By Muyiwa Adetiba
They say a good photograph is worth more than a thousand words. That is another way of saying that words alone, no matter how skillful or impressionistic they are, can never fully capture the essence of a good photograph. Every Editor looks out for such a photograph that he can plant on the front page of his paper with the barest of captions.
Last week, one of such rare gems was sent to me by a senior friend through the social media. Good photographs tell their own story; be it of sadness or of joy; of wealth or of poverty. Very good ones manage to combine a couple of emotions. This one did. It was a photograph of a young boy of about seven walking barefooted on a gas or an oil pipeline.
His shabby, faded clothing depicted his poverty. The dirt that inevitably clung to it would suggest he had lived rough and possibly spent more than a few nights in it. The mud that would have caked on his small, calloused feet would suggest those feet were used to long treks.
The small shadow that trailed his legs suggested the time of day – a time of day when kids of his age are sequestered in the security of their classroom walls. But education would have been the last thing on his mind. The heaps of dirt that banked the pipe on both sides described the environs and its long deserted stretch, made it clear that it was not a place for a seven- year old to be alone.
But this 7yr old has not been given any other option by the system and its probably a usual haunting ground for him. The evocative caption that went with the photograph was ‘he walks on foot in search of a meal in the refuse dump to end his hunger. But running under his feet is liquid gold through to the belly of some men who have denied him his share of the commonwealth’.
He was probably not aware of the value of what was under his feet and that a few scoops of what was coursing through the pipe would end his hunger. It is ironic that pipes of this nature pass through fifth, mud and open poverty because their content has made billionaires of many Nigerians. It is ironic that those who suffer the devastation of oil spillage along the route do not enjoy the benefit when it gets to its destination. It is ironic that those who suffer the harmful effects of gas flares are not the ones with homes in Dubai and London.
This boy will not be a 7yr old forever. He is going to be an adolescent and a young adult. What happens when his sexual hormones start raging as they will? He is going to satisfy them anyway he can and trample on many flowers. What happens when he desires not just women but those finer things of life he sees around him? The world of crime will find a willing inhabitant or the army of political enforcers will have an enthusiastic member. What happens when he is old enough to realise his share of the commonwealth has been denied him by the promoters of poverty? He becomes a candidate for terrorist organisations.
There are many like this 7yr old around. You find them on the streets when they should be in school. You find them in market places fending for themselves and walking the thin line between crime and industry. You find them around the refuse dumps hoping to find something valuable among dross. You find them in the almajiris who are not being prepared for any kind of future. Early this year, it was estimated that six million more Nigerians would fall into poverty by the end of the year. But the soaring inflation in the country – one of the highest in a peaceful era – would now add another million according to the World Bank. Which means the ranks of this small boy will swell rather than reduce. Which means his ‘senior brothers’ who are already flirting with crime have no other option but to graduate into full time crime. Which means bandits, kidnappers and ritualists will be on the increase. Which means foreign investors will look for safer countries. Which means our young and brightest will continue to flee the land. Which again means more poverty as the vicious circle continues.
Already the poverty centre of the world, Nigeria will continue to sink deeper into poverty unless a concerted and determined effort is made. The drivers of poverty are mainly the distortions in the economy summarized as wealth without work. The multiple foreign exchange system is making millionaires of people who are doing virtually nothing while pulverizing those who are engaged in legitimate businesses. The political ‘jobbers’ are swimming in money without producing anything. The never ending subsidy has made more than a few rich while grounding our refineries and thus, our economy. We can talk about money borrowed for consumption without the inclination or the discipline to pay back. Or the tiers of government that are taking more as emoluments than the economy can sustain. These are all drivers of poverty. But the main driver of poverty is our attitude to wealth. Most Nigerians, especially their leaders, are suffering from the poverty of the mind. This reluctance to see self-worth as self-development and making a positive impact on the environment rather than in the acquisition of possessions, and the flaunting of wealth however gotten, has become an affliction. The result is that everyone sees a position of authority as an opportunity to steal. The Accountant General was said to have misappropriated money in billions. His predecessor was said to have returned billions of naira. They are not alone. Almost everyone who has been a gatekeeper, be it customs, the ports, oil and gas, income tax, banks including the apex bank, leaves office smiling to the bank and subsequently lives in opulence. The next port of call is the political arena where power is added to their financial status. Besides, no notable politician leaves political office poorer these days. Unfortunately, every nought that is added to the figures in their bank accounts leaves the country poorer and the infrastructures weaker. The poorer the country, the fewer the safety nets and the higher the possibilities for a soaring crime rate.
We need to fight this poverty of the mind that puts premium on wealth. We need to get back to that era when attainment, performance and a good name are envied and new, sudden wealth disdained. We need to give that 7yr old boy a chance to become somebody in life. Otherwise, he is going to end up making life unbearable for the society.