We watched this film last night;
It tells the story of a girl growing up in the extreme poverty of Ugandan slums who discovers a gift for chess, which becomes her way out and up. Along the way she is supported by a remarkable man who recognises her talent and then through kindness and persistence, supports her learning. In common with all such Disney stories, the story had been made ‘safe’ in all sorts of ways but it still made me cry like a drain.
As I thought about why it was upsetting me so much, I realised it was about two things; firstly it was because of the kindness it contained. Whenever I see kindness, particularly towards small ordinary people, it breaks me open. Secondly it was because of the fact that chess is not an option for most poor children. Let me say more about this.
Films like this work because Phiona, the girl at the centre of the story, has a secret superpower that allows her to transcend the poverty that she was born in to – she can play chess. The story then becomes a redemption story of the self-made kind (albeit with the aforementioned help/kindness.) Phiona succeeds because of her inate abilities and her hard work and persistence which allow her to achieve an escape simply not available to others who grew up in her community. In many ways, this is the American dream, transplanted to Africa. It is the myth of meritocracy and exceptionalism applied to a place where the lie is most cruel.
Of course some people always transcend the poverty, they are born in to through luck, through good judgement, through hard work and through giftedness. These stories of survival and prospering can be inspirational and uplifting, but are they ever liberating? Or might they actually have the very opposite effect? The problem with gifted exceptionalism is that it is… exceptional. It has no relevance whatsoever to the vast proportion of the population.
It changes nothing.
The poor stay almost exclusively poor. The middle class can feel vindicated by their own worthyness. The rich can support a few chess tournaments and welfare programmes aimed at uncovering other exceptions.
We also learn nothing about the nature of poverty, whether in Manchester or Kampala. We can continue to blame the poor for their own squalor, as if it arose from indolence. We can watch programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ safe in the assumption that these people chose their own station in life and/or lack the gumption to emerge from it.
Or we can look to Africa and claim that the starvation and subsistence living are caused by corruption/poor education/over population – despite all evidence to the contrary. Despite the long term destructive effects of imperialism and globalised resource extraction. We can do this because clearly that girl can still thrive.
Poverty is a prison, but one with escape tunnels pre-installed, allowing a steady trickle of escapees. Just enough to convince us all that it is not a prison after all. The walls of the prison are not made from concrete, but rather from impaired opportunity of the kind that starts even before we are born. (This Australian account of the effects of poverty on child development is worth reading.)
How do you tear down this prison?
What is needed is a new kind of Jubilee.
In case you are not familiar with the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee, it was given to the Israelites by Yaweh as a kind of reset, in which all the economic, social, cultural and environmental circumstances in the society where examined in the interests of justice and liberation. There were to be seven year ‘sabbath’ years and then every seventh sabbath would be- jubilee. There is of course much debate as to how and if this law was every applied, but whether or not it was, the idea still resonates.
What would jubilee look like in Kampala? Would it look like a chess tournament from which a gifted girl was plucked and elevated?
I think not.