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#3: YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW.

When you have been living all your life just comfortable with where you are, no matter how crappy it really is, it hurts. It hurts to find out that you deserve better, but that fact is hidden in plain sight. It hurts to know that we repeatedly give away our right to decent lives and brighter futures to people who further ensure we remain in the dark. It hurts to realise that most of us think that even the most basic of rights is a privilege that we cannot afford. IT SUCKS.

Let me paint this painful picture because for us to find our way out, it is important to know where we are. And where we are is summed up by one very common word. INEQUALITY. One of the most underrated factors of doom ever. Since we are in the season of pandemics, I dare call it the greatest pandemic yet to erupt. Like a cold war, it has been cooking chini ya maji (under wraps) for decades. The scariest thing is that it is right in front of us – it has been for a long time.

I see it every time I feel the loss of my 60 bob bus fare, yet when I step off the matatu, I see Range Rovers stuck in traffic that cost millions of shillings. Also how almost every slum is naturally bordered by an estate here in Nairobi Kenya. It never bothered me until I got the priceless opportunity to meet with a group of smart ladies from Oxfam Kenya and Fight Inequality Alliance. Together with my previous research and the fact that I am a Kenyan, their insights on inequality blew open the lids that covered my mind and eyes.

Like magnets, my experiences over the years plus the new found knowledge started forming links. Links that were unbelievably disturbing but made me more self aware. I hope they also help you snap out of it. I will start by taking you back in time. People from way back as far as the 16th century began categorizing people depending on various factors of who they were. The most common ones today are race, gender and wealth. Suddenly people could “own” other people and determine even their most fundamental aspects – their lives.

Now people could own more and live better than others, until they started to believe that they deserved it. Just for the record; They don’t. No one does. That is why some scaled up slavery to colonialism. With it came horrors and wars that changed humanity forever. Perhaps the most overlooked effect of this age was one subliminal lesson that poisoned even those who believe that they got ‘freedom’ is – Wealth means power. So our ‘leaders’ and ‘saviours’ began making themselves wealthy in the name of heroism, opening a Pandora’s box that has led us to where we are today.

This reminds me of the various incidents when a citizen was brutally clobbered for trying to gift his President back in October 2019, here in Kenya. From what I understood, as colonialism faded, capitalism took its place. In simple terms, this is where the infamous word ‘system’ comes from. It basically means a state in which private people benefit from economic and political structures put in place to benefit the nation. Fast forward to today and there are governments supposed to ensure that the people of a nation live good and prosperous lives. People built these systems and because of personal interests, they made them so that the common mwananchi had no option but to depend on them.

With this, the greed for power and money was born. This should at least explain the irony of having over 60 languages in Kenya, yet the constitution has been written in two main languages. Like I said, only those who understand benefit. And speaking about the Kenyan  constitution, here is how tricky it is. I am a learned 3rd year science student and it took me internet, typing skills and a bunch of false links to finally find this bill of rights, which frankly is too bulky. So I instead started looking for the rights I would enjoy when I start working and stumbled upon the Kenyan Employment ACT 2007. So I started reading “In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires…  blah blah blah!”

Of course it was after skipping a bunch of introductions and definitions. So I wondered, how the heck is my grandmother, my uncle and cousins who are in ushago (upcountry) going to understand this! What does it even mean? Now taking into account that there are about eighteen Chapters, all bearing Acts and fully furnished with a lawyers language… I mean, how is this supposed to be for the citizens? In the same way, these same laws are supposed to help citizens get equal rights that propel them towards prosperity!

Now we hear that only 0.1% of the Kenyan population own more than the 99.9% of people in Kenya. Kenya has 51.3 million people and counting. To make matters worse, only 300 of this are extremely wealthy (dollar millionaires). Magnify this on a global scale and you get mind numbing figures like the 1%. Get this; The world richest people, the 1%, own equivalent to 44% of the world’s wealth, the world has 7.8 billion people. Where does that leave the rest of the 99%, me included? Someone must be puling a hoax on the planet.

But the problem lies on a much smaller scale. It is about the citizens and workers who pour blood and sweat into generating this ridiculous amount of money. And yes, it is about money because that is what determines whether you sleep hungry today or not. Don’t get me wrong, being rich is not a bad thing. It is how this wealth is acquired. Those lucky enough to understand the system leverage this knowledge to reap maximum benefits at the expense of that one worker. Imagine one machine in a factory making one million Kenya Shillings a day, yet the operator of the machine is paid a meager 500 bob!

