Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Unexpected Face of Poverty

Poverty-stricken Africa.

We’ve all seen the images of malnourished children, overcrowded refugee camps, nomads foraging for food in the desert.

The thing is – poverty in Africa hits at a much deeper, less obvious and widespread level. Everyone here is concerned about money. There are no jobs… and I’m not talking about McDonald’s not hiring the 15-year-old who wants an after-school part-time job. I’m talking about 35-year-olds who can’t find work. Men who remain single well into their thirties because they know they couldn’t support a family.

Most of my friends have no regular income…they spend all day doing god knows what – nothing really… because there’s nothing to do. They manage to scrape together a few francs here and there when they need to – people help each other out – but doing things that require money – going out for dinner, to the movies, etc – just isn’t on their radar. Those who do find work don’t make that much.

Take my friend Ndiéme, who works at the hairdresser’s. She takes the bus for two hours a day to get to work (because she can’t find work in her neighbourhood) and works at least 9 hours a day, six days a week. She makes 30,000 CFA francs a month, the equivalent of just over $60 dollars. Of that, she sends $40 to her mother in a town a few hours away, to help raise her siblings. She lives off of the $20 that remain. And these aren’t poor people… this is the average. These are average people, who look normal on the street. They’re not beggars or dirty or badly dressed. But every day, they struggle to make due with what they have. Ndiéme told me she cries at night because she can never give her mother enough.

Then there’s Cheikh. He’s a cameraman for ATN, an agency that sends reports to international media outlets for broadcast. I met him on an assignment, and we became friends. A group of us had gone out a few times together. He dressed nicely, paid for cabs, dinner, etc – seemed in a reasonably comfortable financial situation. And so the first time I saw his living arrangements, I was a bit shocked. (I don’t think I hid it too well either). He and his friend share a room that they rent for the equivalent of $50 a month. They sleep on the same bed, share a mini fridge in the corner of the room and a dresser. They sit on their bed to eat and the door to their room leads directly to the outdoors (homes in Senegal are often built in courtyard format. There’s an open space in the middle, with rooms along the perimeter). When it rains, it feels like you’re in the middle of the storm. When the family makes noise in the adjoining house, you can hear it all. This is how a young professional lives, and it’s totally normal!

It becomes depressing after a while because everyone you talk to talks about money problems and you feel you want to help everyone, but you know you can’t, and besides that wouldn’t be sustainable. Many say it’s up to the government to invest money into the economy and create jobs instead of filling its own corrupt pockets. Others talk about the need for the rich Africans – and there certainly are many – to reinvest into their continent instead of spending their money in Europe, etc. (I don’t want to give the impression that everyone here is poor… there are people who are well-off, as there are everywhere. There are Senegalese driving SUVs and wearing $200 shoes. All I’m saying is that the average person has difficult choices to make – puts things in a bit of perspective.)

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