There is a saying that all bosses should stick to their walls and repeat to themselves daily as an affirmation. No one is sure who said it, but who cares? The saying goes, There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.
Statistics can be manipulated or falsified, but somehow, because they are statistics, they look scientific, and we believe them. I would like to give three examples.
When I worked with UNICEF, an unidentified disease broke out in a particular village in Musoma, Mara region village. If I remember correctly, a few people even died.
Therefore, the health establishment total weight descended on the village to investigate, which included district health officers, regional health officers and even officers from the national level.
Finally, it was discovered that it was a form of cerebral malaria, which, combined with the poor health status of that area, had caused severe illness and death.
At that time, there was also severe drought and a particular insect gobbling up the cassava in the fields. Cassava was their staple crop. So whenever UNICEF measured malnutrition in the villages, severe malnutrition was always several percentage points.
However, after this disease, while all the villages around this village still had several percentage points of severe malnutrition, this village had none.
Some people in UNICEF were very excited by this, but it was pointed out that this statistic was very suspicious. How could one village buck the trend?
What had happened was that the villagers were fed up with interference in their lives and people in big cars coming to tell them how to behave, so they produced the happy statistic to protect themselves.
This is most common when appeasing the bosses in our lives. I am sure the same thing happened when the bosses on high threatened their district and regional leaders that they would suffer if they announced famine in their communities.
Of course, the intention may have been to ‘encourage’ them to work harder to ensure food production increases in their districts, but the result was that the under-bosses hid the truth from the over-bosses.
There is a story that Julius Nyerere, this country’s first president, was once asked why he was not asking for food aid as there was a famine in the country. He summoned the regional leaders, who assured him there was no such thing.
He sent his own people to investigate further, but the regional leaders wined, dined his people, and showed them certain places without famine.
Nyerere was not satisfied – why should people of good will ask him why he was not requesting food aid? – so he invited religious leaders from all faiths. They informed him there was a severe famine, and in some places, people were resorting to eating grass. He took action!
What is the situation nowadays? We all know the attempts by the government to control statistics, and anyone working with communities knows also how they are coerced or even threatened if they come up with inconvenient findings as the underbosses are afraid of what will happen if news reaches the overbosses.
Journalists are also discouraged or even threatened not to investigate. Thus, serious problems and misbehaviour are covered up, and the people suffer. Leave alone the underbosses, and the people suffer more.
Do you remember when examination results were so poor that there was an outcry? So, the bosses came up with new categories, and the word ‘fail’ was confined to the dustbin. However, the easiest way to deal with that was just to change the pass mark.
If one-third of the examinees failed by up to ten per cent, lower the pass mark by ten per cent, and now it will be seen, oh miracle of miracles, that a large percentage had passed the exam rather than failing it.
This is not just a local phenomenon. There are serious questions even in the UK and elsewhere about how such a large number of people are getting A’s where before it was a much smaller number.
Give them A’s, and everyone will be happy. The same can be done with definitions of poverty – lower the minimum level– individually and even nationally. What does it really mean that we are now a lower-middle-income country? Is it seen in our lives? Is it a lie? A damned lie? Or a statistic?
Averages are a beautiful thing. Just this week, we have been told that the average income of a Dar es Salaam resident is Sh5.39 million. Try telling that to most Dar es Salaam inhabitants, and they will laugh a truly bitter laugh.
Putting together the income of our resident billionaires – who all live in particular areas of Dar es Salaam – with those who do not even know where their next meal comes from conveniently lets us forget the latter.
This can have serious consequences in decision-making. For example, many ‘donor’ agencies concentrate on rural areas, saying urban poverty is less serious than rural poverty.
They are being cheated by statistics of average – or they choose to cheat themselves, I am not sure which. If surveys were carried out in Mbagala, Manzese or Buza on their own, a clear picture of urban poverty would emerge, and proper actions would be taken to address it.
Another example was that of HIV in the last century. Because statistics were not disaggregated, and we took broad and average statistics, it took far too long to recognise that a particular age group – adolescent girls and young women– were the most affected and then to identify and address the causes of their being more affected.
Of course, disaggregation should not apply only to statistics. Regarding development issues in communities, who do we listen to? The older men? The party faithfuls and self-confessed blood-suckers?
Do we listen to young men and women who form most of the community? We say they are the nguvu kazi or manpower, and treat them like that. Their role is to labour for us. When will we learn they are also nguvu akili, mentally capable? When will we listen to them outside the chawacracy?
Suppose you sit on top of a volcano. In that case, it is not a good idea to consider the volcano dormant just because it appears so on the surface, and your faithfuls surrounding you assure you the volcano is dormant, and, statistically, the volcano only erupts every one hundred years!
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at email@example.com or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.