Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Poverty and attitude

I was standing in line for the bus no. 46 today after a long day trudging up and down town. First a bus came and let people who were at the back of the line get on. That got me because I’d been in line for a while and there is no reason for people who came after me to be able to get on the bus before me. Then, after some more frustrated waiting, this young woman comes up and just jumps in the queue! Granted it was behind me but that made me really mad still. I made a fuss about it despite the fact that I was not directly affected. I really hate waiting in line and I hate it even more when people jump the line!

Anyway, I soon found myself targeted by other people in the line who she had cut in front of. They went after me telling me to mind my own business! I couldn’t believe it. The no. 46 serves Kilimani, the wealthy suburb where I’m staying (but most people who live here own cars and rarely have to take public transport I’ve decided), as well as Kawangware, a really poor suburb.

My other experience queuing for a bus or matatu is the no. 58 which serves Buru Buru, not a wealthy area, but more white collar area of town where my parents’ house is. Had this woman jumped the queue on a no. 58 line, she would have been lynched! We did not take kindly to that mess and we made noise about it. The no. 46 folk seem to not mind.

So I can’t help but wonder if the differences are class differences. Do poor people care less for the sanctity of rules? Indeed, is it that poor people don’t follow rules because they are poor or are they poor because they don’t follow rules?

I see reluctance, through various interactions with people here, to follow the rules for the sake of following rules. If there is no-one to enforce the rules, then they don’t exist. For example, people don’t follow traffic lights unless there is a policeman around….. But I’d like to think that this is not just a Kenyan phenomenon. In the U.S. there are definite links between crime (talk about not following the rules) and poverty……

Is it that the poor just give up on the system because it seems to be so heavily weighted against them? Is it that they don’t get anything out of following the rules so why bother?


Its all tied into attitudes. I talked to a jobless relative this weekend who was blown away by my suggestion that she could just walk into an organization, offer to work as a volunteer, and be accepted. She insisted that she needed connections and to somehow use neopotism to land a position volunteering somewhere. That is just how closed off the system has been to people….

Because of my experiences living in the U.S. I am able to walk into a government office and demand the service that is due me without feeling like the person rendering the service is doing me a favor.

How long will it take to change Kenyan’s attitudes so they grow to expect what is truly theirs?


Isaac said...

Wanjiru - Thank you for your blog and for your thoughts. I do hope that they keep coming. It is, for me, a fascinating insight into a journey that I could never fully appreciate.

As you discover new perspectives such as that of your jobless relative, new heros such as the police chief, and new ways of catagorizing people such as the rule-followers and the rule-flaunters, I am greatly comforted to read that you are asking many of the same questions with which I have been struggling for a long time. To what extent should one follow an unjust system in the name of keeping an orderly society? If you have been wronged by the system, are you justified in ignoring the rules of the system to the maximum amount that you can "get away with"?

Your final question gives rise to a fearful thought - that the rest of the world might one day come to share the same twisted attitude of entitlement that is common to so many of us in the "developed" world. Could the earth possibly sustain 6 billion people living like we do in America? No way. I am only minimally and vaguely aware of the damage that I personally inflict on the rest of the world - both the human and non-human parts - simply by living the "average" American lifestyle. And it is an odd sense of entitlement that provides just enought justification to keep me from doing anything about it.

But, in the now imortal words of my grandmother, what could I do? Recycle more? Donate more of my income to charity? Drink Starbucks coffee if they pay fair prices but switch to Peet's coffee when it is discovered that Starbucks does not? Bathe only once every two days? Yes, yes, yes, and probably not. But would these actions be enough?

Perhaps they might, perhaps they might not. Perhaps I will revisit the questions in a future comment.

One last thing before I go to bed. You speak about poor people and following rules and imposing rules. I thought much about this today, and at the risk of sounding foolish, I will tell you my thoughts. I am convinced that imposing and enforcing rules is key. But I am also convinced that it is unethical to do this from the ground up - i.e., expect the poorest among us to start following the rules while the richest people are allowed to skirt them. The gradual transition from a rule-flaunting society to a rule-following society absolutely must start from the top. The leaders and wealthy must start following rules and must be held accountable BEFORE (i.e., not after and not at the same time) anybody can expect the general populace to do the same. "Cleaning up the streets" while the boardrooms and government offices stay dirty is pointless and futile. I would not ask a person from Kawangware to follow the queueing rules until I have shown them that their leaders are truly cleaning up their act.

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now...

Much love,

Crazyfinger said...


I came to know of Akildada through an email forward from a friend of mine in your neck of the woods (the "left" ahem, the west coast), and subsequently got to know this blog. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I was especially interested in your side note: "I will transport you to Kenya and show you a different side..." Yes, yes, please!

I read all your posts and hope to keep up with your blog. I was smiling when I read about the woman cutting in the bus line. A year ago I had a similar occurrence in India (where I am originally from, but "settled" in the U.S.). All that happened was I found myself laughing and shaking my head. Yes, following the rules is a good thing, but somewhere in that callous attitude of not following the rules, I'd like to think there's a rebellious attitude lurking and glowering at the suave folks like us. It'd be a pretty dull day when we don't see such a rebellious attitude in people around us, don't you think? :-)

But one thing was clear to me (I was in a big, name-brand city in India). Though ignoring the rules when no one was looking is still rampant, in general, I found that the so called orderly behavior was proportionately more visible a year ago as compared to some 20 years back. I think it would be fair to attribute this change in the society in Indian cities largely to the increase in the economic well-being of an average middle-class person. I think this increase in living standards heightens one's awareness of what's good with one's own position in the society.

Of course Indian cities and business districts are also an abode for the economically depraved, opportunity-wise depraved people, and for these, following the rules is not really a high priority in their day-to-day reality. Understandably.

Just a few thoughts. By the way, I was a bit confused about this post and I am sure the misreading is entirely mine. According to your post, it is the people in the Kilimani, where #46 bus was, who didn't take the rules seriously, right? And Kilimani is a wealthy suburb. So I wasn't sure how that prompted you to ask the question if poor give up on the system?

Crazyfinger (with apologies for this anonymous handle)

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg said...

oh yeah, the no. 46 goes through Kilimani ( a wealthy suburb) and onto Kawangware, an almost slum on the outskirts of the city. I tend to be the only one on my bus who gets off in Kilimani as most people on the bus are headed to Kawangware. My bad.....