Former South African President Nelson Mandela, while working as a lawyer in downtown Johannesburg, would pass dozens of black beggars on his daily walk to the office. He never dished out the loose change he likely had in his pockets to them. One day, he encountered an oddity—a white female beggar—and instinctively found himself going into his pockets to give out whatever he had to her. Writing in his acclaimed autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela says he later realised the oppressive apartheid system had made him to view blacks’ suffering as normal and whites’ suffering as abnormal.
It is worthy to note that, Mandela, who was moved by the sight of a white beggar and unmoved by the sight of black beggars, was already deeply involved in the fight against apartheid. Indeed his legal practice worked pro bono for numerous black clients who needed legal aid after falling afoul of apartheid policies.
He had represented clients who had been brutalised by whites for no other reason than being born with an “unfavourable” tint–black. At that time, he was active in the ANC leadership as it battled the nationalist government over racist policies. And yet, he somehow viewed white begging as unfair; as a wrong that needed to be righted immediately. Why?
The truth is that repetitive oppressive acts and policies of apartheid had, over time, slithered below the active, conscious state of the black Africans (like Mandela) whom it was fashioned to oppress. The abuse slid to, and became concretely layered, on blacks’ subconscious. At this subconscious state, the oppression was harder to perceive yet easier to tolerate.
This is why even Mandela, the erstwhile champion of the black people, became susceptible. If you live in a system that is as thorough in its efforts to put a people down as apartheid was, right and wrong are judged through tanned glasses and even the best-intentioned among the oppressed can become unwilling sellers of the oppressor’s damaged goods.
In Kenya, we have similarly become accustomed to the suffering of fellow citizens. Suffering here is viewed at best as “part of the deal”, or worse, as a rite of passage. When the story of a homeless graduate who obtained a first class in actuarial science was aired, together with the expected offers for jobs he received afterwards, we equally shamed him for his supposed lack of grit–even though he had overcome great odds.
We blasted him for not having the skill and street-smarts to start a business, never mind that he could not even afford to attend his own graduation over the required Sh4,000 fee. We pilloried him for only focusing on books and failing to network and build friendships while he was a student, yet it may well be that Kelvin Ochieng’ rarely had the cash for airtime (if ever he had a phone) with which to call friends or for fare to go to out-of-campus networking events. We lambasted him for feeling “entitled” to a job, while he may well have been battling debt throughout his schooling.
Like Mandela, we exist in a system that unconsciously makes us see the suffering of our own as normal. Ochieng’ is symbolic of many youths who are struggling to get jobs, start businesses, invent gadgets, create apps and overcome debt.
He is just one “beggar” in an obscenely long line, who we ignore (and ridicule) believing that he and many others like him are in such a state because they are street-dumb, whatever that is. Yet in truth, they are simply victims of a system that favours some and disadvantages others based on wealth and political connections. This discriminative system is ingrained in us at a subconscious level so that we treat our own unfairly even without meaning to. But we must start to see the tears of others for what they are; a cry for help, not an invite to a wailing contest.
Many of us are good natured and well-intentioned. We are not tribal, racist or classist. Yet there are these images that we encounter daily, perhaps on TV or newspaper, or like Mandela, on our walk to the office. Images of children starving to death in far-flung corners of the country, or those of patients detained in hospitals for non-payment of bills. Stories and images of jobless, desperate young men and women. It is easy to shrug your shoulders and say ‘that’s life’.
But check yourself, just like Mandela did. Our way of life has made us subconsciously see the suffering of our own as normal. Nobody is asking you to carry the burden of a country like Mandela did, but at the very least, do not normalise the suffering of fellow citizens.
Mr Owino is a master’s student at the University of Nairobi
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