African economics

When we were back in the UK last year we met with various groups to explain a bit about life on Kome. I used an example of one of our neighbours. This dear gentleman is extremely old and is barely able to walk with a stick, almost doubled over. We always make an effort to visit him when we’re on the island. Inevitably he is perched on a tiny simple wooden stool outside his simple house, where he can see many of his children, who are involved in the local fish trade – fixing fishing nets or racking the endless layer of white bait, drying across the beach shore. Many of his grandchildren run around on the beach or around the communal lounge, kitchen and dining area, which is the entire village. While he no doubt has a peaceful life, him and his wife often complain about their failing health and I’d look at him on his tiny wooden stool and remember my grandma siting in her fully automated reclining and raising chair and think about his (lack of) comfort. Like many rural Africans of his generation, one or two of his children have made it successfully through the education system and now have reasonably well paying jobs in the city. This month we’ve been surprised to see that one of this children has paid for a new house for him. Now in the spot where he sat on his small wooden stool outside his simple traditional house he now sits on a plastic chair, on a veranda of a well built, large house. In place of the traditional drop pit toilet he now has a modern tank toilet with walls, roof and door. Somehow, while sitting outside of his house the world moved on, he has suddenly skipped several generations of development and now finds himself living in one of the best houses in the village. Just like that.

It seems to be the way that development happens around here – suddenly. You just wake up and something has changed – everywhere. One day a couple of months ago we woke up and every road in the town had a street sign. Instantly. The impact on the quality of my life in almost indescribable. Where once giving directions would entail describing the location of various mango trees, dirt roads and maasai hang-outs, now I can simply use road names. We conducted interviews this month and all of the candidates turned up in the correct location, without calling me and without me needing to send someone to go out and track down which mango tree my candidate was standing under! I love that the community leaders had to sit down and think of names for all the roads in such a short period of time, and that as a result the road around the corner from our house is named after a friend of ours’ dog. Why not?!

This month all the fishing businesses in our village on Kome upgraded to solar lamps. The lamps are put on small rafts and strung across the lake. The lights attract the small fish the makes the staple of almost everybody’s diet here, and they are captured into nets. Up until now all of the lamps have all run on paraffin but just like that, this has all changed, seemingly overnight.

I remain fascinated by African development and African economics. There are so many books written on these topics but I don’t think it’s something that can ever be fully grasped. Money just works differently in Africa than in does in the UK at least. We have been paying some millions of shillings for the house that we rent on Kome. It’s easy to wonder where all the money goes if there is so much being moved around for things like rent. This month we took on a new team member and went on the hunt for a house for her to live in, when we enquired about rent for a properly we found, it was TSH20,000 (£6) a month for the two roomed property. This would go no way towards the building and maintenance of a property. It’s impossible to understand how one landlord can charge so much more than another, and how the one with the lower rent could be making any money back on his property. The first landlord understands that he is renting to wazungu (foreigners), the second to a Tanzanian, and the rent reflects this difference. It seems that the price you get for everything depends on who you are; your location; and what you’re perceived to be able to afford or be willing to pay.

There is plenty of development in Tanzania. Here in Mwanza there are many people with cars, smart phones and computers. We have restaurants and a mall with a cinema. I’d hate anyone to believe that there’s been no development in Tanzania. But there is something different about the way money works here. There is a much greater expectation that those with more give to those with less. An individual with a job in the city may be expected to pay for houses for family in the village. Those with food may be expected to provide for the hungry in a way that often causes real personal sacrifice. I have no doubt that whilst the rent received by the person renting to the wazungu may be great, there are many people who have a stake in receiving from that pot of money.

I recently read a book written by a South African whose Mum uses the phrase ‘Black tax’. He describes this as being a situation in which a black African who obtains money for whatever reason, loses that money by being put in a situation where they are obliged or expected to share the money with friends and family in order to make up for the losses and hardships those others have suffered. This has the overall effect of bringing everyone up to zero. For example at one point in the story he fears he is going to end up with such a large bill for a family member’s healthcare, that it will impact on the entire rest of his life.

I believe that we in the UK have a lot to learn from the way economics and community work here. We find it easy to ignore the needs of others, to think about providing for ourselves and taking care of our immediate family. We can be guilty of clinging to things more than people. In Tanzania failing to greet your neighbour, not sharing with those in need and not providing for your extended family members is unthinkable. I’m challenged daily to think about how those in the early church shared with all their fellow believers. It’s almost impossible to go outside here as a mzungu without a request for something from somebody and it would be easy to give until you had nothing left, without really benefiting anyone. It’s often hard to have the discernment to know when and how to help. What we’ve seen is that when something is desirable, whether it’s solar lamps, metal roofs or street signs, where there’s a will, there’s a way. As we move the sanitation project forward, we want to create a desire for and therefore the will, for clean and safe toilets in the communities on Kome.

We run women’s health education groups on the island. As part of the groups we give the women an opportunity to save money every week in a community savings bank and we give them entrepreneurial training to help them make the best use of the money they have. By locking money up in a community box and by raising capital that can be invested in business, we assist these women in avoiding some of the daily demands on their money that may prevent them from being able to meet their and their families longer-term needs.

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