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Why Kenyans view the Poor as Thieves

To the average Kenyan, the supposedly poor person is simply a thief in waiting 


In Kenya, when the government first announced measures against Coronavirus - many people on social media pointed out that they would especially affect the poor. More specifically, it has been said that if the poor didn’t get help soon, they would turn to crime.

This should be good, right? It shows that we care about the poor? Yet, it raises some dark questions. Was the concern here really about the poor? Why is it that we only remember the poor when bad things are happening?

I know a number of people who are going through rough patches due to the measures to combat Coronavirus. There is reduced spending by many businesses and equally by many individuals, and this is directly having an effect on numerous individuals and businesses whose income has effectively dried off. It does not help that the government barely has a welfare fund - when times were good, we spent away all the money.

Normally, these people would not be classified as poor. But they are really bearing the brunt of Coronavirus. No one had warned us of such a threat and few, if any of us were prepared.

Yet, publicly, much of the impact is said to be going to the poor.

I find this omission quite interesting - many ordinary people are affected, but discussions on the impact have been narrowed down to only the poor, with the threat that the poor will steal.

More interestingly, no one ever describes who exactly these poor people are. There have been few attempts that hint the poor live in informal settlements, but most of those talking about the “poor” don’t exactly specify who those are.

It is probably assumed that when we talk about the “poor” everyone understands who we are talking about.

Notably - you would wonder why the poor only have 2 options - being poor or being criminals.

In effect, people thought of to be poor are branded as criminals-in-waiting. If we don’t sustain their poverty at a certain level, then they will become thieves.

Interestingly, one of the biggest issues in Kenya for years has been grand corruption where billions of shillings are lost, and acres of public land are grabbed. No mean feat, and no supposedly poor person can pull off such grand schemes.

If you also follow crime closely, you will discover it requires proximity. Gold scams in Kenya have been on the rise, but they are pulled off by appearingly well-to-do people on other well-to-do people. A person struggling to put their next meal on the table can simply not wake up and go con a millionaire through a complex gold scam.

Likewise, much small time crime often happens in specific areas - usually around informal settlements. The victims are commonly people who live in those areas or people who happen to move around those areas, but rarely the well off.

First, crime is about access and opportunity. Criminals like to have a very good idea about their target and the pay-off. Otherwise, it is very risky to just hit anyone. It could lead to increased risk but nothing from the victim.

Crime in informal areas is low risk and low to medium return, while at the periphery it is medium risk and medium return. High risk crime such as robbing banks or wealthy homes is left to professional criminals or the connected, since the state pays more attention to such crimes.

I came across a concerning incident in South Africa where women who had saved to build their own homes were holding night vigils because of a crime wave from an informal settlement that had formed next to them. These women are not necessarily rich, yet are the victims of crime. They simply happen to live next to an informal settlement and so they become attractive, low-risk targets.

Women in Phillippi on night vigils for several days now, many distress calls for protection have yielded no intervention from the powers that be @PresidencyZA @CityofCT what will it take to stabilize this situation? Would this be allowed to continue if it was in the suburbs? pic.twitter.com/zIUmaZo40v

— SisBree™️ (@SisBree) April 25, 2020


The Cape Town incident just happens to be the reality everywhere. While many people imagine crime as a Robin Hood “Poor robs the rich” , low income earners are the largest victims of crime. Crime is classist. The rich steal amongst themselves and low income earners steal from other low income earners.

Crime is not so much explained by poverty, but by inequality. If poverty was a major factor, then Kenya would be much more crime prone than South Africa where the average income is higher. But the opposite is true and this is because South Africa is more unequal.

On average, each Kenyan produces about $1,710 or KSh. 171,000 in economic output per year compared to $6,374 or KSh. 637,400 for each South African. Of course this is heavily skewed by mineral production in South Africa which only passes through a few hands. In contrast, Agricultural production such as tomato, cabbage and sukuma wiki earnings in Kenya are distributed amongst more people.

