Money works differently here in West Africa. A friend, who’d been here previously warned me: “There’s money between friends in West Africa.” Back then, I didn’t understand.
07.10.2016 - 17.10.2016 28 °C
As a white guy in Africa, skin colour clearly makes me stand out. So does more or less notable things, like the way I dress, walk, etc. (dressing like a local would mostly look ridiculous.) And skin colour matters down here. No matter how annoying it is, I primarily addressed as "white guy." Down here that's neither racist nor bad form as it would be in Europe.
Typically on the road, my money concerns are limited to a limited fear of being robbed or certainty of overcharged. I’m definitely being cheated on markets and by taxi drivers, but this is to be expected. I’ve never been robbed, but for a sole pickpocketing in Madagascar. Suddenly, here in West Africa, I’ve run into a new concern. That “my money” is no longer considered mine alone. Money is for many in West Africa a community asset, rather than individually owned. It shows clearly in the rural and more conservative villages, where the village chief is responsible for negotiating a fee, on behalf of the village as a whole, with visitors who wants to pass through, sleep or eat in the village. This makes sense, so far that communities and villages – rather than families – often constitutes society’s social security. Money is relatively rare and used for the village or community as a whole. For everybody’s good. If the chief is a good chief, that is, who does share the wealth.
The fact that I’m white makes many assume that I have money. Something I certainly don't have compared to most of my peers in the West. I’m blowing all my savings on this trip and owe an average annual Danish income in student debts. It is, however, an entirely correct assumption by West African standards – blowing €12,000 in a year travelling West Africa makes me far richer than most locals. Mainly, because I can always return to Europe and earn more money. As one guy told me, after he had casually asked if he could have my smartphone: “You come from a part of the world where there’s money. Here’s no money.” Somehow, there is an expectation that I share, simply because I have money. This notion would seem delusional back home, in our highly individualised Western society.
The fact that I’m here, in their country, appears to make a lot of people expect that I share my wealth. With them, that is. I’m daily asked for donations by strangers on the street. Not by beggars, homeless people or the like, but by ordinary citizens. (Here are actually very few people begging on the streets.) Children are of cause awfully often asking for money, but somehow it seems that they keep doing so when they grow up. One thing is asking for money, but many people also ask for my possessions. For my phone. My laptop. Even for the teddy bears, given to me by friends back home, hanging on the outside of my backpack. People have even asked Dan, the Jeep-overlander, if they could have his car. All with the assumption that we can easily buy new stuff when we get home.
The truth is that we easily can buy new stuff when we get back home. At least compare to how good locals' chances to buy an expensive Western phone/laptop/car are.
The fact is also that travelling essentially is a very selfish undertaking. I travel so I get new experience, so I get a better understanding of the world because I enjoy travelling. Constantly being reminded is frustrating – frustrating because it is not particularly pleasant to be reminded of my privileged place in this world. It is also frustration because they’re right and they shouldn’t be right. There’s enough money in the world to go around! But it’s especially frustrating because I can’t help. Even if I spend all my money giving them away, I wouldn’t have enough. Further, should I only give money to the people who ask for money? They aren’t necessarily the ones who need them most. I shouldn’t encourage begging either, nor that white people can simply fund Africa. I’m reminded by an African politician that noticed that Africa doesn’t need aid, Africa needs fair trade. Africa does also need less corrupt leaders, but that is an entirely different story.
I have a principle of donating to NGO’s in every country I visit based who I think are in the most desperate need. Mauritania lacks social security, and many homeless persons are elders, who have no family to care for them. In Senegal, it was children forced to beg by religious schools. In Sierra Leone, it was amputees from the civil war. This won’t stop people asking. The frustration isn’t personal or due to a guilty conscience for not helping (at all). It’s frustrations over the current realities of the world. But it’s part of travelling here, and I will have to deal with it.
I do often wonder if the wealthy elite of locals experiences the same. The hometowns of presidents and politicians are always more developed than other towns and villages. Sometimes to tragicomically extend, where a single village in the middle of nowhere is the only place with paved roads, electricity, etc. in an entire region. Only because the president was born there. Again, money is a mutual thing. I also wonder, what effects are due to the fact that most foreigners in the region are NGO workers, embassy staff or Pease Corps volunteers. All people who to some extent aid the countries. Remembering the African politician’s quote, it might not be exclusively good for Africa. But until the world comes around – and give Africa (and the rest of the developing world) fair trade, equal opportunities and stop exploiting their natural resources – people will die by the tens of thousands if we do not provide aid. Stopping it is simply not an option.
And by the way, when I say ‘the world,’ I am not solely talking about Western elites, local politicians and big corporations. I’m talking about all of us, mostly as consumers. You, for example, could start by buying a FairPhone instead of the new iPhone the next time you need a new phone…
(Disclaimer: I get no royalties from this last remark – which I probably should, though.)
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