Accident of geography determines one’s condition in life

I have recently been re-thinking about geography, in the context of patriotism and nationalism. There is perhaps no factor as important in determining one’s condition in life than the accident of where you are born. The geography of your birth supersedes talent, intelligence or hard work. Talent, intelligence and effort do not discriminate based on ethnicity, race, gender or sexual orientation. But geography discriminates and is made worse by the fiction of national borders.

In the US, a person’s likelihood to be accepted in college, join the middle class, avoid a criminal record and even their lifespan is affected by their zip code, which is the code given to particular areas across the US, mainly for purposes of mail delivery.

Zip codes — though numerically neutral — also reveal income, generally, with certain zip codes attracting the wealthy and upper middle classes, who then pay more taxes that are used in funding education, garbage collection and other social amenities. The more taxes people paid — which depend on the value of the houses — the better resourced are the neighborhood free public schools, and thus the better chances of being accepted at a top university.

If you are unlucky to be born in a poor family, your chances and opportunities are limited from birth. The schools will not be well-resourced; there are higher chances of more criminality within the area; there will probably be more police officers patrolling the area thus increasing chances of arrest and getting a criminal record, even for simply asking the police why they are stopping and frisking; the city council will not work as hard to keep the area clean and garbage free; and there is less hope to move up the social and income ladders.

And if you are born in Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and other Nordic countries, it takes a lot not to be part of the middle class. Education is free from primary to university; health care is free generally too and the city councils work hard to keep neighborhood clean. In Switzerland, all children must go to school, including the children of undocumented immigrants, who are not to suffer in their innocence. Likewise, hospitals are required to treat even undocumented immigrants for free, when they need urgent care.

In Kenya, you have to be remarkable and extraordinary if you are born in high-density areas such as Korogocho, Mathare, Kibera, the various Mukuru areas, Bangladesh, Majengo — to name but a few — to make it out of the ghetto. Today, thankfully, the rise of hip hop music, sports, arts and culture, have increased the numbers of young people making it out, but even those are a handful and are exceptionally gifted. For every Octopizzo born and bred in Kibera, or Willy Paul from Mathare, there will be more than 1,000 others hoping to emulate them and often unsuccessfully. Ten years or so ago, Korogocho had only produced five university graduates, in an area that hosts at least 200,000 people.

And it is not just the high-density zones in urban areas that are disadvantaged. Woe unto you, for instance, if you are born in the former Northern Frontier Districts which were deliberately marginalized and excluded by state actions and omissions since the founding of Kenya. Not only do they lack necessities like water and electricity, but lack of infrastructure is a massive problem. A former classmate in high school from Wajir would spend two weeks getting to Wajir, and locating his pastoralist family (through word of mouth as there were no phones there), during the one-month school holidays, before abruptly turning back to head back to school in Kikuyu. You can only imagine the financial, emotional and social cost of the trips! And he was one of the luckiest ones from Wajir!

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In days past, education was a way out of the accident of geography, but even that depended on ability to pay the minimal fees in primary school, the sacrifices that parents were willing to make, and sometimes the bursaries that District Education Boards provided for a select few to attend secondary schools. And it was also clear that if you accidentally had a parent with some education, was in business or in civil service or parastatals you were more likely to “do better” than your parents. Having role models in your village or larger clan could also mitigate against the accident of geography.

Globally this accident of geography was turned into various forms of nationalism, such as xenophobia, racism, tribalism and misogyny. The genocidal crime of slavery depended on turning the accident of geography and race into an ideology that minimised the humanity of Africans so they could be enslaved and brutalised. While slavery is mostly eradicated in its traditional forms, being borne African or black still attracts brutality and baggage globally.

Similarly, the accident of geography that leads to Muslims has now been turned into Islamophobia. In the second world war, being Jewish was reason for extermination. And being accidentally born a woman means being taken as second-class citizen in most of the world, and being abused, used and demeaned by men in power.

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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