Creating Poverty

“‘Someone does not become a beggar; we are made beggars.'” (31)

This quote comes from the so-called “King of the Beggars” who Elvis encounters one evening in a slum of Lagos. Elvis decides to share what little money he has in order to buy some food for the King and himself. The quote immediately brought to my mind the concept of Liberation Theology. Father Gustavo Gutierrez is a priest from Lima, on the opposite side of the world where Elvis’s story takes place. Gutierrez is seen as the father of Liberation Theology which basically attempts to answer the question, how do you say and show people living in the context of violence, social injustice or seeming insignificance that God loves them? While the religious aspect of Gutierrez’s message may not necessarily apply to Elvis, the underlying point does. How do you make people living in poverty know that they matter?

One of the ways that Liberation Theology begins to answer this question is by making people understand where poverty comes from. Rather than understanding it as being born unlucky or just accepting it as a reality, it is essential to realize that poverty is created as the King points out. It is not simply the fate of some to be poor and others to be rich but it is structures put in place that create inequality both in wealth and quality of life. This concept especially rings true in much of post-colonial Africa. Understanding the colonial legacy of a place like Nigeria and the context of when Elvis tells his story is essential. Rapid urbanization during the late colonial period (ie post-WWII to independence in 1960) caused serious problems for both the British and Nigerians. Because the British were not interested in creating a place for Nigerians to live and be successful in urban Lagos, slums like the one Elvis lives in developed. The priority of the British was to keep themselves separate from and above Nigerians. Then, as Elvis alludes to when he tells us about his cousin who “had been a boy soldier in the civil war that ended two years before” (20), there was a period of unrest in Nigeria which further exacerbated the problems that come with poverty. The struggle we see even today is to change structures that have been in place for decades in order to uplift the poor.

2 thoughts on “Creating Poverty”

  1. “You are dere to keep dem entertained, no more, no less. […] You are disposable and
    dey will never care about you. Dey will go on to marry rich foreigners like demselves.
    […] De best you can hope for is to make a decent living while things last and maybe
    get in a good fuck or two – for which you must charge extra.” (Abani 2004: 95)

    You make a great point about the creation of poverty, and I think it is very accurate. Liberation THoelogy does absolutely suggest that inequality is created, however in some parts of Africa, especially the ‘Megacity’ of Lagos, this inequality has stretched to levels that could never have been imagined. It isn;t merely inequality that is the core problem, but it is the fact that many individuals are in fact losing their dignity, and are born into societies so desperate that they have virtually no chance of playing a major role in society.
    Take the above passage. Elvis has just started work as a dancer for rich Indian clients, and it is absolutely clear that he has basically no dignity. He is worth something only because he is entertaining, and even then is disposable. The stories of the tragic degradation of Elvis’ life are horrifying to the naïve reader. It is shocking what Elvis went through just to get one chance at leaving his own for a brighter future, and even then he had to leave everything, including his name and identity, behind.

  2. I find it interesting how you touch on the King of Beggars’ idea that poverty isn’t by chance, rather it is created. Not only that, poverty is perpetuated by a system that locks both the poor and the wealthy into their current states and keeps them there. I find it interesting because while the story is focused on life in Nigeria, one could argue that the same thing was happening in the United States.
    From about 1973 to about 1981, roughly the same time frame when Graceland takes place, the U.S. was going through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Between the growing industrial presence of countries like Russia, Japan, and Great Britain and Middle Eastern conflicts forcing American oil prices to surge, the U.S. was losing its place as the preeminent world super power. As a result, the American economy was in disarray. Unemployment was high and the middle class was dissolving. Only after Ronald Reagan was elected were new policies employed that were meant to revitalize the middle and working class and rejuvenate the American economy.
    Reagan’s theory of “trickle down economics” declared that professed tax breaks for the wealthy would allow them to create jobs, which the poor and the unemployed would benefit from. While it sounds great in theory, the concept didn’t fulfill its promise. Tax breaks didn’t result in job creation, rather it only made the rich richer and the poor would never see any of that money. Many economists argue trickle down economics has pigeonholed many Americans into a state of perpetual poverty. Though to be fair, followers of trickle down economics could argue the same of Keynesian economics.
    However, given the time period of Graceland and its gratuitous attention to the influence of American culture, it is interesting to see how the subject matter parallels U.S. life at that time. While they are radically different cultures enduring radically different struggles, some things seem to be universal. People are not born impoverished, poverty is created and perpetuated. Sometimes poverty is perpetuated by the rich; sometimes it is perpetuated by the state. And sometimes it’s both.

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