I keep returning to the definition of poverty.
Except in cases where absolute poverty is universally recognised, the definition of poverty can also be looked at in terms of how one perceives one's ability to change one's situation or attain goods.
This is what President Obama recounts of what his paternal uncle said:
"People come back from Nairobi or Kisumu and tell them, "You are poor." So now we have this idea of poverty. We didn't have this idea before. You look at my [adopted] mother. She will never ask for anything. She has always something that she is doing. None of it brings her much money, but it is something, you see. It gives her pride. Anyone could do the same, but many people here, they prefer to give up." [p 380 Dreams from my Father]
One's ability to change one's situation can be affected by one's means to move up a societal hierarchy, as explained by Economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen:
"Being relatively poor in a rich country can be a great capabillity handicap, even when one's absolute income is high in terms of world standards. In a generally opulent country, more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning." [p 89 Development as Freedom]
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How President Obama's adopted Kenyan grandmother describes the change in economic system of Kenya [pp 399, 401]:
"Things began to change with the first white man's wars. More guns arrived, along with a white man who called himself district commissioner. We called this man Bwana Ogalo, which meant "the Oppressor". he imposed a hut tax that had to be paid in the white man's money. This forced men to work for wages. He conscripted outright many of our men into his army to carry provisions and build a road that would allow automobiles to pass. He surrounded himself with Luos who wore clothes like the white man to serve as his agents and tax collectors. We learned that we now had chiefs, men who were not even in the council of elders. All these things were resisted, and many men began to fight. but those who did so were beaten or shot. Those who failed to pay taxes saw their huts burned to the ground. [ . . . ]
Those who did not work as laborers stayed in their villages, trying to maintain the old ways. But even in the villages, attitudes changed. The land was crowded, for with new systems of land ownership, there was no longer room for sons to start their own plots - everything was owned by someone. Respect for tradition weakened, for young people saw that the elders had no real power. Beer, which once had been made of honey and which men drank only sparingly, now came in bottles, and many men became drunks. Many of us began to taste the white man's life, and we decided that compared to him, our lives were poor."
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The previous remarks, as well as pointing out that poverty was a social construct, also blame colonialism for that feeling.
So that this post doesn't conclude with regrets of what happened in the past, I'll end it with Barack's dinner conversation with a Kenyan history professor who was a friend of his father's. [p 433 onwards, Dreams from my Father.] Colonised societies, Dr Rukia Odero says, need to review their pre-colonial history with an honest vision and relook at their cultural practices without their colonised tainted glasses.
""You can hardly blame black Americans, of course, for wanting an unblemished past. After the cruelties they've suffered - still suffer, from what I read in the newspapers. They're not unique in this desire. The European wants the same thing. The Germans, the English . . . they all claim Athens and Rome as their own, when, in fact, their ancestors helped destroy classical culture. But that happened so long ago, so their task is easier. In their schools, you rarely hear about the misery of European peasants throughout most of recorded history. The corruption and exploitation of the Industrial Revolution, the senseless tribal wars - it's shameful how the Europeans treated their own, much less colored peoples. So this idea about a golden age in Africa, before the white man came, seems only natural."
"A corrective," Auma said.
"Truth is usually the best corrective," Rukia said with a smile. "You know, sometimes I think the worst thing that colonialism did was cloud our view of our past. Without the white man, we might be able to make better use of our history. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness. Polygamy. Collective land ownership. These things worked well in their time, but now they most often become tools for abuse. By men. By governments. And yet, if you say these things, you have been infected by Western ideology.""
This conversation needs to be spread across Muslim communities which continue to espouse outdated patriarchal traditions.