'Homelessness, the greatest scar on our common humanity,' says Bishop Kukah

‘Gov’t planning to educate, feed, create jobs is mostly empty talk,’ says Bishop Kukah

The Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head: Homelessness as a moral scar on Nigeria’s face

To say life is hard in Nigeria would sound so hollow that no one would bother to

make a comment. Each time we look back at what might be referred to as the fat years – for example the years of oil boom – the sight of the insatiably greedy locusts which devoured everything in its wake, convey only sorrow and gloom.

The culture of ‘suffering and smiling’ gradually took root and in today’s Nigeria, we have turned it into a virtue which we call, resilience. Ours is the story of big countries and small people.

When I received the invitation to deliver a keynote address to this august body, I was not so sure where to start and what to say. Over the years, I have received invitations to speak at various professional fora and each time I try to protest, I am often told, “Do not worry; you can speak on any topic of your choice.”

In the course of all this, I have been the greater beneficiary. I have been privileged to sit with diverse groups of professionals and listen to their languages. So, let me thank my son, Mr. Fitzgerald who remained quite persistent after I failed to make it to Port Harcourt last year for a larger regional gathering of your colleagues. I therefore have had to squeeze this into my programme as a way of making up.

The theme of your conference is ‘Lagos 8:0: An Architectural Athopoiesis.’ I had to look up the word in the dictionary because I have never heard it before. Although, I had a faint idea what it might mean. Not being a professional, what I intend to do is to merely express perhaps the same concerns as many speakers in this forum, namely a lamentation of the Nigerian condition and as we often say the way forward.

I have chosen to speak on The Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head:  Homelessness as a moral scar on our society.

For those who are Christians or those who are familiar with the Bible, you might recall an incident about a man who was so excited with the message of Jesus that he walked up to Jesus and offered to follow Him. But Jesus said to him: “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Lk. 9:58).

As we all know, in daily life, many people are defined by their addresses. I heard that the first generation of Nigerians who went abroad often showed photographs of the Tinubu fountain on Broad Street as their home addresses to white girls they wanted to attract. Still, addresses do matter in all aspects of life.

If you met someone in the plane and he or she gave you a business card with an Ajegunle, Nyanya, Ikoyi, or Asokoro, address, would it matter or not? Location matters.

So, when the two potential apostles asked Jesus where he lived, they naturally had their own expectations especially given what they had heard of Him. To their utter shock, Jesus said: “Birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay His head.” It is a measure of their courage that they still followed a homeless man.

I am aware that my audience is a professional and not a faith audience. However, my concern in this presentation is to raise the moral tone on the issues of homelessness and argue that it is a scar on the face of our nation.

When Jesus said He had nowhere to lay His head, what did He mean? Was He elevating and presenting homelessness as a model of life? I will not bore you with the hermeneutics of this verse. Suffice it to say that by making that statement, Jesus was prioritizing His mission, subordinating the material to the divine and presenting a model of priorities in life and pointing out that some choices often render personal comfort redundant.

To His followers, He would later warn that seeking the kingdom of God was the most important human assignment. In his own life, Jesus gave us some clear examples of detachment.

He came from heaven but arrived the earth in a manger as home with animals. At the end of His life, He who owns the world was buried in a borrowed tomb. When Jesus handed the mission to His poor and illiterate followers, He strangely warned them not to carry money or any earthly possessions. I am aware that now I am beginning to preach and not to speak to architects on how to design beautiful houses. So, let me now return to the theme of my reflection here.

There is no need to define homelessness to this audience. However, as we all know, homelessness has become the face of life in the third world. It is the poster that welcomes everyone who knocks at the gate of every African city today. It is pertinent to ask the question as to how homelessness came upon us and why it has become the norm and the counter narrative to our failed development strategies.

Homelessness is the mortal sin in our Garden of Eden. It is the mark of Cain placed on the forehead of all African leaders, a reminder and the footprints of their despicable failures that litter the continent.

When we ask the reasons for homelessness in Africa, the elite will give us many reasons and excuses for their colossal failures to protect their people.

