Last weekend I had a telephone call from our old gardener Charles. He was a charming man but a little too fond of the bottle which made him unreliable. We quickly tired of him asking us every week for ‘kitu kidogo’ (something small) or ‘pesa kwa unga’ (money for flour) in addition to his salary and mid month advance and a couple of years ago there was a collective sigh of relief when he told us that he wanted to retire and suggested sending his son to work for us in his stead.
Charles’s son, Jared has been a fantastic success but now the onus is on him to send money saved from his salary back to the village to his old father and the rest of the family. It’s a shame because Jared has a girlfriend a life ahead of him but he is shackled to his family. When Charles phoned me on my mobile at the weekend he was telling tales of family members being sick, no money for food his son having let him down in an overall desperate state of affairs. This was not the first time I had received a message like this. (I notice he never tries my husband’s number). He asked me to send money urgently via MPesa, (a new effective method of transferring money across the country from mobile phone to mobile phone, or from ATM machines). I’m afraid that knowing Charles well I said ‘no sorry’. I spoke to his son the next day who said he has indeed been sending money home on a regular basis. The problem is that every time he gives anything to his dad for clothes or food it is spent on beer. His dad even got a job as a security guard up in the village but lost it quickly for being drunk.
This business of family members in town having financial responsibility for those who stay back in the village affects Kenyans (Tanzanians and Ugandans) across the board. There was a very amusingly written but tragic article written in The Standard’s ‘Crazy Monday’ supplement today entitled, ‘Slaves of handout culture’. There was a double page spread of anecdotes from city dwellers that fear going home because they are always being stung for money by family, clansmen, villagers and childhood friends. Here’s a taste of some of them:
Richard, a banker says he saw a counsellor after developing depression, ‘It may sound unreal, but I used to spend half of my salary on relatives and villagers who claimed that they had contributed to my success in life’ he continued, ‘about 10 villagers used to wait for me at the shopping centre and demand money to buy brew. Then at the home, about five uncles would ask for their children’s school fees and other expenses.’ His doctor has advised visiting his elderly parents less often.
Another who works in Nakuru says whenever he visits his home village he hears shouts of ‘Sukari! Sukari! Sukari! (sugar). ‘One of them recently held me by the collar, demanding to know why I had never bought her a kilo of sugar.’
Laban, who works as a waiter, suffers because his father has told everyone back home that he is the manager of a top hotel and has even started directing unemployed people from the village to Laban’s place of work in search of cash. At his cousin’s funeral recently Laban overheard his mother saying: ‘Tell Laban to give you money for bread, meat and do not forget money for the x15 suits for the burial.’
Others complained of extended family members coming to town to camp out at their homes waiting for handouts. When they are refused people turn nasty, saying that their relative is mean spirited and does not value family. Some even threaten to cast evil spells or bewitch those who won’t tow the line. Most city dwellers bring money home when possible but then find that villagers upcountry often expect much more. They won’t listen when the perceived ‘rich’ friend or relative argues that they have their own wives and children to support.
Nixon, a Nairobi computer engineer who had just got his new job four months ago and was saving for household items found an aunt had sent her two sons to ask for college fees from him, ‘I was shocked to find my nephews waiting for me. After I cooked supper they told me they wanted sh 60,000 (£500) for their fees.’
Another trick is to organise what Kenyans call a ‘harambee’ (fundraiser) and make an employed city dweller ‘guest of honour’ so they feel compelled to attend or at the very least contribute.
In Europe with the high property prices and tertiary education, you are more likely to find parents today giving handouts to their grown up children who still struggle financially (statistics have been reported recently UK papers), whereas in Africa the tradition of handouts from the earning population to the rural unemployed creates a vicious cycle of poverty. Those who could succeed are held back or pressurized into corruption in order to meet high expectations back home.