Our dirty and tattered clothing; posture that clearly reflected guilt, shame and lack
of a sense of entitlement; scars and bodily disease; and sheer hunger, marked us as
Others among our more fortunate working-class neighbours and colleagues …
Other students and even our working-class teachers read us as ‘trailer trash’, as
unworthy, laughable, and dangerous … We were … shamed and humiliated in our
ragged and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, our very bodies signaling our Otherness.
As I read through the above quote, I remembered an experience I had as a child. I had followed my dad to the home of a Jew to do some work. It was not quite long after we arrived that I needed to relieve myself. Being in such luxurious surroundings had unsettled me. I had been perching on the edge of my chair. Afraid to move, to tip something over, or to… stain something. Finally, I had summoned the courage to express my need to relieve myself.
I was not confronted with my ‘otherness’ when I gingerly turned the doorknob and saw the most sparkling toilet ever. I remember thinking how it contrasted with the black hole at home and the dark passageway that led to it. Sitting on the edge, I relieved myself and had been perplexed by the thought of not knowing how to flush. Tentatively, I had pushed a button which made a somewhat cracking sound. Petrified, I had run back to the parlour and sat down, full of trepidation and waiting to be discovered. The rush of emotions that had coursed through me; guilt, fear and shame are emotions poor people often feel.
I had finally been confronted with my ‘otherness’ when I had reported myself to the housekeeper who had then checked the damage I claimed to have caused and found none. The look of relief on my face must have betrayed me because she had looked at me in pity mixed with amusement. The above quote talks about the bodies of the Poor signalling their ‘otherness’. For me, it was the emotions I felt based on her reaction that reminded me I was something different. I was poor; for that, I was dumb as well.
Poverty has been defined as, ‘a state or condition in which a person or community lacks the financial resources and essentials for a minimum standard of living. Poverty means that the income level from employment is so low that basic human needs can’t be met’.
In Nigeria, about 90 million people – roughly half Nigeria’s population – live in extreme poverty, according to estimates from the World Data Lab’s Poverty Clock. Around June 2018, Nigeria overtook India, a country with seven times its population, at the bottom of the table. Put in another context, if poor Nigerians were a country it would be more populous than Germany.
As gory as the above seems, it shows how integral poverty is to our society, yet in these dire economic times, the difference between the ‘poor’ and ‘non-poor’ has never been more pronounced.
Unfortunately, poverty is not just characterized by financial lack; there is also a myriad of negative emotions and reactions which impact deeply on social life. Hunger, stress and ill health are not the only companions of poor people. Their lives are often marked by a kaleidoscope of struggles; they struggle to be accepted among their peers, to hide their difference from others, and to escape the stress that comes with never having enough, to find the best choice from the dearth of options they have.
Poor people suffer a lack of agency policy-wise, which denies them the right to be heard, both in terms of representation and means. At the national and institutional level, they are dissected and spoken of in a manner that suggests awareness but not necessarily empathy.
The stigma associated with poverty also affects people socially. Poor people often suffer a lack of confidence that most times stems from a lack of exposure, not having opportunities others have access to and also the reactions of the ‘non-poor’ as they try to get by. The pain and shame that come from being unable to go through life without being alienated, pre-judged or guilt-tripped. These routine experiences serve to discredit or denigrate the identities of those living on low incomes as being less valued members of society.
The pressure poor people face in social contexts to fit in results in a lot of poor people fighting to express their agency through illegal means. It is no puzzle a lot of young, poor Nigerians are turning to crime to come out of poverty. The rising number of cases of prostitution, cyber fraud and street crimes demonstrate this. Some time back, I stumbled on an article in which a suspect who had been apprehended by the police confessed to committing armed robbery. In his words, ‘I went into robbery because of the hardship. I am an OND 2 student, Computer Science, at the Federal Polytechnic, Nekede, in Imo State’. He represents a cross section of people who have been pushed to end the pains of not just the growling in their belly but also the lack of social acceptance.
Perhaps the most impactful consequence of living in poverty is the social consequence one has to live with. The feeling of being different and the subtle accusations of being responsible for it. The stigma and inherent confusion about identity; the resultant effect which in many cases lead to strained social relationships, a lifestyle of crime and a sense of alienation.
As humans, we are naturally wired to crave love, encouragement and acceptance. Daily, our eyes and ears are assaulted with tales of people who have resorted to extreme acts simply because they were denied acceptance. Menaces like suicide, homicide and the rising number of cases of depression is evident of this fact. A society which is consisted of mainly poor people would not only have malnourished children with bulging eyes but would also have angry teenagers seeking acceptance in gangs and cults, desperate adults doing whatever they can to survive or in some cases ‘provide a better life’ for their families. Such a society would also have pain, bitterness and anger palpable in its air, with strong antagonism between the poor and ‘non-poor’.
 Lister, Ruth. (2016). To count for nothing. Poverty beyond the statistics. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308541056_To_count_for_nothing_Poverty_beyond_the_statistics
 Abdullahi, Sani, M.(2019). Three things Nigeria must do to end extreme poverty. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/90-million-nigerians-live-in-extreme-poverty-here-are-3-ways-to-bring-them-out/#:~:text=About%2090%20million%20people%20%2D%20roughly,World%20Data%20Lab’s%20Poverty%20Clock.&text=Almost%20six%20people%20in%20Nigeria,statistics%20have%20always%20been%20controversial.
 Pemberton, S., Sutton, Eileen. Fahmy Eildin. (2013). A review of the qualitative evidence relating to the experience of poverty and exclusion. Retrieved from http://www.poverty.ac.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/WP%20Methods%20No.22_qualitative_literature_review_PSEUK%20%28Pemberton%20et%20al%29.pdf
 Oke, Valerie.(2020). I Joined Armed Robbery To Fight Poverty – Suspect. Information Nigeria. https://www.informationnigeria.com/2020/03/i-joined-armed-robbery-to-fight-poverty-suspect.html
About the writer
Rekanor Mbeh wrote in via email@example.com