To continue the thread of yesterday’s post, I have been having a lot of conversations with my colleagues here about money and status, and the effect those have on daily life.
It seems that the job I have given them has raised their status quite considerably, but with that has come equally raised obligations to their family and friends – the number of whom rises in line with their perceived wealth. Overseas travel is the key, not only demonstrating their new social position but bringing with it the expectation from all around that they will return each time laden with gifts for everyone. Apparently in the past there was even an allowance paid to those travelling on business to cover this expense!
One colleague told me that since he started travelling in this job he has been approached by several family members with requests for money, motorbikes, etc. I look back and remember various Africans I have known asking me at some point for money, my reaction always being great sadness that someone I had thought of as a friend had turned out not to be a friend at all, but to be only after my money. But now I realise that I completely misunderstood the situation. It is the African way. If you have money (or power), not only do you spend it conspicuously but you also share some of it out with those around you.
It’s not a tradition which helps Africa very much, I don’t think. It means, for example, that those poor souls who risk their lives to get to Europe, spend the money they have earned, when they return, partly on a big house (demonstrating their wealth) and partly on hand-outs to family and friends (sharing it out). But rarely if ever on starting a business (thereby creating jobs and helping in the development of their country).
It also means that those reaching a position of power are obliged to share some of the benefits of that power with their family, friends and community. What we in the West would see as an abuse of position, even as corruption. As a colleague explained, someone getting a position in government who did not use his position to benefit his community would probably never be able to return to live in that community in the future. Hence the tribalism in African politics – ‘democracy’ does not mean the opportunity to vote for someone whose ideas you support, but for someone who can direct some benefit towards your village/tribe/ethnic group.
I know some of my colleagues find it surprising and hard to understand when they are denied the use of a company vehicle and driver for a weekend family wedding. They don’t see anything wrong with it, as that is the way African society works. I can see their point of view, and I can see why the Western approach might seem hard-hearted and cold. However I can also see the similarity between that and the use of junior government posts for a minister’s family and friends, and how much easier it is to prevent any such behaviour rather than to try to draw a line somewhere along the spectrum.
I remember when I first moved to Dakar how one colleague would sometimes invite me to join him for lunch in the office. We have a scheme where you can pay a monthly amount to eat lunch for that month, which I don’t take part in because I am not there often enough to get value-for-money. But I accepted the colleague’s invitation a couple of times, until I realised that he was not paying anything for me to eat there – he was offering me a lunch that was not his to give me. Still, nine months later, I have not managed to get him to understand why I no longer accept his invitations.
I’ve thought further about this post, however, since I began to write it. About the fact that I would definitely take the opportunity to visit a diamond mine should I visit my new friend’s country (see yesterday’s post), but that by doing so I would of course be encouraging (and benefiting from) exactly the sort of behaviour I have been criticising here.
Life is complicated sometimes!