We Thank God – For the Boots on Our Broken Backs

That feeling again. We’re about to go on a scholarship fundraiser for high school kids struggling through poverty, and I get that same sick feeling I got when I came across Mariana’s story last month.

I need to say this before it vanishes in the stream of thought and I can’t find it- Poverty is a mutilation of the human soul and a crime against humanity. It is deliberate, systemic and systematic. It is the rotten limb we need to cut off. Scholarships doled out like food rations can feel like slapping bandaid on gangrene. But even worse than this endless pit of providing much needed temporary relief is how Kenyans “thank God” whenever a poor student overcomes shocking poverty and scores an A. It’s as if poverty itself were a badge of honor.

In Kenya, national exams are a rite of passage that makes you or breaks you, and if they don’t make you, you are anathema. Students have been known to commit suicide over poor grades.

A Kenyan student, Mariana was featured in the news after she performed exceptionally well in the national exams. I recall watching the clip– how she and her family had lived on the streets of Nairobi, in the slums and even slept in public toilets. Her parents worked hard and long hours scavenging garbage dumps and bins for recyclables and food. They were not lazy. Capitalism will feed you the lie that poor people are lazy. Mariana beat incredible odds and excelled academically. In that interview though, she did not question her poverty, and neither did her father.

The journalist asked no hard questions. They all thanked God. It’s  a very Kenyan thing. We thank God for the crumbs. The corrupt system’s boot that crushes poor people under the table is just god testing their backbones. We thank god for those boots.

I scoured the public comments under the Mariana story hoping to find a slew of condemnation and outrage over a country that allowed a family to live through such injustice. Shock on me. Everyone was thanking God for this miracle of an A and no outrage over what this child had to go through in life.

There was something profoundly immoral about these reactions, about not mentioning the indignity of living like animals in a city that also has opulence and opportunity for a select few. This normalization, silence and numbness towards others’ destitution, misery and downright rotten suffering has to come to an end.

I’m still shocked at how a child can be born and raised in Muthaiga’s opulence and never know the squalor of another child in Mathare, only a whistle away. This is true of all the wealthy and the gated middle-class neighborhoods that have slums right next to them. If the Mathare child scores an A, we are awed, then we display some profane spiritual spasms of thanking god. Profane because the cruelty of the child’s lived reality is completely ignored.

Here’s what’s going to happen– we know the script. The poor kid who scores an A will get scholarships to Kenya’s “Ivy League” schools, continue to excel, will finally occupy an important position in society, but because she was never taught to see her poverty as an injustice and to fight it, she will become one of those humble “god-fearing” obnoxiously dismissive Kenyans who say things like- “If you work hard like me, you will make it! The bible says don’t fight authority. Just be like me and you will succeed.” They become part of the pillars that prop up a cruel system. They truly believe economic injustice can be fought with prayer, a sermon, good grades and a prudish reputation.

I long lost respect for good grades. By all means, we must celebrate our children’s excellence, encourage them to do well, but if all they want is to get good grades and never touch a book again, then we have failed them miserably. What if we valued a passion for learning more than the cutthroat competition for grades? Imagine that! We have to create a world in which Mariana’s quality of life is more valuable than the grade she gets in an exam. The good-grades culture in Kenya creates selfish heroic individuals and kills the communal fight for a better world.

I will still come knocking on your door for scholarship funds for those struggling through the injustice of poverty. Until we get to that place where education is as free as the air we breathe, as necessary as life-giving water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *