This was originally posted on my blog, Shades of Us.
Every time I think of poverty in many African communities, I can’t help but mull over how this poverty is experienced on various levels. Thankfully, there is a term that effectively explains this: multidimensional poverty.
According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), “Multidimensional poverty encompasses the various deprivations experienced by poor people in their daily lives — such as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, disempowerment, poor quality of work, the threat of violence, and living in areas that are environmentally hazardous, among others.”
This definition effectively captures the thoughts that race through my head when I think of poverty. It is simple to just equate poverty with low income and end it there. But what are the ripple effects of this low income on the individual? On their families? On the opportunities they get? On the possibility of leaving their social classes and improving their lives? So, the concept of poverty is so much more than how much a person earns or what global benchmarked income they earn less than.
For this piece, I want to focus on one direct ripple effect of poverty: hunger.
World Vision postulates that, “In the whole of Africa, 257 million people are experiencing hunger, which is 20% of the population.” In essence, 1 in every 5 people on the continent are hungry. To bring this home, this isn’t saying that 1 in 5 Africans in the continent have a desire for food, which is one of the definitions of hunger. This statistic shows that if you see five people today, there is a possibility that 1 of them has chronic hunger, meaning they may have diets that are either inadequate in quality or quantity, or that they have no food at all.
This is a problem.
Apart from the physical effects of hunger — which (by the way) are many — there are ways that hunger negates a person’s dignity. Because hunger is such a primal need, people who are hungry do not ‘have shame’, which is the Nigerian parlance for self-respect or worth. This is why it isn’t surprising that many people who are in this category of chronic hunger are prone to doing any (and every) thing for a meal.
Years ago, when I was a student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, I went to a restaurant which students called, Zinc House. Now, ‘restaurant’ is a bit of stretch. This place was a makeshift building with corrugated zinc for walls and roof, and wooden benches where people could sit across each other for their meals. It was a really popular restaurant among students and members of staff, mostly because they served lots of food at a really cheap cost. You were not assured of hygienic meals, but you could get a plateful for whatever amount of money you had. If you wanted food for 200 Naira, you were sure to get it. If you wanted something for 120 Naira, you would have your food.
This place didn’t just have its student/staff traipsing in and the restaurant staff that served them. It also had some almajiris — a collection of young children who earned their meals by begging — hanging around ready to scavenge leftovers for themselves.
On the last day I was there, some guy who came in didn’t finish his food after a fly perched on it. He had not gotten to the thick chunks of meat he had ordered when he abandoned his meal. As soon as it was established that he was done eating, the scramble by these almajiris to get his food took the taste out of my mouth. In their squabble, they turned the food unto the dirt floor and proceeded to eat from the ground. (It is important that I mention that the floor was not just ‘dirty’: it was made of compact clay, thus… dirt floor.)
Seeing children fighting themselves to eat off the floor…a floor that was dirty by virtue of it being made of literal dirt and having been stepped on by people from all kinds of places…broke me. I got up, called the smallest child in the group and gave him the rest of my meal. I then hurriedly left this place that displayed their lack of dignity and my shame at being unable to do more. Every time I think of poverty, especially as it relates to hunger, that image comes to my head. And while it isn’t the only one that does, it is the one that always gets me depressed.
Every human being deserves dignity and respect. That dignity is lost when people degrade themselves for a chance at getting food. Let me emphasize that: no one should ever think that they need to fight for food; or eat meals that are leftovers; or scrape off the floor to get at their meal; or sell themselves; or any number of things that make them feel less worthy.
It is one of the reasons I am fully in support of the Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2, which aim to end extreme poverty and hunger in all forms by 2030. We have about 10 years to achieve this. And be assured, the task is daunting. There are many factors that prevent Africans from having access to the food they need to starve off hunger: communal clashes like the herder-farmer clashes in many parts of Nigeria; multi-pronged issues like drought, famine, conflict and instability in places like South Sudan and Central African Republic; and deeply entrenched corruption by many leaders of our African countries…to mention a few. Ending extreme poverty in our continent is going to require a lot of cohesion by governments and the people.
What are some low-hanging fruits that can accelerate this goal?
The major one I can see now is the basic respect and protection of all people, regardless of their social status. I believe this is one of the biggest failings of many of our governments. When governments regard their people with respect and dignity, food security policies will be more human centered than they currently are now. With the people in mind, the government can galvanize action for increased production of food, while making sure protective options — like food stamps, palliatives during health or security crisis etc — are available (and accessible) for the poorest in our communities. I know this is not easy. But when human centered designs to problem solving is the goal, it becomes easier to do.
This is one way to end accelerate this global goal. What other ways do you think this can be done?