Saturday, 19 July 2014

On activists, revolutionaries, the poor and the middle class

 A Facebook friend of mine tagged me on a post questioning the commitment of modern day human rights activists. After referencing great men who led the great struggles of the past - men like Mandela, Martin Luther King and Che Guavara - he went on to ask, "But do the current activists wear the shoes of those great men? There is a great disconnect between HR defenders and those they fight for. The underdogs live in Korokocho, Kibera, Huruma et. al as they (activist) live in upper class estates with tight security and up to date social amenities, activists eat in expensive hotels, drive and enjoy same status as the same people the fight (oppressor) which is the exact opposite of who they are fighting for. You see I habour no ill will against activist but it has puzzled me for a long time that their lifestyles betrays them. In Mandela,  Che,  Luther’s time activism was a calling, that inner desire to stand for a fellow man. Che fought, ate, slept with the oppressed in the forests and streets. They fought for no monetary value but today activism in an employment, donors are pumping money to activist groups for their own interests. Activism is losing meaning, Human Rights violation is rising who will stand for the less fortunate? We ought to redefine our priorities, let’s serve fellow man because its honourable to."

Here's my response:

My brother, you make a good point. Activism should not just be another job, and certainly it is wrong to get rich on the backs of the poor, whether you are a capitalist or an activist.

But your statement over-generalises and oversimplifies history. It is true Che Guevara 'fought, ate, slept with the oppressed,' but Che was not an activist. He was a revolutionary and he was a soldier, and as a soldier, he had to live a soldier's life. All the other people you refer to including Mandela and Martin Luther King lived typical middle class lives.

We should not be fixated with the idea that to help the poor, one must share their poverty. That is a romantic fallacy. Most revolutions in the world have been started and led by the middle class, not the poor. And it is not necessary for me to move to Korogocho in order to stand up and fight for the rights of the people of Korogocho.

Most of us have already been there and done that. We were raised in poverty and endured deprivation. That is why we fight for a better life for all. And most of us have paid and continue to pay a high price for our activism. Many of my classmates that chose safer paths are now judges, principle secretaries, heads of commissions and CEOs of companies. They drive big cars, live in leafy suburbs, holiday abroad and have their children's fees in international schools paid for as part of their employment benefits. Even more painful, once you have taken the route of activism, you constantly pay the price as you are denied government jobs and opportunities you qualify for.

So, yes by all means we should call out those who have made activism a mere career and we should criticize those who are in it to enrich themselves at the expense of standing up for 'the least of these', but we should avoid the trap set by those who spread propaganda that modern day activists are no more than mercenaries feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor.

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