I've spent most of my life in extreme poverty. I really want to see change

By Anthony Kalulu

Being poor, black and from sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest thing you can ever be. But that is what I am.

Before Covid-19 came, extreme poverty had largely become a problem of only one part of the world – sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank in 2018, the region was projected to host more than 90% of the world’s extreme poor by 2030.

That means that more than 400 million people were expected to live on less than $1.90 (£1.40) a day a decade away from now, in sub-Saharan Africa alone, before the arrival of Covid-19.

And as the pandemic devastated every country across the world, it unleashed the most profound economic pain on the poor. Even in the post-pandemic world, the poor are still the people who will have the lowest level of resilience, and little or nothing to count on in the rebuilding process.

Africa itself isn’t created equal. More than 70% of the extreme poor in the region, according to the World Bank, live in only 10 of the 46 countries that comprise sub-Saharan Africa. My country, Uganda, is one of those 10. Uganda is even among the five poorest countries worldwide.

Anthony Kalulu is a farmer and founder of non-profit Uganda Community Farm (UCF).
Anthony Kalulu is a farmer and founder of non-profit Uganda Community Farm (UCF). Photograph: Handout

I am a farmer who has spent most of my life in extreme poverty, here in eastern Uganda, and I really want to see some change. At this point, though, I am inclined to believe this may be impossible because of white people, and black people, globally. Why?

White people, who make up most of the global development sector, tend to be very sensitive when a rural poor African like me has anything to say about poverty, for example about what needs to be done to accelerate an end to it – and they will therefore try to ensure that people like me aren’t heard anywhere. And that is an understatement.

On the other hand, Africa’s own kinspeople – black people both in Africa and in the diaspora – tend to be very defensive, and very dismissive, in response to any mention of the need for the black community to work together and help our motherland.

Many black people are even keen to keep such a conversation out of the mainstream, for fear that it might change the narrative and make other people start questioning why it isn’t common for black people, especially those who are a little better off, to help.

In a protracted effort to ease the grip of poverty where I live, I have contacted every black activist, everypan-Africanist, and every black influencer from Lagos to Hollywood, not to mention scores of black international journalists. So, I have some idea of what I am talking about.

For white people – again, most of the global development sector – any suggestion by a person like me about the need to put the poor themselves directly in charge of ending poverty, is perceived as an act of being taken to task by the people they already claim to help very effectively.

Many in the development sector also have a few other fears, including the belief that ordinary poor Africans like me might in reality be fraudsters. So a genuine effort to end global poverty must instead be led by some more “legitimate” people, ie: white people – hence the need to keep people like me at bay.

This has ensured that nearly all global anti-poverty interventions in Africa are top-bottom (or trickle-down), and largely short-lived, but it has also meant that in most rural poor communities, there is simply nothing happening to end poverty.

A few statistics? According to the UK-based civil society advocacy alliance Civicus, only 1% of all official aid (ie funding from agencies like USAid and UKAid), and an even smaller portion of all humanitarian assistance (that is, all charitable global anti-poverty funding), goes directly to grassroots organisations in the global south.

For their part, some black people seem to be motivated by the vulnerability of the black race, as the main reason for wanting to mute any conversation about the need for the black community to help Africa end poverty.

There are many who find it easy to simply say to themselves, “I’m just another black person, and I had to find my own way up”, when they are asked for a helping hand by those of us who live in ultra-poverty.

But the thing is: the black community, especially those in the diaspora, have many more networks and connections than those of us on the continent, and the most precious thing that they can do to help people like us end poverty isn’t necessarily to give us money, but a voice.

A meeting of the Uganda Community Farm (UCF) in Namisita, a village in a remote part of Kamuli, eastern Uganda.
A meeting of the Uganda Community Farm (UCF) in Namisita, a village in a remote part of Kamuli, eastern Uganda. Photograph: Courtesy of UCF

But even cash-wise, there are many who have what it takes to lend a hand to those of us who have absolutely nothing here in Africa, if only we as black people believed in each other.

My experience with white people and black people thus far has come from making extensive contact with both. I have tried to talk to so many activists and organisations around the world who say they are interested in reducing poverty.

All this I did from the very remote, poor village of Namisita, where I live, and where I am seated now – aided by a solar panel, an ageing laptop, and a mobile internet connection; worried about even the smallest expenses – in the hope that since there was nothing else happening to end poverty in our region, and since no other farmer here knew what to do about our plight, that maybe my effort would pay off. It didn’t.

This is what makes being poor, black and sub-Saharan African the hardest thing you can ever be.

Anthony Kalulu is a farmer in Namisita, a village in a remote part of Kamuli, eastern Uganda. He is also founder of the nonprofit Uganda Community Farm, working to end extreme poverty