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Building mansion among shacks has destructive results – Uganda’s rich vs. poor

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Many dynamics of our society can be understood through two explanations; one from evolutionary theory, another from the psychology of defence mechanisms.

In nature’s order of things, with a few exceptions, one of the strongest instincts is self-preservation. As the evolutionist Charles Darwin would put it, there is “one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely; multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die”. In short, as famously summarised by Herbert Spencer, it is “survival for the fittest”.

Note though that survival for the fittest doesn’t imply that the weak will just succumb to death, signing out of existence as though they have no implements to employ for survival.

Even a captured grasshopper will bite you while in your hand’s grasp. It doesn’t matter if the cat is yours, if you step on its tail, it calls its claws to duty. The insect we call wakka releases a terrible stench when its life is threatened by an enemy, no matter how big.

Perhaps many of us are familiar with the survival warfare of red ants. When this insect climbs into your trousers and it realises it is dangerously trapped, often in the heat of the intersection of the legs, it runs into an insensitive biting frenzy.

One could even abandon their trousers and run away screaming like they have been attacked by a hippopotamus. Instinctively, shame and guilt are secondary to survival.

Bring this to society. We have created a huge gap between the rich and the poor and, in societies like ours, often without any safety nets. Last year, Oxfam Davos reported that 62 individuals owned more wealth than 50 per cent (3.6 billion) of the world’s population.

In 2010, it was 388 individuals – which means that, over time, the world’s resources are getting more and more concentrated into the hands of the few. In Uganda, having wholesomely given in to invisible hand economics, we notice that this divide just worsens by the day. The rich are so determined to accumulate more wealth than they will ever need. They might soon tax poverty!


But alas, paradoxically, impoverishing a big section of the population and leaving them without any escape route as we become obscenely rich is like urinating in the air – for it sooner lands down on us, and perhaps more acidic on return.

We deceive ourselves in assuming that the poor will passively yawn and allow squalor to kill them without a fight. Pressed to the wall of existence, if survival means stealing, they will steal. Morality shifts to only being sorry when caught. And this kind of thief tends to be bitter and violent.

A friend of mine had a nasty experience when thieves broke into his house and, after collecting their desired electronics, they opened the fridge. It was full of food stuff! They slapped him intensely as they served themselves, while asking: “How could you be keeping all this food when we are there starving?”

The relationship between extreme poverty and crime is undisputable. And it tends to be worse where affluence and extreme poverty are neighbours. We should be able to look at the rise in burglary and theft today in relation to their social causes, and not to exclusively focus on policing. Certainly, this is not to argue that theft is always an outcome of poverty.

Sometimes stealing gains its own life and becomes a habit, even long after the deprivation has been addressed. But, by and large, poverty is an important factor.

The irony is that we have focused on expanding the police budget to fight crime instead of putting more money into boosting livelihoods to address extreme deprivation. We live in constant fear of the poor. Indeed, the cost of keeping people poor is so high.

We have to invest in high perimeter walls and strong burglar proofs in our doors and windows, often making it difficult even for the owners to escape in case of an emergency such as a fire outbreak. We could be one of the countries with the highest demand for padlocks, and still one of the countries where people can never feel secure with one padlock! We often need askaris, tough dogs and, perhaps, a gun.

But even with all this, whereas the poor will be kept awake by hunger and other miseries, the rich can’t sleep either. Deep inside, they always suspect that the poor are up to something sinister. Even the slightest sound of a cat looking for its way through the night causes alarm in the house of the rich.

Extreme deprivation explains many other social ills. Desperation triggers anger. Poor people are often triggered into outbursts by ‘seemingly’ small things that the rich might not understand.

A parent burns their child’s fingers for stealing a piece of meat. Single-room tenants quarrel and fight with their neighbours over a missing broom. A cat is beaten to death for taking the baby’s milk.

In their deprivation, these small things mean a lot. But it is also the poor’s way of offloading their frustrations. This is a ‘defence mechanism’ psychologist Sigmund Freud calls ‘displacement’. When we are angered by someone stronger than us, we tend to transfer the anger to a weaker target.

This way, we get consoled by some feeling of power and control. A poorly-paid police officer will displace their bitterness onto a suspect in their hands, beating them to pulp. A hungry street child will uproot city flowers at night.

Clearly then, even if our consciences were dead and not allowing us to care at a moral level, ultimately a society of a few very rich people alongside many paupers is a threat for everyone.

The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.


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