It is interesting that those who give us the reasons for homelessness are those whose selfishness, greed, profligacy and neglect have contributed to the tragedy of homelessness in our society. We do not hear the voices of the homeless themselves. They are not able to say why they are homeless. For us who deliver the lectures, serve as consultants and write long, unreadable seminar papers for the United Nations and its agencies, for those who design the model buildings, for those who govern – the homeless are a problem. The homeless are a social or an economic category in development literature. They have no names. They are merely a noun or an adjective, an indictment, embarrassment and irritants on our landscape. They are problems to be resolved, dirt to be cleared, not excuses to be listed.

The homeless are presented as their own worst enemies. If we were to describe or give reasons for homelessness, most of us would naturally say something like:

  • They are the products of failed urbanization
  • They rushed to the city thinking the roads were paved with gold
  • In their poverty, they breed too many children
  • They are unemployed, lack skills
  • They are lazy and have bad social habits such as alcoholism

The urban development experts even categorise homelessness into different grades. And of course, these categories are important for planning, but they are also a form of indictment that often blames the victim. For example, the homeless are often classified as falling under these categories:

  • Chronical homelessness: These ones are beyond redemption and the empty streets and its elements are their permanent addresses. They roam the streets and have no place to call home. As in the words of the hit song by the Temptations entitled, Papa was a Rolling stone, “…Wherever he laid his hat was his home.”
  • Cyclical homelessness: These are persons who suffer loss of abode as a result of temporary tragedies, like the death of a bread winner, victim of a fraud, loss of employment, an accident or a misfortune, etc. They could overcome the circle and climb back if an opportunity knocks.
  • Temporary homeless: These are more or less the same as Cyclical homelessness. But they could be victims of war as we have today in the IDP camps across our country. They often have hope that they would resolve their problems when conditions change.

As I have stated, the popular temptation is the arrogant assumption in which the state and its agents, who should actually be in the dock turn around to blame the victim. Thus, from the comfort of their humongous structures often built from the proceeds of corruption, they continue to blame the homeless for some of the reasons I have mentioned above.

However, I believe it is more plausible to argue that the homeless must be seen as those whom the government left behind. I will argue that homelessness should not be seen as some sort of inevitability. Like war, it is often the outcome, the product of planned or unplanned human actions, inaction and decisions.  Homelessness is the failure of politics, the collapse of compassion, a cancer inflicted on the poor by those who are paid to protect and defend them.

Government policies are often haphazard and lack coherent design plans that go beyond the exigencies of political considerations. Successive governments are often reluctant to pursue the programmes of their successors. There is also an over concentration on the care and welfare of government functionaries to the exclusion of the welfare of ordinary citizens. Social behaviours of office holders in areas such as polygamy, have impact on the economy and housing. How many of the public officers’ wives are the government supposed to pay for? Is it the duty of the federal government to provide housing for four wives in four different cities for example? There are laws on paper, but these habits make it impossible for resources to be adequately allocated for the welfare of citizens.

Homelessness should be considered a moral issue because everything else about our humanity revolves around the dignity imposed by the need for housing. We can quibble over whether the right to housing is synonymous with the right to shelter. What is most critical is whether a government has enough sensitivity to appreciate the needs of its citizens. This is purely based on whether it has the capacity to plan. And, of course, there can be no planning without data and statistics.

We keep hearing long stories about government planning to educate, feed and create jobs for its citizens. Most of this is empty talk that is never backed by any serious knowledge on the part of politicians who know very little about the ethnic, demographic composition or habitats of their people. They come to power and then discover that with no data, they cannot achieve their goals. The results of this ignorance are to be found in the white elephant projects that have become part of our landscape. Due to poor planning and obsession with politics, politicians often end up abandoning much advertised and popularized problem-solving projects.

We have all the various departments and institutions in the bureaucracy, created largely to help the government provide services. Sadly, even these institutions are seething with corruption and inefficiency. We have a population commission; we have offices of statistics, departments of weights and measures and so on and so forth. Yet, there is very little evidence that government policies are guided by sound advice and input from these institutions. How can a government deliver services when it is unsure and knows so little about its own people? How can it plan when it has no accurate data, has no details of the social, cultural or religious housing needs of its people?

