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The Invention of African Poverty

It should be understood as colonial to insist that the peasants in the African countryside were poor and thus needed to live their lands and go to labour in industrial parks for their food and sustenance

Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe underdeveloped Africa continues to stand tall for what it so succinctly narrates: the practical, structural and violent ways of impoverishing a continent then and now.  Years after its publication, other equally succinct and creative publications emerged to expose the deftly disguised processes of continued pillage of supposedly formerly colonised places.  Most outstandingly, developmental theorists Samir Amin and Immanuel Wallerstein open our eyes to our peripheralized positions.  But there remains an understudied side to this pillage: the production of discourse about African poverty—stereotyping an otherwise rich continent as poor.

This essay concerns with narratives that malign practices and lifestyles of the Africans as poor and impoverished, yet on the other hand, these are the aspirations of the super-rich of Europe and North America.  My contention is that prevailing narratives about African poverty have maligned and confused Africans—especially in the countryside—into abandoning their otherwise organic lifestyles in exchange for labouring in factories in industrial parks. Privileging terms such as “cash” “daily income” or “purchasing power” or “standard of living” over lifestyle, environment and ecosystems has created a colonial mental displacement. Yet, closer scrutiny reveals that what qualifies as a good life in Europe and North America, especially of the super-rich of industrial capitalism, is actually similar to the lifestyles of the African rural folk who are, ironically, endlessly chastised as poor.


There is a beautiful book by American journalist, Robert Frank, called Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich.  Written in 2007, the book is an ethnographic, friendly, and quite entertaining close-up on the often-exclusive lives of America’s millionaires—they were 9 million people in 2007, among whom were 400 something billionaires—whose lives and lifestyles literary constitute country of their own, different from the blighted lives of their compatriots, the wretched 99%. By the way, every country in western Europe has their 1% and going by the life-stories captured in Richistan, these folks live a different world from amongst their compatriots.  Especially in Germany—where they live an even more discrete, sort of meticulously coded life, according to a DW documentary—whilst living with everybody else in the same space, their cosmos is “out of reach for everyone else.”  Robert Frank captured this real world in a fictional country he called, Richistan, most likely word-playing with Pakistan or Afghanistan, punning with both the animosity these countries face in the eyes of many, but also being less understood in the western world.

For an ordinary reader, the stories in this book will strike as strange—they sound like absolute science fiction—shocking, admirable, but sometimes simply hilarious.  Robert Frank is not a novelist, but a business writer for The Wall Street Journal, but is as cheeky as possibly could.  The figures are obnoxious: “By 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans were earning about $1.35 trillion a year—greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada.”  Some of these had their homes managed like one manages an entire company, that is, with admins and accountants and Excel Spreadsheets – just for the house groceries.  One of the characters has to call five people—including one from ‘a pest control firm’—just to remove a dead mouse from the house instead of just picking a broom and sweeping it away.  Ever imagined a house manager—not farm manager—earning $120,000 a year, and the estate being visited by over 200 specialised vendors for just daily routines such as cleaning and gardening! Yes, welcome to the life of 10 million Americans.

But besides the stresses of Excel spreadsheets, where even the residents of Richistan actually marvel at it and admit that that life is “complicated,” and beyond the glamour of “Palm Beach, the Grand Ballroom of the Mar-a-Lago Club” and the sparkling and glistening chandeliers, one quickly realises that these lives of the super-rich are like the lives of the “poor” in the African countryside.  It is like William Wordsworth’s poetry of returning to nature after the toil in the factories.  And one would ask, how about those who never left nature in the first place?  One wonders why they had to go to the factories in the first place—especially when the struggle for industrial production also messed up the environment, and at present, conservation, sustainability, degrowth, climate change, is central to every aspect of existence.

Likening the lifestyles of Africa’s so-called poor with the super-rich in Europe and North America should not be seen as an effort to romanticise poverty in Africa.  It is not “exercising” when rural folks walk long miles on foot out of lack of affordable means of transport.  Neither am I calling it “dieting” when villagers eat unsalted and unseasoned foods, which is rather inability to afford salt and other spices.  There is no romanticisation of the sorry state of different infrastructures including hospitals, road networks, and even schools or the lack of them in some places.  But a great deal of European and North American lives, especially those of the super-rich are closer to the lives: Bio in Germany is the buzz word for health food, which means unprocessed, cultivated under natural conditions, matures slower etcetera. Re-using old clothes for extended period is the vibe for coolness and wokeness. So is less beef, sugar and beverages consumption.  At what point did a narrative emerge that looked down on these practices?

African Billionaireville

Growing up in the dense villages of Mukono in central Uganda—North of Lake Victoria—which is exactly 30km from Kampala City Square, most people in our neighbourhood owned over 5 acres of land.  I personally came of age “amidst poverty” on 14 acres of cultivable land.  On these were natural forest covering from which we fetched firewood, hunted for forest berries, and played our childhood games.  It was like the proverbial Garden of Eden.   There were jackfruit and mango trees, guavas and pawpaw—neither of these planted by us but by monkeys that inhabited the forest and had moved these seeds and dropped them. And because of being in the tropics, these seeds germinated and became super thick trees from which plenty of fruits grew.  We shared this forest with monkeys and several reptiles.

