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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 2 May 2001

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Poverty: Church joins in game of musical chairs

By Sewe K'Ahenda

It's eight o'clock on a cold Monday in April. The early hour and harsh weather notwithstanding, the number of people waiting is quite large. It rises with every tick of the clock. The weather occupies a lowly place in these people's list of worries. As for the hour, they understand what the saying “the early bird catches the worm” means.

It is a crowd rich in variety - old people, single mothers, orphans, street children, and others whom experts call “vulnerable groups.” Though each is engrossed in his own thoughts, their collective gaze is fixed on the gate to the church compound. They are expecting someone. He will arrive anytime from now.

As Januarius Ireri, the amiable secretary who doubles as Co-ordinator of the Social Committee, walks through the gate, the previously dull crowd comes to life. Amidst lengthy greetings, he unlocks the door to the tiny parish office. As he often does, Januarius jokingly wonders why he did not see most of them in Mass yesterday despite them having promised him they would attend. As usual, he gets the usual list of excuses.

And so begins Januarius' “Monday Routine,” a schedule he has kept for so long that he knows these people by name. “Watu wangu” (my people), he calls them. For the next couple of hours, he will be busy distributing food to “his people,” people whose life histories are an unforgettable lesson in what POVERTY really is.

Many papers, little action

POVERTY is a doule-edged sword in Kenya. On one hand, it keeps millions trapped in a life so difficult that death sometimes seems a better option. On the other hand, poverty-alleviating projects ensure fat bank balances for many people and organizations. For those with political ambitions, an average understanding of poverty, coupled with oratory prowess, can be the springboard to an elective office. After all, you will be talking of a problem that afflicts nearly one in every two Kenyans.

Statistics from donor agencies and the numerous non-governmental organizations working to alleviate poverty show that 47 percent of Kenyans are absolutely poor. Never mind that for many Kenyans, the “official” [World Bank and IMF] definition of absolute poverty is a big joke. The two monoliths define an absolutely poor person as one who “lives” on less than US$1 [about KShs 80] a day.

If you tell that to Mary Awinja, a domestic hand in Nairobi who lives [survives is a better word] on Kshs 1,000 [approximately US$13] a month, she will demand the resignation of Messrs James Wolfensohn and Horst Kohler. Like thousands of others, the 26-year-old mother of a toddler understands what poverty means. Among other things, it means living in a mud-walled single room in Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums. It is a dwelling whose walls and roof allow not only a generous view of the night sky but also an equally generous portion of rain. With the baby strapped to her back, Mary walks fourteen kilometres everday to and from work in Lavington, an upper-class residential area in Nairobi. To ensure that she does not run out of money before the next payday, she must do with one meal a day. To expect that Awinja will understand why US$1 is a sound demarcation between destitution and comfort is to stretch her imagination a little too far.

As the euphoria of independence swept through Africa, it was fashionable for newly-independent governments to declare war on 'enemies' of development. In many countries, these were ignorance, disease, and poverty. Kenya was no exception. Policy papers were drawn up and specific ministries and departments established to win the war against the three nuisances.

Nearly four decades after wakoloni [colonialists] left, Kenyans are poorer than they ever have been. This is despite the ever-increasing rapidity with which the government produces sessional and policy papers on poverty, in addition to special reports. The latest addition to the growing list is the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, which has become another “must do” on the list of donor demands.

The private sector has not been idle, either. Research into poverty has increased, leading to voluminous reports discussed in numerous seminars and workshops. The hosts of these discussions – four and five star restaurant owners – have no reason to complain. In a nutshell, a multi-million-dollar industry has sprung out of poverty alleviation.

The NGOization of the Church

With the government either incapable - or as critics contend, unwilling - to alleviate poverty, the Church has found itself increasingly involved in poverty-reduction measures. From Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria to Ongata Rongai in the Rift Valley, the Church is struggling to keep together the bodies and souls of her flock. After all, isn't the stomach the best route to a person's heart? “Even Jesus fed the flesh so as to preach to the soul,” says Fr. Francis Abiero, defending the Church's fight against poverty.

Despite its deep involvement in battling poverty, the Church is largely lacking clear-cut strategies for winning the war against poverty. An even greater danger the Church faces is to be looked at as yet another aid agency, an NGO. Slowly but steadily, the spiritual role of the Church is being eroded.

Considering the enormity of the task, the Church needs sound strategies if it is to win, not only the fight against destitution, but also the hearts of her flock for the Gospel. The Church has employed such strategies in education with great success. Schools run by the Church are famous as centres of academic excellence demonstrated by their brilliant performance in national examinations. This success is not by chance. It is due in large measure to syllabi grounded in well though-out Christian values.

The Church should formulate sound, long-term strategies that foster self-reliance. Until this happens, Januarius will continue to witness crowds flocking to his office every Monday, receive a packet of maize-flour and then vanish…until the next visit!

Sewe K'Ahenda is a part time student of Mass Communications at Daystar University, Nairobi. He works full-time as a sub-editor with African Radio Service, a subsidiary of New People Media Center, Nairobi.

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