Is Africa Passing on Poverty as a Legacy?

Published on 2nd January 2007

Social scientists estimate that two-thirds of African children, who are the immediate heirs of Africa, are living in poverty. Not much is said about their behavior, beliefs, aspirations and understanding of the economic world. Most of them were robbed of their early childhood development, parents, school and skills. There is not much childhood training in wealth and wealth creation but a lot of default lessons on adapting to the life of “have-nots.” Is it not a glaring possibility that successive generations of African children may be ‘learning to be poor’?


Children learn more from what they observe from their parents than what they are told. They spend their formative years learning at home (formally or informally) about life and how to live. It follows therefore that children born in poor families learn from an early age to diminish their expectations of what their parents can afford by instinct hence scaling down their hopes and aspirations for life.


Most children in western schools deal with puzzles and games quite similar to their IQ on a frequent basis. In Africa, they are taught with a rudimentary curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic with very little cognitive development. Their counterparts in the west get a lot of mental stimulus. They grow up watching all sorts of programs targeted at entertaining and educating them besides piano lessons and gymnastics. An African child is left to his own devices. A child in the west is more likely to have educated parents who may have read him to sleep and who had books and newspapers in the house; which the child has access to. The child has the opportunity for stimulating conversations, a parent being able to explain why we have rainbows and why the sky is blue, hence increasing the child’s reasoning.


Where does this reasoning come from? That is the lesson of life that the poor African child is not learning. Poor parents’ lessons to their children not to ‘covet’ good things in life annihilate essential tools for life with every new generation. Where the child has a want or a need, he is taught to accept that he is poor and live within his meager means. The child quickly learns that the groans against poverty are nothing but passing talk over yet another supper-less night. The child gives up “lofty ideas” of advancement, as the parents constantly stress that cravings for better life could easily lead to vices such as thuggery. He is forced to forego his appetite for bread, own no shoes or play without toys. He is constantly being taught to be poor… and worse, he is contented with it!


Generally, children of the poor have less experience in handling money than their counterparts from rich families.  The former have never had anything about surplus family income let alone “allowances.”  The latter experience the power of money right from an early age where they are “entitled” to an allowance which they immediately proceed to “squander” in shopping malls on “necessities” such as expensive clothing and other luxuries.


With this kind of disparities and our incessant knack to improve livelihood by 2015, 2025 or even 2050, should Africa start considering its legacy to next generation by looking at present child poverty and its consequences?


Officiating the Southern African Women’s Day celebration in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro, Tanzania’s minister for Community Development, Gender and Children said that while addressing material poverty, people should not lose sight of “poverty of the mind” because it has a lot to do with beliefs, attitudes and vision that chain people to the web of poverty and other socio-economic disadvantages.


“No society will advance smoothly if we do not shake off beliefs and attitudes that impede advancement and empowerment,” says the human rights activist.


Growing up in the rural poor setting is characterized by constant lessons in self-sacrifice. The infant learns that ‘necessary cries’ go unheeded as its mother is gone for close to six hours to fetch water. The school-going child who reads that ‘education is the key to life’ has to do with makeshift classrooms under a tree with stones as class seats. When their parents cannot afford school fees, they have to compete with others with lessons learnt in a fraction of the school term attended and sometimes they might have to accept to fall a year or two back behind people they started out with. Sometimes the dream of school might be disrupted mid-stream altogether but the child is expected to be grateful that he made it that far.


Some children will never know such vocabulary as breakfast, snacks and junk food as their tummy is only accustomed to irregular ‘ugali (corn cake) and kales.’ Christmas brings along hand-me-down clothing, beddings, shoes and the like from better-off kinsmen. It is inevitable that childhood learning of this sort reduces their immediate expectations, affects their future aspirations and crystallizes their ‘learning to be poor.’


Some poor high school graduates tend to have lower aspirations and expectations about their future careers than their peers from rich families. In the job market, poor children are likely to choose jobs that require lower qualifications and little training. Social disadvantages during childhood have therefore a direct link to a cyclic occurrence of low earnings and unemployment. Poverty definitely has a major influence on childhood development and economic perspective.


Is this the reason why an average cane farmer in western Kenya marries more women and goes to swim in the Indian Ocean after receiving cane boom? Is this why retirees die on receiving golden handshakes? An investor wanted to sink Kshs. 40 million in Kakamega town. The town couldn’t absorb the money. It was relocated to Central province. The Western University College of Science and Technology wanted steel windows and cement from the town. All suppliers shied off and directed the institution to Nairobi city. They didn’t even have a mindset of uniting and amalgamating their supplies to meet the institution’s demand. Could this be the reason why thieves steal petty items such as cooking fat, chicken and soap?


“Ever wondered why politicians ride on people’s backs, plunder and squander wealth while their poor subjects watch? Most subjects have a narrow focus of life. They fear to produce, consume and utilize their skills,” says James Shikwati, Director of Inter Region Economic Network. Even the politicians would rather solicit for foreign aid in fear of utilizing their internal resources to lift their countries to prosperity.   


So it goes with Africa’s poor. Their adult adventure is a mirror image of their childhood desire. Children from poor families are learning to expect and accept less from an early age and to find ways of covering up their disappointment. The adults raised up in poor homes are likely to work for less pay and accept to be by-passed in rank or salary by some ‘expatriate’ without saying a word. They will never ask for a pay hike even if their boss knows they deserve it, instead they would adjust ‘to have no lunch’ or ‘walk home after work’ programs or anything that conforms to their childhood lessons.


Don’t our governments exhibit similar traits when they conform to outrageous donor conditions? Doesn’t our larger society behave in the same way when our markets act as the dumping ground of many western economies, and we adapt to sub-standard goods! Could it be that, most African children, learning to survive in poverty can be reducing both their immediate expectations and future aspirations and they are in effect 'learning to be poor'


Africans should recognize they can prosper. Poverty of the mind should not prevail among Africans. Africans themselves must live with the conclusion that they can grow like India, New-Zealand or Australia. This solution is an inward option to growth.

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