The worker cannot complain because he does not know how to use the Constitution or read it for that matter, and his desperate situation does not allow him to even try. Working for more than 16 hours does not grant the luxury of time to even discover or research. I doubt if 500 bob would allow him to afford the internet and cater for his family’s needs. But this is the situation on the ground. It is how many of us around the world have been forced to normalize inequality because we are caught in an endless cycle that almost means life or death if you break it.

It is no surprise that Sustainable Development Goal number ten reads Reduced Inequality instead of “eliminating inequality”. It has been normalised so much that we are now OK with letting it be, unless it costs a couple of lives – then we can strike. Our leaders promise heaven using fancy names like ‘The Big Four’ before elections and we trust them with a huge amount of power and wealth – our wealth. But they stay true to the rule of promises and just don’t deliver. Sadly, we never learn and their charms work every time. Why? We don’t know. We do not understand the information, therefore, we don’t care.

For you to be self aware, you have to understand how your Country works, what the laws mean for you and your wealth. How? It starts with communicating the system in a way people will understand. Only then can we start seeing action from citizens that assert their power over the power of who they elect – Kudos to Kiambu County for showing it is possible. Some like Oxfam,  and Fight Inequality Alliance  get it, and have been doing all they can to help the situation. But one key player is missing for this to work, and that is YOU.

Equity and Equality do not mean that everybody should be or will be rich. It just means that everybody deserves to be treated the same and to enjoy a decent quality of life no matter their financial value. Mama mboga should be able to have a good home, enjoy a balanced diet and to be treated well in public facilities even though she earns less. A life of dignity not luxury. That is all. So if we could only realise it Today, Right Now; then we can start working for a better future.

You deserve better. I just thought you should know.

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#2: IS ANYONE TO BLAME?

Growing up, I was always angry at my mother and my grandmother for not working hard enough to buy me the things I desired. Things that according to me, were basic things to have because every other kid in my neighbourhood had them. Things like a bicycle, remote controlled toy cars and a leather football. I knew they both had a job and that they came home tired all the time. But there was no money in their handbags. I was brought up to know that if you have a job, then you have money, and that is in part why everyone insisted that we work hard in school and get good jobs. My mom was a nurse, and my grandma worked in the chief’s office. Good jobs no?

At some point, I came to the conclusion that perhaps they were not working hard enough, or perhaps they were working in the wrong jobs… or maybe it was true that there exists a balance in nature, and that this balance dictates many aspects of life – including who asks for the price before purchasing and who asks for the bill after purchasing.

I had often heard people saying things to the effect that “poor people must exist in order to complement the rich, otherwise what would happen if all of us became rich? Who would mix concrete in our constructions? Who would milk our cows? Who would deliver our packages? Who would clean our houses and take care of our kids while we are at work? Who would do all the lifting and packing in our factories? Who would do all the important menial work?”

To be honest, this argument made sense to me. Thinking literally, I could not picture a woman in her nice suit and heels working a spade to mix concrete. Or a man in his white shirt chopping nappier grass for the cows. As I grew a little older, I would read that poverty is a state of mind… poor people are lazy… poverty is a consequence of natural selection… Rich people are evil… etc. And quite shockingly, poor people believe these things too. It is preached to them in their churches.

Now, having grown up, I came across the word “Inequality”. It is a word that means complex things. To put it simply, it is the gap between the rich and the poor in society, caused by many social, political, economic and religious factors. It is that there are people who live in Karen yet others just across the road live in the largest slum in Africa.

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The quality of  lives of people in these two places contrast like sunlight and moonlight. While others are stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, clothing, sleep, air and reproduction), others are frustrated because they cannot seem to make a choice out of two 5-star hotels they that they desire to spend their vacations in. If I lived in Kibera, I would have to worry about my next meal, water for domestic use, school fees for my kids, the sewage passing outside my house, whether the toilet we share has someone in it because I am pressed, rent for my landlord, if I will get a job tomorrow etc. Basically, I would live a very frustrated life.

Inequality dates back to a date no one knows. It was there before the times of Jesus, during the times of Jesus and has prevailed even now after Jesus. It was made worse by slave trade and colonisation, wars and now technological advances. For many who are born either rich or poor, this is just how life is. We do not realise that it could be different because we do not know anything else outside of it. Does this then mean that we should keep living our lives the way we know how to? And anyway, isn’t nature running its course? Why bother the balance of nature? We cannot all be successful, can we?

Enter activists.

