Those who help themselves

Political, economic and social changes require mass collective action because of how just how powerful the opposing national and international forces are.   The struggles against colonialism and apartheid and neocolonial dictators called for collective action.  But I want to argue that we also have individual responsibilities to change.  Through changes in what we consume and produce we can improve the quality of our lives as well as position ourselves to better tackle the bigger problems that require collective action.

The first thing we have to combat is classism, a looking down upon the poor that afflicts the wealthy, the middle class and ironically the poor themselves.  Anything associated with poverty is seen as an anathema and things associated with poise and being classy are welcomed without question.  Food is a good example.  White rice is associated with having class, while sorghum and millet are seen as poor people’s food.  So we end up importing the more expensive rice instead of growing our own hardy, disease and drought resistance sorghum and millet.

This does not just affect our pockets and our health.  It means that local farming suffers while at the same time various strains of sorghum and millet disappear.  The bio-diversity, created by thousands of years of adaption, is lost as we stop growing these strains.  In a way, we are eating our way into hunger as we grow less and less food and rely more and more on GMO’s and imported food.

In cities such as Nairobi and Cape Town, middle and upper-classes see it not just convenient to buy bloodless and colorless meat at the supermarket, but also as a sign of having arrived.  No more going to the rural areas to buy fresh produce, or the market.  Yet, the relationship between the city and the rural is symbiotic.  Small farmers sell their fresh produce to the rural or city market. This keeps farmer’s family fed, clothed and where school is affordable, educated.  It also means that the farmer will rely less on money from relatives working in the city.  Instead of giving money to the already wealthy corporate super-markets, it is makes more economic and health sense to buy the fresh produce from local farmers.

Classism also leads to self-destructiveness.  Gout, the rich man’s disease, is a result of over-indulgence in eating roast meat and beer.  In most traditional African societies, meat was a rare treat. But somewhere along the line, in countries like Kenya and Malawi, being able to afford copious amounts of roast meat became a marker of class.  Not only is gout now at epidemic levels adding strain to already poor national health systems, but it also means that money that could be spent on school-fees is being spent on medication, meat and beer.  Nothing wrong with a cold beer and occasional roasting session, it’s the excess and expensive self-destruction that is the problem.

Related to classism is The West is the Best syndrome exemplified by the importation of second hand clothes.  This is a symptom of such psychological dependence that even pride (rightly or wrongly) that would make one scoff at wearing clothes worn by a stranger is sublimated.  Tailors and cobblers are out of work meaning they are not participating in the local economy.  The end result is local and national clothing industries in shambles and a population that cannot clothe itself without help from the Western donors. We are driving ourselves out of businesses and further into dependence.

Nollywood in Nigeria has shown that it is possible to have a thriving national film industry.  But more needs to be done.  It is still easier for us to embrace and more importantly pay for Western cultural products before ours.  Yet artists and other cultural workers cannot survive without getting oxygen from those who share their culture.  By buying local and national music and art, we will not only benefit the individual artist, but the whole industry as well, from the local seller, the producers, editors, critics and reviewers.  There are no innocent buys, each shilling, rand or kwacha will either benefit someone one in the West or your neighbor.

There is more we can do on the cultural front.  Invite your writers to a local bookstore, or primary and high schools, to local gatherings, or if you form one, to a reading group.  Invite a local band to play at your wedding or a poet to perform a love poem or two.  The more we consume our culture, the more we will produce.  And the more we produce, the more the shared experiences and a sense of national identity.

Related to the question of culture is that of African languages.  It is now shown that children who are proficient in their mother tongue acquire other languages faster.  If you want your child to acquire and master English or French, it will be to their advantage if they are proficient in their mother tongue.  But more than that, you are also creating a reader for the African writer who decides to write in his or her language.  And you are bringing up a child who stands at the center of your culture, as opposed to the margins of Western cultures.

In the course of taking individual actions, not only will be supporting each other, but we shall be getting to know each other while developing mutual respect.  And because we will have learned to talk to each other through our shared experiences, and we will be aware of the power of action even at the individual and local level, we shall be better poised to fight the bigger struggles.  We shall better practice the Zulu world view – We are persons through other people.

*Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of Nairobi Heat (Penguin SA 2009) and Hurling Words at Consciousness.  This essay first appeared in the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.