You might be wealthy without riches

Sight of dropouts herding livestock as graduates tarmac triggered debate

In Summary

• There is no consensus on what comprises wealth, but financial freedom is key

A herd of livestock in Lamu
A herd of livestock in Lamu

A group of friends were on a road trip in one of the remote, arid lands of Kenya, where the main, if not the only, economic activity among the resident population is livestock keeping. In such places, it is not unusual to find schoolchildren herding livestock instead of being in class.

"These children must be coming from very poor homes that can't afford school fees," one friend remarked.

"Why should they go to school when they are in charge of so much wealth?" another member of the travelling party asked. "Those children will own large herds of cattle by the time they are young adults!"

That statement provoked a rather interesting debate about wealth. Does owning a house, a car and having cash in a bank make someone wealthier than a livestock keeper who owns hundreds of heads of cattle but sleeps in the open?

A young man raised in the traditional way of life is assured of owning livestock and, quite possibly, a piece of land as soon as he comes of age. Is he better off than his educated counterpart who will probably still be looking for a job well into his late 20s? 

The gender dimension comes into play, too, because girls in communities still practising traditional economic systems are unlikely to ever own property. In that case, one would be justified in arguing that the girls are better off pursuing a modern lifestyle, though they must first get jobs or start businesses before accumulating wealth-generating assets.

Clearly the definition of wealth is complicated. An individual may own assets such as land and livestock but be poor because of not having money. Conversely, someone else may have a loaded bank account but not have any physical assets. Can both these individuals be described as wealthy in different ways?

Boy band Sauti Sol has a song titled 'Money Lover', in which part of the lyrics question whether it is better to cry in a Range Rover or to laugh while riding a boda boda motorcycle. The dilemma over whether to pursue happiness or wealth is at the heart of many songs, films, works of art and religious texts.

A 2019 survey of 18 countries, including Kenya, found that, although people have a wide range of views on what it means to be wealthy, financial independence was a key attribute.

Kenyan respondents said the signs of wealth include having enough cash for the future, good health and the ability to afford whatever one wants. The survey was conducted by PayU, a global fintech investor.

"Over half of the respondents felt that having savings in case of hard times or emergency was the benefit of possessing the ability to grow one's money," PayU stated in its report.

Other definitions of wealth go beyond finances and include time freedom (having control over one’s time), strong relationships and personal fulfilment. Ultimately, being wealthy is taken to mean having abundant resources and opportunities for a healthy, fulfilling and happy life.

Being wealthy or poor has consequences for children. It has long been established that a child's start in life is determined by family wealth or the lack of it. For instance, while children from privileged economic backgrounds are exposed to regular home learning before joining school, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not. The school dropout rate among learners from poor households is much higher than that among richer homesteads.

"Unequal starting points lead to unequal chances later in life," the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development states. Social mobility, which is the ability to climb up the economic ladder, is particularly challenging for people with few opportunities to leave low-paying or temporary jobs.

A report published in 2022 proves that wealth does not always lead to happiness. The study, highlighted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that people in low-income circumstances have a much greater sense of meaning in their lives compared to rich people. In short, people with more money may be happier, but people with less money view happiness as tied to a sense of meaning.

People get meaning when they believe their lives have purpose, value and direction. Experiences that have been shown to contribute to a sense of meaning, such as strong relationships and religion, often don't cost a thing. The study is titled "Financial Resources Impact the Relationship between Meaning and Happiness."

The perception of wealth can be relative. That is, it varies from person to person and from place to place. An individual with moderate possessions may feel wealthy compared to his or her social circles or previous personal circumstances. The same reasons come into play for individuals who look rich but do not feel wealthy, perhaps because their current economic circumstances are a downgrade from a more affluent past.

Though describing someone as wealthy or not wealthy depends on various circumstances, the concept of poverty is clear to everyone. Poverty is not only about the lack of cash. Poverty is a state of life that hampers the ability of affected persons to participate in society. Think of someone who is too sick to work but cannot afford medical treatment. Lack of access to education prevents an individual from getting well-paying jobs. Poverty breeds fear about the future.

A 2022 report by Oxfam shows income inequality in Kenya is worsening. About 9,000 Kenyans owned more wealth than 99.9 per cent of the population. The richest 10 per cent of people in Kenya earned 23 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. The number of super-rich in Kenya is among the fastest-growing in the world.

"Unequal access to opportunities such as healthcare and education is rife," Oxfam states in a statement published on its website. The organisation states that at least 2 million people in Kenya fall into poverty or remain poor due to ill health.

Returning to the story of the children herding cattle instead of going to school, would it be accurate to describe such families as wealthy? If all those cows were sold in one session, some of those families could indeed turn into millionaires.

In reality, communities that practise nomadic pastoralism live in very harsh environments far from hospitals, schools, clean water and other types of modern amenities.

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