Also, crime can be costly. If you are into armed crime - you need to purchase a gun and bullets. Sometimes you may also need to pay for protection. In short, we can not conclude being poor leads to crime - there’s too much risk and calculation involved.

So, then, why do we imagine people we take to be poor to be potential criminals?

This can only be explained by what gamers call a god-mode. Ordinarily, people view the world as revolving around them and they also see themselves as nice people.

Our concern for the “poor” comes from this niceness, but as gods, we further justify our concern by imagining the worst that could happen to the poor. This way, any action we take is very meaningful - it saves a poor person from stealing, or worse off, dying!

It does not stop there - we also have a second motive to view supposedly poor people as criminals-in-waiting.

We live in countries with poor governance and bad government policies. Such are usually made by the political class, who having creamed off the wealth from society, are considered rich. Naturally, we hold hopes that one day they will be taught a lesson - and this is where the poor come in.

If the poor stole from the rich who make bad decisions or refuse to take appropriate action, then it will be karma in perfection. This then leads to the fantasy that the poor will not only steal when they lack the basics, but that they will somehow selectively steal from the rich, who deserve to be stolen from!

An extension of this fantasy further views the poor as future revolutionaries. This again stems from the frustration of broken political systems such as in Kenya. In turn, such systems create the hope for a quick fix - a revolution that will wipe out the ruling class and replace them with responsible leaders. A fantasy thus develops that there shall be soon an uprising of the poor, who again, will selectively target the rich during this revolution.

Yet, if anything, history proves us wrong. Sure, revolutions may upend the ruling class and the wealthy - but again, much of the harm is borne by the poor. There are no clean revolutions. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is a form of natural revolution, yet the rich are fairing on quite well while low income earners bear much of the burden.

In the Post Election Violence of 1998 in Kenya, the ruling class emerged unscathed while ordinary citizens and those in informal settlements bore the impact.

Furthermore, revolutions are anything but quick. Looking back at the Arab Spring, the only countries that are back to some semblance of normal are those that returned to the Status Quo. 10 years later, Tunisia and other countries that underwent change are still going through periods of turbulence. Syria has been at war for 9 years and about 500,000 deaths later, it is now clear that the regime is going nowhere.

The French Revolution lasted all of 10 years. The fantasy that there will be a few days of revolution where things change for the better remains just that - a fantasy.

Our view that the poor will be revolutionaries is a perfect example of self-preservation.

People who consider themselves not poor and not rich can afford to hold such views which outsource the dangerous work of being revolutionaries to the poor, and the equally dangerous task of being victims to the rich. All the while, we ordinary people will be conveniently out of harm and only suffer slight inconvenience.

A third driving force for such views against the poor can also be attributed to Protestantism. Beliefs around Christianity are strongly held by the majority of the Kenyans, with Protestants being quite common. Among other things, Protestantism encourages taking a high moral view of oneself. This is one of the rewards of sacrificing the lures of the world to follow the religion. People who are poor are thus looked down upon and viewed as lacking the right work ethic amongst other views.

The problem with these widely held views against the poor is that, ironically, they lead to government policies that harm those who do not earn much.

If you were to task a typical Kenyan with fighting crime - they already hold the view that crime and poverty are two sides of the same coin. Realising the challenges in trying to tackle crime by itself, they often switch to taking measures against the poor with an expectation that such will result in reduced crime.

Eventually, we come full circle. When we ourselves are tasked with government policy, we go from viewing the poor as criminals-in-waiting, to taking measures against them to stop them from committing crimes, given that we see them as potential criminals.

In essence, we are that very thing that we fight - the clueless ruling-class-in-waiting and the out-of-touch-rich in waiting.

It’s time we gave the poor a break - by viewing them as human beings just like ourselves, rather than inferior people who need to be rescued by us. Such views are simply a mirror of who we are. Should you want to help someone, do so because they are a human being, but not because they are a poor person who needs saving from doom. I know it’s hard, but once you do it once it is no longer as hard.


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