst in some form, I thought I would try to keep this as personal to my own thinking as possible.

Relativity of poverty

One of the greatest challenges with writing about a single subject like this, is that it is never simple. Poverty is relative. For example, I am a relatively cash poor parent at my daughters’ school, the Maasai with 3 cows is poor in relation to the Maasai with 6 cows – you catch my drift. Therefore to speak about poverty within reason, I need to define the boundary.

I would like to talk about the middle ground of poverty, the line that we could so easily cross – especially in the current climate. And I am speaking about poverty as in lack of cash, rather than lack of morals, education or access to clean running water.

Personal experiences of poverty

The only time I ever experienced having no money at all was when I was travelling around Australia in my late teens. Being as arrogant as I was I assumed that the parent money tree would never dry up. It did. I ended up in a town called Katherine, in the middle of the Northern Territory, on my own, no money at all, a ticket for the greyhound bus and two packets of Chicken super noodles. I had no money to pay for the backpacker’s hostel, and actually faced a night on the streets, maybe more.

Being a fairly daring person by this point, and with little choice, I walked for a day to the nearest Aboriginal settlement; I knew a couple of the people there, including some of the people working in the centre of the camp, managing food and water supplies. I threw myself on their mercy and offered to work in return for food and lodging – no pay.

Luckily for me, they obliged and I worked at the camp for three months – doing pretty much everything you can imagine. During that time, I became a part of their community and have never felt such love and companionship prior to this, or since. Because their community was interlinked with others accross the Territory, I swiftly found paid work and managed to get myself back on my trip.

In my more recent years I have seen extreme poverty in my visits to Africa. In Dagoretti Market, with people selling a single chicken, single shoes, dirty buckets; in shanty towns where there is little to eat and water is a commodity; to the farms, where the farmworkers were poor, but had a roof over their heads, meals, water and a wage.

Whilst in Africa there is widespread poverty, there is also widespread community. I am not generalising here, when I went into these communities – by that I mean, when I went to see my African friends in their own camps – there was such a sense of love. They all helped each other, the young and the old pitching in to get chores done – respect for each other and care. Unfailingly polite and genuinely happy to share their lives and absolutely thrilled by any gift you may bring.

This always causes a dilemma for me. One of my friends over there, Francesca, had a baby just before I flew out most recently. I wanted to bring something practical, or special – whether to spoil or just assist? I ended up doing a bit of both – buying the most beautiful outfit for her to dress her son in, alongside muslins, towelling nappies, bibs, bottles and sterilising tablets.

I had seen Francesca at the beginning of the year when she was pregnant, and had given her 10,000 kenyan shillings (£40) to get stuff for the baby and healthy food for her during the pregnancy – expecting her to be able to eke this out. Do you know what she did?! She had her hair done – and good on her, really good on her. What use really to drip feed herself a very limited amount of money, but extra money all the same – why not just do something that she could not normally do but made her feel amazing? Who are we to give and prescribe how our gift is used?


In my musings today about this post, two things have stood out most strongly for me: the community that poverty necessitates and the relativity of poverty (barring the extremes of famine, disease and death) – are any of us poor? OK, maybe that is a silly thing to say – but is being poor such a bad thing? Surely, (again please be aware that I am NOT talking about the extremes), the relativity of poverty brings with itself the ability to always be poorer than one person yet richer than another. So… I think society needs poverty. It creates a community, that community will cultivate those who will ensure their survival – be that through working out how to earn more cash to buy more cows (Maasai – artists, beaders, breeders), or how to ensure the needs of every person in the community are met (pensioner get togethers – making sure no one is alone).

What can we do today?

Well, I am a great champion of local effort, local solutions; and in light of the above: community.

So, I suggest that if the World Blog Action Day piques something in you that makes you want to do something: find the communities that have been created in your local area. Believe you me they will be there: single mothers, elderly people, battered wives… just examples (and very limited!). They will be working with each other, as I have described above, helping each other cope, making life better and possibly experiencing far richer relationships and friendships as a result. What can you do? Er – go get some cash out of your account and give it to them. Not for a noble cause – to get their hair done, buy some ridiculously pricey chocolate cake, go see a comedian, have a party: whatever.

The disappointment of 5,000ks?

When I left Africa this last time, I gave Francesca 5,000ks. I know she was disappointed.

Tonight I will read some of the other posts and feel inadequate… a poor blogger 🙂

5 responses

  1. No way is that a rubbish post Em !

    Its all about small actions that we can all do to change someones life. A little donation from your plastic friend here and there, 10 mins with the Big Issue seller (they are real people you know!).
    I do like the idea of the treats too ! Instead of giving them some cash to buy a cup of coffee (or strong cider !) give them a ticket for a treat, something they can only dream of.

    Em – it was my blog post that was rubbish against this !

  2. Pingback: Blog Action Day: A day for poverty « andrewlewin: let me think about that …

  3. I was too scared to look at these comments. All the time between writing adn then going away and coming back to my desk I was in a complete sweat about how trivial my post was. Thank you for not screeching at me!!

  4. Great post Emma. As you say, it’s a complex issue I’m writing this in Dar es Salaam – here for two weeks on about my 11th visit in 11 years. Society here in Tanzania is certainly rich in terms of social capital – very strong bonds within families and tribes. In the UK we’re cash rich but social capital poor.

    Craig Shirky, whose ‘Here Comes Everybody’ I’ve wittered on about at length on my blog, makes a strong case that social media can play a big part in rebuilding social capital.

    Could I just plug my latest WordPress blog, which I started for reasons I explain on the about page here.

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