All the food we ate was cultivated on this land.  Unlike the industrial worker in the factories of Europe and North America, we worked for about six hours on our farms and spent the rest of the time catching up with friends and growing the community.  The little children played games the entire time after attending to their gardens.  On these farms, organic foods or whole foods ranging from hard foods such as matoke, cassava, potatoes, yams, maize [from which we got maize flour], to green vegetables and onions and tomatoes were all grown on these lands.  We only consumed unprocessed milk—straight from the adder of the animals.  And when we wanted beef, which we normally, only ate on the weekend—keeping an unnecessary semi-vegetarian diet—we slaughtered our animals on the farm. One either picked a goat out of hundreds or a bird.  We mostly ate the chicken which we had reared ourselves.  For families unable to slaughter own animals, they simply walked to nearby town centre where a local butcher had picked a cow from the neighbourhood and slaughtered it for all others to buy. Fish was abundant from Lake Victoria or River Nile dependent on which was nearer. All consumed unprocessed.  Organic or whole foods defined our diets just the way these rich folks in America’s Richistan aspire after a years of capitalist toil and exploitation.

These forests had a rich ecosystem that would hurt us if interfered with but also from which we derived much direct sustenance.  For example, there were monkeys, many, many monkeys in these forests.  We chased them from our maize plantations and learned to make dog sounds when the dogs were away.  There were also wild cats, which would eat our free-range chicken, and we had to learn to hunt them down too.  Our 14 acres touched a neighbour who owned over 20 acres, which was mostly farmland in which he reared his cows.  About 50 heads of cattle roamed this expanse of well-manicured grass.  I vividly recall returning home the entire time with a ballooned stomach from either eating mangoes, jack fruits, or my favourite pawpaw.

With coffee farming becoming wide spread, which was often mixed cropped with other crops we cultivated for the house, we entered peasant networks, selling not only our cash crops but also the surplus produce.  With too much produce, many African rural homes have simple but very sophisticated ways of preserving their crops ranging from smoking, salting or drying and storing in the granaries.

Mark you, the description above does not apply to special homes of special peoples, who needed to live a life of secrecy to avoid envy of their neighbours as showed in the DW documentary about the Germany super rich. This is the life of everybody else. These are normal homesteads in normal villages yet to be impoverished by the endlessly extending hand of capitalism, and the attendant discourses.

Beyond the challenges people face with accessing healthcare, transport and education, the levels of happiness were unimaginable in the Ugandan countryside especially as regards quality of air, harmony with the environment, space, quality of food, and general mental and emotional health of the entire community.  To this day, many Ugandans especially in western parts of central Uganda have sustained these lifestyles.  They have huge pieces of land, keep cattle from which they get unprocessed organic milk, and grow all the food they eat.

How then did the African get convinced that they were poor?  Because at the end of the day, after the American Richistani has bust their backs to become the so-called super rich—in ways that do not only alienate their compatriots [accumulation by dispossession], cause immense suffering through oil and cobalt war wars, but also obliterates the environment through endless exploitation—they then retire to the countryside, acquire fairly big pieces of land [often through dispossession] and then learn to live like a simple African in the Ugandan countryside.  How then did this African get convinced that they were poor when they lived the dreams of the super-rich in America and Europe?

Green Colonialism

A recently published book on discourses on environment conservation puts the contention above in perspective: the invention of poverty in Africa. The book, The Invention of Green Colonialism, by Guillaume Blanc critically juxtaposes conservationist discourses in Europe and practices in Africa. It problematises the ways which conservationist export out of context, and actually dangerous discourses and policy guidelines to Africa in their environment conservation efforts. It is an inversion of reality and an invention of a strange and dangerous world.  Reviewing the book for the Daily Maverick, writer Ed Stoddard picks a major and outstanding quote. I will reproduce it in full:

“In order to save nature, international experts insist that African states must evict those living within the national parks. In concrete terms, they want them to prevent agro-pastoralists from eroding the strips of land they cultivate and from stripping bare the plateaux where they allow their cattle to graze. But the argument is a nonsense… Accusing peasants, like those from Gich (in Ethiopia), of destroying nature fails to acknowledge that these people are in fact producing their own food. Like those evicted from the African national parks, they move around essentially on foot. They eat very little meat or fish. They rarely buy new clothes. And, unlike two billion individuals, they own neither computers or smartphones. In short, if we want to save the planet, we should live as they do. Yet, Unesco, the WWF and the IUCN nevertheless view their eviction as ethical and necessary.”

Then after a long, long route, the conservationist will return insisting on co-existing with nature.  Guillaume Blanc is proposing that if they were not colonial in their approach, and were humble enough to watch and learn the Gich, they would realise before their eyes the Gich living in harmony exploiting and preserving it at the same time. In fact, naturalists—often ridiculed as animists—actually believe nature has a soul and a heart.  They exploit it while speaking to it, and returning it immense respect like they would do to a neighbour.   Therefore, it should be understood as colonial to insist that the peasants in the African countryside were poor and thus needed to live their lands and go to labour in industrial parks for their food and sustenance. And after they become super rich like the folks in Robert Frank’s Richistan, they would then return to the countryside to occupy the same lands they left behind, and then learn to enjoy the lives they were discoursed into leaving behind.




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