I would like to end these reflections by re-stating that homelessness is an indictment on those who have pledged to govern us and have custody of all our resources to be judiciously used for us. Homelessness is one of the greatest definitions of inequality.  It is the greatest scar on our common humanity. It was never meant to be like this because at creation, God saw that all He created was good. When he entrusted the earth to man to look after, it was with the hope that man would create a habitable environment to sustain the mission of procreation to which God had invited the human race.

Clearly, the greatest cause of homelessness is not so much the falsehoods that have been popularized by policymakers which blame the victims. We blame population explosion among others. Important as these are, a government should be able to plan and anticipate these developments and not wait until numbers overwhelm it. This is where the scientists like you architects come in.

I recall how excited architects were when Alhaji Namadi Sambo was made Vice President. Architects got a good piece of the action. However, looking back, what can we remember about that period? Could architects have taken advantage of this situation to embark on some memorable project as a legacy?

Today, professionals, especially scientists must not become obsessed with patronage and politics. Only science can change our landscape. Too many professionals have become ensconced in the warm embrace of power and as such, there is little room for dreaming and offering solutions to the nation’s problems. I give you an example that you all know better than me. That is, the capsule hotels that have emerged in Japan.

The famous Japanese architect, Kisho Korukawa (1934-2007) designed the first capsule hotel in Osaka in 1972 and it was opened in 1979. Apart from architecture, Korukawa read Philosophy which changed his worldview and made him a more adventurous architect. He founded what was called, the Metabolism movement, a crop of adventurous Japanese architects who wanted to change lifestyles through their science. It was this adventure that produced the Nakagin Capsule Tower hotel.

A capsule hotel is made up of just a little bed that looks like a drawer for those who just need a place to lay their head down for the night. It is meant for those who cannot afford regular hotels and they are very cheap. Now, they are scattered in Japan. China, Belgium and India are also experimenting with the capsule hotel.

This is what imagination does when professionals aim at solving problems rather than designing to meet the stinking opulence and taste of the rich. Architects should be courageous enough to extend the frontiers of imagination. Architects and artists are the closest expressions of God’s gift of imagination because all the wonderful designs exist in their heads before we finally see them. They are dreamers and therefore our squalor should be considered an indictment on their ability or inability to dream and dream big.

What do architects have to say about how to end homelessness? Of course, as a social problem, homelessness will probably never end. The real challenge is how to revolutionalise the concept of habitation and dignity to make it work in favour of the poor. You should be the ones to help us provide housing or shelter for our people at the cheapest cost and based on what we can afford locally. Our poor people cannot continue to wait for Dangote or to decide their fate on whether they will have a roof over their heads.

Must the future of shelter among our people depend on cement, fans and air conditioners which we do not produce? Architects should unleash their creative imagination to help our nation find solutions to the problems of homelessness. To do this, a new generation of architects must be ready to break the mould.

Finally, I repeat what I said: the issue of homelessness is a serious indictment on our leadership. It is a direct byproduct of the greed of those who have custody of our commonwealth. While they live in mansions and their children who have contributed nothing to the country, drive exotic cars and travel the world in private jets with our collective resources. Homelessness should prick our conscience. For how can a country, so well endowed live with so much squalor? We will always have the homeless with us, but, we can do more to make shelter more accessible without subjecting our people to shylocks who continue to exploit them through dubious promises of cheap housing and shelter.

The Holy Father, Pope Francis has spoken out most eloquently against creeping inequalities arising from the unregulated economic environment where the markets continue to play god. He has called attention to what he calls the throwaway culture which has made even human beings disposable.

Today, the Atlantic Ocean has become the burial ground of the generation of tomorrow. The architects cannot solve our problems alone, but they can offer us a starting point. As the saying goes, if you only look at the size, eating an elephant seems an impossible task. However, all you need is to take the first bite. It may take almost forever, but you would have started.

Similarly, we may not end homelessness in one generation, but we can start with one courageous step in the right direction. I remember the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine. He says:

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one


Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world.

Being keynote address by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, at the Lagos 8.0 Conference by the Nigerian Institute of Architects (Lagos Chapter), on May 11, 2017.


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