Humans of New York reminds us about how poor we are

Oct 08, 2018|Michael Famoroti

Brandon Stanton came to Lagos and caused quite a stir.

The Humans of New York (HONY) founder was in Lagos as part of an African trip that has also taken him to Cairo and Accra. Some of the stories featured have the classic HONY traits—rebounding from major setbacks, hope, and finding purpose—but many interviewees spoke candidly about the struggles of living in poverty, and Nigerians did not know how to feel about it. 

One interviewee, a young man, explained, “I’m tired all the time. Business is slow. Life is expensive. It’s frustrating when you work twelve hours a day and can’t even feed your family well. We don’t have a television. We don’t have a radio.”

Another, a young girl working as a cleaner in an art gallery to raise money for school, complained about being sexually abused at her previous job. When she told the man’s wife, she beat her up. Her next employer, a pastor, tried to touch her too. After the interview, she got fired from the art gallery for talking to Brandon’s team.

The responses were as swift as they were direct. Many offered sympathy. Others could relate to these stories. A concerned few asked how they could help. But some asked a curious question that stirred up many reactions: where were the stories of hope, the sort of positive stories that had given HONY its fame? Had Brandon resorted to poverty porn?         

Nigeria is one of the poorest countries on earth. Recently crowned the poverty capital of the world by the World Poverty Clock, 87 million Nigerians or nearly 50% of the population lives in abject poverty.

In Ekiti, a small state in the south-west part of the country, people are so poor that they sell their votes for $15. But, Nigeria is also deeply divided. A GINI coefficient of 43 imprecisely captures a country where rich and poor exist in imperfect harmony. This division is most easily seen in Lagos where rough settlements housing thousands flank some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Africa.

So it is no surprise that to the relatively affluent, the HONY stories were a misleading representation of an environment that offers opportunity and luxury comparable to anywhere else—provided you can afford it.

Yet, one may wonder whether there is a nobler sentiment behind the discomfort with these so-called examples of poverty porn: cultural pride. This is characterised by a stubborn belief in the greatness and beauty of Nigeria, regardless of prevailing economic realities.

It is this pride that motivates those “the Nigeria they don’t show you on TV” quips; this same pride allows us to lay claim to those Nigerians thriving abroad and beating the oyinbos at their own game.

This cultural pride is a vestige of our collective suffering, our way of resisting the perceived saviour complex of the Western world and its tendency to portray Africa as the little continent that needs to be saved. Perhaps it is this pride that allows Nigerians to hear stories of the struggles of their people and refer to it as poverty porn.

Interestingly, HONY is not the first to receive such criticism. Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Photography for a picture of an emaciated Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. After the feature ran in the New York Times, he received severe backlash for failing to help the child, even though he had been warned not to touch the locals in order to prevent the spread of diseases. Four months after being awarded the Pulitzer, Kevin Carter took his own life.

That being said, is poverty porn a problem if it is the most effective way of eliciting help? Whatever causes us to rebel against these stories of poverty, they may not be valid if they get in the way of people being helped. Kevin Carter’s photograph raised millions of dollars for humanitarian causes in Sudan. He could have helped one child if he intervened, but his photo helped thousands.

It is clear which outcome is preferable, and a similar cold utilitarian calculus may be needed to combat poverty in Nigeria. Already, some of the people interviewed by HONY have received financial support, thus proving that they may not be the stories we want, but they are the stories we need. 

Our shortcomings may be that we have focused too much on the character and motives of those who offer to help, and not enough on how much they can help us. Should we indulge a fetish for poverty porn if that is the best way of eliciting sympathy and stirring financial support? Or is there something else at stake here?

These are questions HONY does not bother to answer, and rightfully so. The movement has always been about holding up a mirror to society. In New York, it showed people what they already knew: that the city was full of the most colourful and diverse people in the world. In Lagos, it showed us what we should know by now: Nigerians are poor.

In response to this, a few people have sensibly pointed out that poverty is not our only problem, and that HONY could have done a better job at reflecting the breadth and sophistication of the Nigerian struggle. This is a fair point. Nigeria has shown itself vulnerable to the fallacy of the single cause; that poverty is the big problem does not mean that it defines us.  

Nevertheless, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the reality of poverty in Nigeria. Even in Lagos, the sixth biggest economy in Africa, a megacity housing one of the fastest growing technology hubs in Africa, poverty knocks on your window as you drive past. This is the truth HONY reminded us. Brandon held a mirror up to Nigerian society, and we simply didn’t like what we saw.


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*This article was corrected on the 8th of October, 2018. The girl interviewed by the HONY team was a victim of sexual assault, not rape.