Poverty has different colors. Scents. Sounds even. To some it is the faded blue trouser that has been patched up so many times it looks like a quilt. An old worn out quilt that smells of a dusty floor. Sweat. And frustration. To others it is the eerie orange light of the tin lamp. A light that bounces of the rusty metal sheets that acts as a wall. A really bad act. Like a nursery school play. Horrible. Sheltering you from mother-nature. Sheltering you from her peltering wind and rain. But not from the sounds.
Sometimes they serenade you to sleep. Whispering lullabies. Kissing your cheeks. But sometimes, most times, it’s unnerving. The noise unbearable. You can almost feel the act unravel like a bad plot. And you cringe. The only thing holding it up on such nights is hope. Prayer. And a tin or three of potent local brew. The brew however is for your nerves. To numb them. Calm them. Deceive them.
To be poor is to be naked. In a room full of people. And to feel the shame. Seeping through the goose bumps. The stares that are too loud. Questioning you. Why you look the way look. Why you talk the way you talk. Why you live the way you live. If only he worked harder you will see their eyes say. He would not be here. Begging for handouts. Knocking on doors for opportunity. No, he must work like the rest of us. There is no excuse. But they do not see how hard it is for you. Circumstances were not the same. Opportunities were different. But not all of them act this way. Some look at you and their eyes cloth you. Feed you. Encourage you. You do not feel different. Indifferent. Embarrassed. You feel human. And it is a warm feeling. A feeling that creeps up from the indifference in your heart. Snakes its way into your heart. And there it forces a smile. Beautiful. Making a temporary home. Like your real home. And you make a mental note that you’d like to feel this way. Everyday.
Other eyes see you and see tools. Cheap tools. To use. For their gain. The things they can make you do. Whether good or bad. In your eyes you see the money. The things it can do. The bread it can buy. The hole it can fix. The trouser it can mend. The kerosene for the lamp. The tin of illicit potent brew. And that feeling. Of being human. You can get it from other people. Or you can get it from having money. With money everything changes. With money you have a voice. You have an opinion. And you can air it. Like a dirty carpet at a flat in Tena. You want that. So you oblige. Bend to the will of others. Unaware of the consequences.
This is for you:
Hi? Hallo? Niaje? How do I salute you?
I’ve never met any of you personally. Chances are I never will. I don’t like you. Never have. Never will. Listen, I’m not being judgmental. It might look like it for now but bear with me for a minute. Yesterday, I was comfortable in my office. White mug in hand, with coffee, nearly full to the brim. I don’t even like coffee but it was free. It always is. I had a few tabs open. One was my email. Work. The other was another email. Personal. The other was social media. Twitter. Facebook. Some blog. And the other one was work. A spreadsheet. The online ones.
In the evening I went home. Boarded a matatu. The loud ones. Paid fare sunk in my seat and enjoyed the music. Went online on my phone and yet again went onto social media. I let people who don’t know me know how my day was going. Threw in a joke here. Laughed at a tweet there. Complained about the traffic. Agreed with people complaining about the traffic. And then I saw you. On the streets. Pictures. Dozens. In various states of demonstrating. In some your mouth was wide open. You must have been saying something important. I don’t care what. No one actually does. That’s the whole irony of your situation. In a bid to be heard no one listens.
One video in particular caught my eye. A police officer was on you. With his arms. Leg. Rungu. And will to beat the hell out of you. They all wanted a piece of you. They fought for that piece. Kind of like the same way you fought to be heard. Or fought for someone else to be heard. It looked painful. Was it? From the comfort of my phone. I could feel it. The lashes. The punches. The weight of your body hitting the ground. I did not hear you scream though. Maybe it was the quality of the video.
But this was social media. Rumor has it some of you went to hospital. I know there they do have televisions. Did you get to watch it? The news? Were you able to open your swollen eyes? Were the bandages covering them? Could you crane your neck despite the pain in your neck? I don’t know. But if you did they did show the injustice done to you. And believe me social media went wild. Some believe you deserved it. Because some of you, well, other than demonstrating; engaged in crime. Vandalized property. Robbed people, like me, on the streets. See why I don’t like you?
Then there was the politician. The big kahunas. The guy that got you on the street. The one you thought you were fighting for. The one that oiled your palms. Not enough though because I can imagine the tarmac tore open your palms. But that guy you know what he did? Got into a car. Armored. And sped off. While some of your friends precariously hang onto it for dear life. An escape for them. But your guess is as good as yours. They are probably lying next to you in hospital. Maybe they fell off. Or maybe they are home. The politician’s driver. Doubles as his bodyguard. Probably stopped and ordered them off. Because you’re good enough to demonstrate for him but not good enough to go home with him.
Now in your hospital bed they came to visit you. These guys. Yes? Hard they even paid your bills. I mean why wouldn’t they? It’s their fault. That you were there in the first place. In direct line of fire. Vulnerable. Facing the full brunt of the law. Or rather the ugly face of the law. It’s uglier sister. The one only people like you see. And after that? You know where he went? Back to his office right after passing through a branch of a restaurant you vandalized. He bought a drink and a salad that’s worth your monthly rent. And he did not even think about you. That gesture he made? Coming to the hospital? It wasn’t for you. Sorry. It was for the camera.
At his office. Yes office. Because he has one. Where he works. And earns his keep. He probably made phone calls to the same people he was demonstrating against. Laughing and planning to meet at a hotel where the bill would be worth a year’s rent where you live. His laugh is full. Full of himself. Full of money. Full of all the good things money can buy. Yours? Empty. Like his promises. And you are still in poverty. Still in pain. Still thinking you are making a difference. In hospital. Unable to even do the menial jobs that keep you going. Put bread on your table. Him? Might even own the bread factory. When cost of living goes up. And he asks you again to litter the streets and protest. He is being hypocritical. It just means profits for him.
What I don’t understand is how you don’t see this. How you are so blind to it. Are you doing it deliberately? You say me and people like me are ignorant. No. We are actually aware. So much that we know streets or not the situation will not change. Not if they don’t want it to. So we decide to do our own things. Go out and make our lives better. Make it such that they cannot use us. They might exploit us. Taxes. Inflation. All that. But they won’t use us. I want you to also do the same. Don’t be a tool. Let’s show them that we don’t exist to be used. For their personal interests and gains. Some of you might lose your lives on hospital beds. Over what? It is his battle. Not yours.