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Mind the Gap

A pair of oxen or a camel is all that is needed for a person to be considered successful in rural Eritrea. At least he can till the land with the oxen and trade in firewood or corn using his camel.

With that he can raise a family and if he is lucky his wife can bear him more sons than daughters so that his male heir can help him during his declining years.

While some have all the luck, others carry all the problems. they lose their oxen to disease or some natural disaster, have a wife who keeps giving birth to females and to add insult to injury, they fall prey to an early senility and join those who wait for their turn to depart this world.

Are the poor destined to remain forever? Not in a free and sound society. The biblical ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ were assigned this menial job following religious decrees, as are the Untouchables of India.

“How do you feel living in a dilapidated hut, and right across the street your neighbor lives in a spacious villa and enjoys his Jacuzzi?” you ask a poor man in some Third world country.

“Never mind,” replies the poor and the destitute, “I am destined to remain poor while my neighbor is pre-ordained to remain rich,”

The other day I read in a magazine a comical conversation between two people:

“I am more intelligent than you.”

“What proof do you have?”

“Because I am richer than you!”

May be there is some logic in the reply, but such assertion doesn’t always hold true. Take, for example, Mozart, Beethoven or Gandhi or even Isaac Newton. These people were anything but rich, and some of them couldn’t even have a decent burial when they died.

Some of the reasons given for poverty in the Third world are: no culture of saving, living only for today, wanting to have la dolce vita without working. This is in a sound society.

When the heartless despot reigns over, however, and corruption and mismanagement do the job of producing paupers by the millions, it is the fault of colonialists, say the powers that be.

A few years back I read in a foreign newspaper that the Democratic Republic of the Congo, vaster and potentially richer than Europe, imported potatoes from France. I felt very sad for my continent. What’s the problem? The problem was that its strongman at the time was trying to become the richest man in the world.

Let people think what they like and preach what they get through ‘divine inspiration’, but the gap between the poor and the rich has to somehow narrow down. At least the poor have to lead a decent life. This is where the government has to intervene. Not by discouraging the rich but by encouraging the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The best place to start is the infrastructure. The efforts made by our government for the fair distribution of wealth do rightly focus on the building of roads, schools and clinics in every nook and cranny of the country, until the poor will have no excuse to remain poor, and the rich will not feel safe hording their money.

Once, a certain journalist went to the semi-slum quarter in Monrovia, Liberia, invited by a little girl (Street Vendor) to visit her poor mother. What he saw there is beyond description. It wasn’t into a room that the little girl led him, but into a dark hole with a tin roof that looked like a strainer.

“What do you do when it rains? He asked the mother.
She showed him a waterlogged mattress drying in the sun outside. The little girl blushed. Her little brother giggled.

The journalist was later told by the little girl that her mother sells vegetables in the street and that her sister is a prostitute and her older brother in prison.

“What did he do? He asked.
“It was my mother who wanted him to stay there for something he did to her?” she replied.

Some mother! But she could have joined forces with him to repair the roof instead. When poverty dwells in the mind, it is impossible to work and get rich. They say that if you went into a town with 30% rich and 70% poor people, and you gave 1,000 dollars each to every citizen and asked them to use it to improve their economic condition, and if you come back a year after, you would probably see no change among the poor, while the rich would have got¬ten richer. Poverty can sometimes become a culture.

Man is a mysterious creature. Do you know that some people enjoy remaining poor probably for some sort of weird revenge? They want to say to their Creator: “Okay, you closed all opportunity to us, we who have worshipped you all our lives; well from now on you will see us begging and people will say, ‘Hey, look what happened to those guys who have put all their trust in their Creator!”

Once there was a man who got married and lived happily with his wife, that is until his mother arrived in her capacity as mother-in-law. As usual she fought with the new bride. Well, inevitably the husband had to decide: either his mother or his bride. So finally, the mother had to leave. Goodbye mamma. But the newly evicted mother thought to humiliate her son in public. You can guess what she did in the end. Her son tried all he could to bring her back to her sense, in vain.

I don’t know where she is at present. But, most certainly she must have been begging when she died. And there are people who become rich in spite of themselves. They inherit a fortune and couldn’t believe it themselves. How do you prove to yourself that the money you have in your hands is for real? Very simple. You start spending it. So, most of these born winners act, as the Tigrinya expression has it, like a dog which is unleashed by his master for break. And of course they act like one.

Then there is the Diaspora effect. It goes like this: there is a good-for-nothing guy here in Asmara who hangs around bars and cafes, leering at busty chicks and drooling at mini-skirted lasses. Fortunately, he has a sister or a brother who lives abroad. Dear brother sends a dollar as soon as possible. I love’ you. So the money simply flows in, in his name. Result: you have a rich poor young man with more money to drink and dance the night away and with no money in the morning for breakfast.

It is said that the Eritrean nouveaux riches (newly rich) appeared in Asmara during the Derg era. Where else do you expect them to appear? There is a proverb in Tigrinya which goes: when there is a fight in market place, it is the thief that profits the most. And fighting, there was more than enough, both in high places and the battle ground.

With their newly acquired wealth, the nouveaux riches did everything they perceived in their wildest dreams, with the exception that they never thought of learning something about modern business, which meant that they were as certain to get richer by chance or lose everything they had overnight. And that’s how most of them perished, leaving traces of villas and concubines behind. They are now remembered by their penchant for whisky and their conversation based on trash.

But there were also some do-gooders among them in our culture. The good rich man builds churches or mosques or even schools’ in his home village, helps his relatives to get good education and to get married and to prosper, and as he gets older, he frequents the church and lavishes carious donations upon the priests; a good investment indeed. The bad rich man, however, remarries, hoards income and counts his money at night.


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