Every Ramadan, for the past ten years or so, I have carried out a tradition I learnt from my mother. At the beginning of the month, she would make a list of all the people she wanted to distribute food stuff to. The list was mostly made up of our domestic staff, junior staff at her place of work, neighbours and family members who were less fortunate. There was also a second list, made up of friends and colleagues to whom she gave gifts; usually fruits, drinks or wrappers. This, I later learnt, not only helped to create an avenue of trust and kindness while strengthening the bond of friendship between her and her friends, it also served to establish a relationship between her friends and us (her children) who delivered the gifts. In hindsight, I realise now, that is primarily the way ‘connections’ are formed. Networking 101.
This year is no different. Overtime, I have developed my own list and update it yearly as finances permit. I focus mainly on the first list- the one made up of the less privileged and destitute. This year, as I pulled out the list from my archives, a sad realisation dawned on me. Nobody, absolutely nobody, had made it out of the list. In fact, I had to add a few names to last year’s list. The same people whom I have been giving charity to, year after year, are still the ones on the list. Not one of them has broken free of the bondage of poverty or at the very least, improved his or her situation. Most still lived in rented homes, most still had plenty mouths to feed and a lot more are finding it hard to get menial jobs.
While I do not claim to be an economist, no one can deny the fact that, millions of Nigerians have gotten poorer in the last few years. For all the talk of ‘getting out of recession’, and using nomenclature like GDP, MPI and PPP, the truth remains glaring for all to see: Country hard.
While musing over my list, I tried to understand what it was that made these people remain at the receiving end of charity for several years. Personally, I try to solicit for zakat (tithe) from my friends so that these people may receive a substantial amount to start a trade or invest. Alas, all my efforts remain in vain. And while as a Muslim I believe that is it ultimately Allah SWT that gives wealth, there are some reasons that we cannot deny contribute to the rising cases of destitution in Northern Nigeria.
When the woman who usually braids my hair told me she was pregnant for the ninth time, I could not hide my distaste. This is a woman who lives in a one-bedroom rented apartment with her husband and eight children. Her husband hawks’ ice while her two older boys push wheelbarrows in the market. So many days, they go without food. And yet, she was bringing another extra mouth to feed. She had no formal education and her only skill was braiding hair. The two most important catalysts of poverty: Lack of education and poor skillset. And that is why, despite receiving up to a hundred thousand Naira in charity and Zakat this year alone, she would perpetually remain poor. The money, she told me would go towards repairing her leaking roof as the raining season was approaching and paying school fees for her youngest three children; The rest had since stopped going to school. No plans for investing the money was made and even she was to be given a plan, there was no intellectual capacity to execute it.
Another fundamental reason for the poverty indices in the north, is polygamy and overpopulation. There, I said it. You can come for my head. When the former Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi II wanted to introduce certain protocols that had to be fulfilled before men would be eligible for polygamy, northerners came for his blood. But is it not the truth? How can a security man who is being paid twelve thousand naira a month, with a wife and five children, insist on adding another wife? It is simple mathematics, how does he feed them? Or is it the case of ‘Baqin da Allah ya tsaga, Allah ba zai hana shi abinci ba?’. Pray tell, how does this make sense?
Another important cause of poverty is our lack of access to proper healthcare. A woman on my list is a classic example. She has two children with sickle cell disease and so, despite being the recipient of many generous donations as well as being a petty trader, she is always counting her losses. Whatever profit she manages to make over a few months is blown away whenever any of the children has a medical crisis. She has no medical insurance and even the community-based health insurance scheme I tried to enrol her in, failed. It is always painful to see her spend all her funds after a hospital admission and return to zilch when they get better. Imagine if we had access to affordable health care in this country? Imagine if a poor widow with children could have access to healthcare like that of the NHS in the UK? Would that not be a mighty burden off her shoulders?
While giving out bags of rice in a village in north-eastern Nigeria, I asked someone what he though was the biggest cause of his poverty. His reply was simple: ‘Food’. Contrary to what people think, food is not really cheap in the north. He explained that if only he had land to grow his food, it would go a long way to reduce the hunger in his belly. Simply eating three healthy meals per day and a healthy amount of calories can go a long way in reducing the cycle of poverty. When a person does not have enough to eat, they lack the energy and strength needed to work. A sack of beans is currently being sold at N50,000 while a mudu of rice is sold at N1,500! How does a labourer who earns between N1,000 to N2,000 per day afford to feed his family three square meals?
Which brings me to the last (but by no means the least) reason: Unemployment. This year, as I distributed the food items, I made a deliberate effort to ask everyone on the list their employment status. Their answers were all the same: Jobs are scarce. The plumber was not getting as much jobs as before. Nor was the electrician. Nor was the laundry man. Same with the satellite man. As for the builder, he cursed the hike in the price of cement for the lack of building jobs. The whole situation is painful.
But even in my pain at our situation, I am consoled that it is Qadr (destiny). And at the same time grateful for being given this opportunity, for both religions unanimously agree on this: ‘The upper hand (the one that gives) is better than the lower hand (the one that receives)’.
May we always have the upper hand in this country, ameen!
Eid Mubarak in advance!
*Sahih Buhari, 1429.