Opinionista Mlilo Mpondo 28 February 2014

The anxious insanity of poverty: Where are our saviours?

“I don’t trust Kenyans, Ethiopians or people from Somalia”, a South African and extremely traditionalist colleague told me over lunch this past week. “I can’t stand Nigerians - no African can stand Nigerians - they are the African example of intelligent opportunists, but they don’t frighten me nearly as much as refugees that understand true hunger. I don’t trust anybody that has met and made acquaintance with hunger; they cease to be human”.

Statistically, poverty is researched, understood and categorised as though it were quantifiable. Studies conceive it as being based on low or no levels of income, levels of education and skills capacity, little or no access to food and resources. This is all well and good for quantitative purposes which inform policy direction and government intervention, but it is sorely lacking where qualitative considerations become necessary for sustainable redress and human(e) progress. But poverty is not a numbers game; it is both psychological and cultural, it transcends wage gaps and finds a seat at the dinner tables of poor mothers that don’t have the luxury to listen to the long-winded and pontificating speeches of finance ministers about their budget allocations, their minds are far too consumed with the price of paraffin to keep their babies warm, and the price of bread that keeps their stomachs occupied for enough time to allow them to believe that they are not hungry.

That kind of poverty changes people; empty stomachs can almost always guarantee the result of emptied souls. A mother will burn her daughter’s hands for eating the last piece of fish intended for supper, a husband will pound insanity into wives and children who are a constant reminder of his inadequacies, and boys will rape girls that threaten their claims to masculinity.

There is something to be understood (and possibly feared) in a person that knows hunger on a first-name basis; something unique about those whose doors it knocks on every morning, and in whose beds it rests every night. Once it has subjected you to indignity and brought you to your knees in the backseat of luxury cars, head placed in between sweat-soaked thighs sucking at the cocks of grey-haired old men with heaving bodies, or made you beat the beauty out of a woman whose magnificence torments and flirts with your own fragility, once you have known hunger that intimately, escaping it by any means necessary, it becomes your sole preoccupation. The squalor it breeds is not confined to its immediate environment; instead it manifests itself mentally, so often times you take it with you wherever you go.

I call this a fixed state of anxious insanity, wherein people are constantly nervous about their ability to survive in an environment which daily threatens their survival. It is a state where the minds of people are so heavily burdened by strife, that agony consumes their every thought, subsequently limiting their cognitive abilities. This constant state of panic, or anxious insanity, becomes a physical, mental and spiritual manifestation, which conditions your every thought and choice. Where you cannot think above poverty, because poverty is all you know. It breeds a culture of heightened anger which is expressed violently, it creates a culture of discontent which manifests a disregard for any relationship or obligation to society, a disregard which is evidenced in high levels of violent crimes, criminalities and amplified substance abuse. Hunger and its state of poverty has the ability to change or to rid you of your body, your spirit, your mind, and your humanity.

Poor people (black people) are often ridiculed for their reckless behavioural patterns, which it is said, perpetuate their state of poverty. We burn down clinics when we dissent, our sons rape their grandmothers and our fathers tear at the delicate hymens of toddlers to gain some form of malignant gratification. Most times (it is opined) we handle our businesses unscrupulously, many of our civil servants are all too happy to grow plump bellies from funds intended for public spending, while the rest of us sell or rent out RDP houses and opt to live in shacks, and become baby-making franchises for the sole purpose of receiving grants. We have lost our minds, we mock any black person that chooses a life better than that handed to them, because they are “keeping themselves white”, all the while parking Range Rovers next to one-roomed shacks. We are so enveloped in a state of anxious insanity that once we begin to rise above poverty by the slightest inch, we spit at its face, shove material wealth down its self-righteous throat and murder anyone who threatens to reacquaint us with the demon that stays hidden and in vigil behind the cliffs of our tormented minds.

We are in short supply of leaders that really give a shit or teachers to remind us that we too are worthy. Our classrooms beg for the echoing of Biko, the choruses of Malcolm, the silhouette of Kwame, the irreverence of Olympe de Gouges and the sound of the slow gait of Sojourner’s feet, which I imagine shuffled wearily from years of marching.

Our communities are breeding grounds for anxious insanity, our daughters have babies that their wombs are not ready for, and our sons drop out of school because they are consistently told that they will never amount to anything. This world does not belong to them, them the crazy. Although they live in it, they are vacant but alive, trying their darndest to find Malcolm X, even in the drain pipes that hold their dreams, playgrounds for inspired insanity. DM

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