If you asked me who activists are 3 months ago, I would have told you that they are people who seem to have excessive amounts of compassion and think they can solve the problems of the world by shouting and holding up banners. I still think that activists haven’t done much to make the world a better place, otherwise the world would actually be a better place. So activists came and they said, “rich people have made their wealth at the expense of poor people. They have robbed poor people, they have colluded with the government to make it easier for them to keep ripping off poor people and now we demand that this has to stop!”

They had a point. Rich people haven’t always made their money cleanly. They break the law and use their money to evade punishment. They pursue huge profits at the expense of their workers. They influence governments to put in place policies that favour them. Rich people have oppressed less rich people to acquire, keep and grow their wealth. But, fingers should not be pointed at them.

Activists seem to go after rich people. They seem not to recognise that for rich people to be rich, they also worked hard, invested, risked and failed just like everyone else trying to not be poor. They desired a good life and they went for it.

Am I saying that rich people are blameless? No. I am saying that the fingers need to be pointed towards someone else – the government. I am of the opinion that the failure of our governments is what has caused inequality in the first place. For instance, the government has the capacity to put in place and enforce laws and policies that safeguard the interests of both employers and employees. It has the responsibility to make sure that every member of society can easily access the services they require in order to live a decent life. If everyone had access to clean and safe drinking water, electricity, food, decent and affordable housing, decent work and a living wage, access to quality and affordable healthcare, quality education among others, then the stresses on our lives would be reduced, and we would be motivated to do better.

We (activists and nonactivists) should not demand for the benevolence of rich people to solve the problems of the world (they already are by the way – just look at who funds all these NGOs). We should demand and work with our government to implement the constitution fairly. And no, inequality can never go away, it can only be reduced. Everyone cannot be rich, but everyone deserves to be allowed to be the best version of themselves through access to unlimited opportunities and respect of everyone’s rights.

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OUR JOURNEY TO UNDERSTANDING INEQUALITY#1: WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT INEQUALITY?

I don’t understand activists. I admire their courage and occasionally attend a protest, but I’ve never connected with why they exist. I did not see why we need a reminder of everything wrong with the world. We know! That’s why bingeing on Netflix feels like a better use of time. If I can’t fix it, why care?

Ironically, my path has led me to work on content for the social impact sector and I came face to face with the people I don’t understand. To face the fact that I have no idea what they do and why it’s important. Therefore, when I was asked to come up with a concept for communicating inequality, I had a major brain freeze. I love the challenge of diving in to solve real human problems, but the depth of it can be overwhelming.

As I prepared for a Q&A breakfast session with a team from Oxfam and Fight Inequality Alliance, I didn’t know what to expect. Will I learn anything or will my brain hurt? I had dug around the internet and despite that, I had no idea why they exist.

Turns out, equality is about how we get to live our daily lives. I quickly learnt what equality is not. It’s not the quest for a utopia where we’re all at the same income level. It’s not a hatred of the rich, although it often seems like it. It’s the awareness of the access you have or don’t have, that makes your life easier or harder.

Have you ever felt an overwhelming feeling of helplessness? Especially when you listen to the news? Do you ever wonder if things will ever get better? Who will come to save us? I know I have! I went into the meeting expecting to ask cynical questions about why I should care. What can I, a regular citizen, do to make a difference? Then I realised something startling.

Inequality has numbed us. It normalised patterns where a minority have access to endless opportunity while the rest make do with scraps. Diving into inequality leads to the realisation that no one is coming to save you. In a good way. I have the power. You have the power. The agency to act, create and ask for change. In simple tangible ways.

Exploring inequality is about self-preservation. About protecting your future. You’ll never enjoy your wealth if your neighbours are suffering and stagnant. When we don’t intentionally drive development, we enable a vicious cycle where people are born into disadvantage.

That said, inequality conversations need a makeover. Urgently! It needs to flip and become about developing personal agency. Taking back personal power by understanding how things work. Realising the power of the people to demand for development and change. Most problems can be solved when you understand who to talk to and how to organise. Simple but critical concepts I never realised I needed.

Inequality is a deeply layered subject intertwined with history and power. Learning to take personal responsibility creates the muscle to gradually deal with the larger issues. People need a message that empowers. A message that tells them what they can do to help things change. A message of hope. Hope that lies in being intentional.

Note to self: Question everything you hold to be normal. Question the origin of your truth. Question your motives. Question the roles you get to play at home, at work or in the community. Then somewhere in there, you’ll know when to use your voice to change things.

Bob Marley was onto something. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. But first, become aware of the slavery. Only when our eyes are open can we follow the light.

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