The complaints came in shortly after we ran a story on a government aid program that gave cash to the poor in Zambia. The piece included a profile of a young woman who, along with her husband, had used the money to start a business that had lifted their family to a level self-sufficiency they'd never enjoyed before.
Several readers — okay, just two, but still, it made us take note! — wrote to take issue with my use of the word "hut" to describe the family's dwelling.
Here's the paragraph in question:
Take Nasilele and her husband. They live in a tiny village called Yuka, in a round hut made of sticks and mud. Before the cash program, the couple mostly worked day jobs in construction, pulling in about $30 a month. Not even enough to cover basics like soap or shoes or food, says Nasilele.
"We would have one meal a day and maybe in between we would just have mangoes from our tree," she recalls. "The thing that saved us were our mangoes."
Our two commenters questioned why I didn't just refer to the structure as a house or a home. The word "hut" wrote one of them, is "such a pejorative term, implying something 'lesser' and comes from a time when African culture was belittled and seen as inferior. I think you can do better than that — especially when you do such a great job highlighting the dignity and worth of the people you write about. We all live in homes or houses, whatever the shape, size or building materials."
This got me thinking, did the commenters have a point? Henceforth, when it comes to writing about poverty should I banish the word "hut" from my vocabulary?
A quick check suggested the dictionary, at least, does not advocate such drastic measures. A hut, the website dictionary.com reports, simply refers to "a small or humble dwelling of simple construction, especially one made of natural materials." Essentially a spot-on description of this family's home. Merriam-Webster and Oxford-English offered similar definitions. So far so good.
Still, a strict dictionary definition of a word can often miss the cultural or historical baggage it might carry. Which made me wonder, how do people in East African countries refer to homes like the one I visited? Do they consider the English word "hut" offensive? And in their own local languages, are there words for rudimentary dwellings that also might be problematic?
As it happens, this past week provided a focus group of sorts in the form of fourteen development experts with the Aspen Institute's New Voices Fellowship, who stopped by NPR for a chat with our team at Goats & Soda. Most of the fellows were visiting from Africa — Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe — along with a few from South Asia and the Middle East.
So I put the question to them — is it inherently demeaning to call someone's dwelling a hut?
At first, I got a lot of quizzical looks and shrugs. "A hut is just a hut!" said Janet Midega, a medical entomologist who focuses on malaria at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Program in Kenya.
Mercy Lung'aho, a nutritionist from Kenya, said that "isima" is the equivalent of "hut" in her mother tongue of Luhya. It means a small, mud-walled home with a thatched roof. And she says there's nothing insulting or even mildly derogatory about referring to someone's home that way.
But as the discussion continued, a different verdict began to emerge: It depends.
Bernard Olayo, a public health specialist, said the term is a useful one if you're trying to convey somebody's poverty. In fact, researchers in his native Kenya, use it all the time for that purpose.
"It helps you to position someone in the economic context. What types of materials they use, what kind of roofing," said Olayo. If someone lives in a mud hut with a thatched roof that "helps to tell you this person is in the lowest quintile."
But it's important to be sensitive to the way Africa has been historically portrayed in the Western world, opined Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist from Zimbabwe. And too often, he said, "the word 'hut' has been associated not only with poverty, but with an inferior type of lifestyle."
Others felt that just because someone lives in a hut doesn't necessarily mean that they're poor. "In my village," said Phyllis Omido, an environmental rights actvist in Kenya, "it's the culture that after a [teenaged] boy is circumcised he has to build a hut [on the family's land]. And it's always a hut. I have uncles who are doctors, and they still built a hut."
Ariong Moses volunteered that he himself owns a hut. It's back in his home village in Uganda. "These are some of the best houses," said Moses, who researches ways to help small holder farmers for the One Acre Fund. The mud walls and the thatched roofs are an environmentally friendly way to keep cool in hot climates, he said.
Makes sense, I said. And yet, Moses, like other professionals, has a primary residence in the city that's made of modern materials. There's a big difference between keeping a traditional hut back in your home village to use for occasional visits and having no choice but to live in a hut full-time.
I also recalled how I too had found the thatched roof over the couple in Zambia's hut both beautiful and ingenious. But when I mentioned that to the couple, they had laughed incredulously. The thatch was prone to catching on fire, they told me. It required frequent patching. If they could afford to replace it with a sheet of corrugated metal they would do so in a heartbeat.
In fact, when I had asked the couple to list the ways in which they had felt their poverty most acutely, among the top examples they gave was the rudimentary state of their dwelling. And when they talked about what they wanted to do now that they had managed to boost their income, transforming their hut into something closer to a house — with cement floors and walls, was among their first goals.
Several of the Aspen Institute Fellows agreed that this was a common sentiment among poor people in their countries.
All the same, said Jemimah Njuki, who, among other work, runs a scientific journal in Kenya, "Why does the hut have to be the symbol of poverty here. You're still talking about somebody's home. Can't you describe it as a house or a home?" Doing otherwise, she suggested, "lessens their dignity."
I told her that, for the most part, I agreed. If I had been interviewing this family on any number of subjects unrelated to their poverty, I might have simply noted that I had met them in their "home."
But this was a story in which the family's poverty was the central focus — one in which I was featuring their own detailed account of the deprivations they had suffered and the steps they had taken to surmount those circumstances. So to describe their dwelling with a word that purposefully obscured the reality of their poverty would have seemed far more disrespectful — as if their straitened circumstances were somehow shameful, something to be hidden, rather than a simple, and frankly unjust fact of their life.
There were nods around the room. Then Mercy Lung'aho, the nutritionist, delivered her blessing.
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes we try to beautify things at the cost of the person going through the situation."