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Friday Sermon: Of Tragedy and Hope

By Babatunde Jose

The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt. Lacking clothes, they go about naked; they carry the sheaves but still go hungry.  They crush the olives among the terraces; they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst. The groans of the dying rise from the city, the souls of the wounded cry out for help.

But God charges no one with wrongdoing (Job 24:8-12)

Our lot as a people can be summed up as a situation of tragedy and hope. Our condition is tragic as this sum up our economic, social and political impotence and inability to change the game; our spiritual powerlessness to invoke the higher authority to lend a hand on our affairs as a result of our iniquities and moral degenerative state and spiritual delinquency. Not only have we been unable to chart a clear and unambiguous path for sustained economic advancement, we have failed to harness our God given potentials as a people to create self sustained development like other countries faced with similar tragedies.

Oscar Wilde said: ‘Behind every exquisite thing that happens, there was a tragedy.’ We have all heard about the pacifying clichés like, ‘bad things can lead to good’, ‘A blessing in disguise’ or ‘beauty from ashes’. This however, is not the case with poverty, which for people in low-income settings, the tragedy of poverty has been turned into a case of double jeopardy.  It is as if people in poverty are being punished twice for the same crime: that they are poor and that due to their poverty, they are unable to bring about change in their condition.

For many, poverty elicits very personal terrible memories. A case in point:  Adidi was born the tenth of 16 children in a small town in Umudike. His father worked a medium income job and their mother stayed home to look after the children. At 14, his father unexpectedly had stroke and died within one week. For all his childhood he knew only one meal a day. He saw poverty ruthlessly ravage his family like a lion tears apart its prey. Some of his siblings and childhood friends remain trapped in poverty. For most of his school days, he used kerosene lamps to do his homework. He has no good memories of the unpleasant smells, the coughs and lung infections they suffered from inhaling the smoke from these lamps – night after night.

What are more dangerous are the generational effects of poverty. Adidi has seen good-hearted, generous former classmates of his turn into mean, selfish politicians and bureaucrats, who take community funds for themselves and their families because poverty has taught them that there aren’t enough resources for all to share. Looking at our clime we see an economy that is trapped in corruption because poverty taught us to hold on to what we have, for tomorrow, we may not have it.

Nigeria and South Africa, which together make up more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product, are in deep trouble. Nigeria’s petroleum-dependent economy will be lucky to notch up GDP growth of 3 per cent this year, barely enough to keep up with population expansion. The naira is under pressure, foreign exchange is rationed, the budget is strained and a balance of payments crisis is looming.

The grotesque use by politicians of windfall profits around the continent is a reminder that corruption is alive and well.

Judging from the experience on the continent, there are evidences that democratic governments do not necessarily produce better economic results. Our experience in the last 20 years is a glaring testimony to this thesis.

Our growing middle class is also very fragile, where it exists at all. Many of the so-called “middle class” are scraping by on a few dollars a day in insecure jobs. Many well-paid jobs are in the bloated public sector, funded by governments that may no longer be able to afford such expense. We have seen the trauma occasioned by unpaid salaries.

The biggest flaw in the middle class story is that, with a few exceptions, we are not a manufacturing nation. The economic model continues to be to dig stuff out of the ground and sell it to foreign companies.

Kingsley Moghalu argues that declining oil prices are just the spur Nigeria needs finally to diversify and become a manufacturing force. Yet Nigeria is not even at the starting line. Home to 2.5 per cent of the world’s population, the country has just 0.1 per cent of its installed electricity capacity. It has expensive labour, an overvalued currency and a business class skilled at making money through arbitrage and rent-seeking.

IS THERE HOPE?

It’s not sure what one means by hope; whether you mean economic, political or social hope. In search for this elusive and hopeless hope, people turn to the scriptures. But there is no help from there. Its been repeated that the meek will inherit the Earth. But under the present circumstance, that looks like a furlong hope. Given the negative connotations of meek as passive submissiveness in modern English, this is a problem. Some linguistic archaeology is needed, both for Psalm 37:11 and for Matthew 5:5.

Without a doubt one of the classic descriptions of the poor comes from the book of Job: Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labour of foraging food; the wasteland provides food for their children. They gather fodder in the fields and glean in the vineyards of the wicked. Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold. They are drenched by mountain rains and hug the rocks for lack of shelter (Job 24:5-8).

Job continues, in his description, by pointing out the unfair nature of the social and economic situation, hinting at an abusive and unequal reality, and raising hard questions about the justice of God: The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt. Lacking clothes, they go about naked; they carry the sheaves but still go hungry. They crush the olives among the terraces; they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst. The groans of the dying rise from the city, the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing (Job 24:8-12; Job has described what modern sociologists term “the social construction of poverty”. The category of “the poor” is socially constructed and socially maintained, at least in part, by those who are not poor.

Various kinds of social injustice are very much operative at various levels, namely, political, economic, social even religious. The dialectics of the struggles between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots; the employed and the unemployed, the powerful and powerless, has become a common place in Africa and has proved itself a great source of worry for the African masses.

We have got nepotism, provincialism, ethnocentrism or tribalism, and various forms of institutionalized social discriminations. This sort of social atmosphere, deeply poisoned and violently charged as it is, poses a serious obstacle to justice and its administration and to the recognition and observance of human rights.

In the domestic sphere, there is the glaring fact of irresponsible procreation or rather irresponsible conception which stubbornly perpetuates the reckless practice of launching new babies into the community, with or without the visibility of the means of livelihood. In consequence, definitely, recognizable human values are being jeopardized. It is human dignity and decency and security in the standard of living that are here being assailed, if not sacrifices. Often irresponsible reproduction gives rise to domestic classrooms of ape-looking children suffering from acute malnutrition and want of care. It is also evident to all observes that illiteracy like malaria is a wide spread plague.

Probably the greatest, obstacles to the realization of human person is ignorance and illiteracy which warp and surround with darkness the human personality, as they inhibit its growth and development and it kills and dims all hope. The good life, which is often acknowledged as the purpose of education becomes impossible where ignorance and illiteracy are the order of the day. What they need is poverty alleviation spearheaded by education, even at its rudimentary level, which will open to them a vista of opportunities in a world increasingly dependent on knowledge.

This is where the state comes in, but unfortunately it has abdicated this role.

It is therefore striking to note that poverty is largely manmade, and not as a result of bad luck or unalterable destiny. What is obvious is the existence and operation of unjust sociopolitical and hence power structures, built on networks of domination and exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful, which are the causes of poverty.

Barka Juma’at and happy Lenten season

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