Accuse a peasant people of despondence, not dependence.

by suleimanharuna


Suleiman Haruna, @suleimanharuna

For a people to unanimously agree that they were not poor while complaining that 700 of their children are out of school; when they do not have any public health facility in a 10 – kilometer radius; and when they face a tortuous journey just to buy the essentials of life at Giwa, the nearest town at over 20 kilometers, is truly to misunderstand the meaning of poverty. But that is probably from my perspective, a facilitator for change.

In the Zangon Tama community as in many others, people normally believe that they need government to provide and subsidize fertilizers for their farms, schools for their children and clinics especially for their wives and children, as well as an access road to help them move their farm products to the markets and determine their prices, rather than wait for monopolists and commission agents to flood their villages during harvest with big trucks, buy up the produce at rock bottom prices and move them to the markets where they resell at huge profits; as many as 2000 bags of grains (rice and corn) are transported during each of the two market days at Giwa, per week.

As a result of the huge agricultural output of the villages and the corresponding sales of their products, they can afford the blessings of the easy life, a generator, since they have no electricity, motorcycles, grinding mills and threshers; in fact they claim they can afford to buy any car they want if they had the road to ply them. These people only dream and yearn of government services and infrastructure but have not experienced them. Would it then be fair to classify them as being dependent on government? Time and again, communities are branded as dependent on government and talk shops are held to discuss how these communities must be made independent, to refocus on their own internal resources and knowledge; alas, most of these communities are, like Zangon Tama, only calling for attention and expressing their despondence with government, which is supposed to service them.

Most of the resources of government are spent on cities and bigger towns on health care, water supply, electricity, good roads and education, from resources that are pooled from all, including these villagers who receive frequent visits by tax officials during harvest seasons. This is probably the only time they sense the presence of government; in times of demands. Another is when politicians come to solicit for votes, visits that are never repeated after elections have been won.

Coming back to the issue of poverty, why do these people believe that they are not poor? Being poor to these people means being unable to sustain oneself either with a farm or even fishing, another trade popular in the community, as there is a fairly big river crossing its villages. In this community, every 18 year old manages his own farms and assists in the farms of his parents and in-laws. Professionals define poverty in completely different terms. But whose do we accept? Or better still, who should accept which definition. If as facilitators we decide to work with the definition of professionals, we might end up trying to change the lifestyle of our audience communities from the outside. On the other hand, if we take the definition of the locals, simplistic as it is, we may have little need of intervening in their lives, because “they are not complaining”. But aren’t they? At least they are yearning for things and services other than those which they can provide for themselves.

But whose definition should the locals accept? Obviously, they already have theirs, and if we are to try to change this definition with the professional version, they may disagree with it and even stress that such an expression as ‘poverty’ does not reside among them. In Hausa language, for example, the word for  the poor, talaka, has implications ranging from a king’s subject, which everyone in the community is; to someone unable to sustain himself, or in political parlance, the downtrodden. But certainly never someone who cannot access some facilities or services that are extraneous to the person’s community, or who survives on a particular amount of money or lack of it “per day”. Poverty is also identified as a male thing; women are only identified with poor husbands or fathers, not as being poor themselves, but being rich can easily be associated with both sexes.

To me, the issue of dependence attributed to local peasants is escapist and is made to ‘blame the victim’ of development. What is more important is to note that these people are rightly despondent of government, for it has a duty towards them and they yearn for what it is supposed to offer them as members of the same revenue pool. ##