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The poor are also with us

It always amuses me how we – by which I mean Nigerians – like to celebrate wealth. On any given day on Elon Musk’s Twitter…

It always amuses me how we – by which I mean Nigerians – like to celebrate wealth. On any given day on Elon Musk’s Twitter (the platform I am most active on now called X), there’s sure to be someone or the other arguing about how their region has the largest number of billionaires, or sharing photos of massive homes set like islands in humongous compounds. Often, we are told that these are images “Western media will not show you.”

Recently, someone on the platform has been doing the opposite: sharing videos of the poor living in conditions that are barely habitable (flooded homes, homes with no kitchens or proper bathrooms), and folks are shocked that there are people in Lagos living like that. These are the types of images that many would rather not see, and it is all the more powerful for not having the distraction of someone blaming “Western media” for showing “stereotypical images of Africa,” rather than focusing on the issue at hand.

First off, whatever the Western media is doing, it certainly isn’t running free advertisements for our country. It’s not their job. I recall a German journalist friend of mine being castigated at a human trafficking sensitization campaign in Nigeria years ago because of his documentary about undocumented Nigerian sex workers who were deported from Italy.

My friend had screened the documentary at one of the events organised by the campaign in Benin City and at the end of it, some outraged audience member asked him why “you people come to Nigeria, and instead of showcasing our beautiful cultures, you chose to showcase prostitution?” My friend told him that he didn’t work for the country’s tourism board, and so it wasn’t his job to “showcase Nigeria.”

Imagine sitting through a documentary where young women spoke of drinking their own urine in the desert when they made the perilous journey from Nigeria to Spain (and Italy); of sleeping with men who sometimes abused them; of contracting HIV; of being deported to Nigeria and their families urging them to make the journey again, and of their willingness to make that terrible crossing again if they found a way to do so.

Imagine watching that and your anger is not with the environment that makes putting yourself through such terror (and being indebted to some trafficker and pimp) more attractive than staying back in your country, but with the journalist who shared the stories of these women.

I don’t understand why we think that certain lives, although true, do not need to see the light of day. Our writers when they write of poverty and crime, of hardship and violence are accused of writing “poverty porn” or “trauma porn.”

Folks say they are tired of reading all these stories of hardship. They say Naija writers should write romance and joy and beauty.  Apart from the fact that no one should prescribe what stories a writer chooses to tell or how every story deserves its day. Let those who will write of lightness and love do so, let those who will write of less pleasant lives do so. Let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch as my people say.

In any case, it is a privilege to tire of reading about trials and tribulations, infinitely better to do so than to live it every day. Worse to live in a society where people would rather pretend you do not exist.

The danger in that is that things that do not exist do not need to be confronted. If the poor do not live among us, if we are not confronted with them, it is easy to quaff our expensive champagne without any feeling of guilt: Easy for our politicians to reward themselves handsomely while folks are living in abject poverty.

So, I am grateful to those, who in a society where wealth is revered, insist on showing us uncomfortable truths. And when they not only do that but also actively work towards alleviating some of the hardships their subjects carry, they have my everlasting gratitude.

The young man who makes these videos I referenced earlier also runs a charity that works- as far as I can see- to rehouse some of the subjects, and in many cases gives them money. Folks who can are encouraged to donate to the charity. And that is how change happens.

Our hearts, our literature, our movies, our works must be able to hold space for all of society. The poor deserve their stories told, truthfully and respectfully. Especially in a society that celebrates wealth as much as ours does.

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