Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The concept of "saving" is hard here. Or perhaps it is just the reality of it. The SHONA women are currently learning about how to estimate their expenses for the coming month and set aside enough money to cover their expenses and any emergencies that might arise during that month. It is a long process, which involves way more math than one might think. I didn't realize how many calcuations I make in my own head, until I tried to teach the concept to someone else, who never went to school. So we are still drilling away at multiplication tables and learning to calculate wholesale costs. But we are getting there pole, pole (slowly, slowly) as the women say.

But the math is only half the battle. Just because you can calculate the correct amount that you need to save, doesn't mean that you will do it.

I have always been a "saver" myself. I remember the cupcakes that children would bring in for their birthdays in kindergarten. I always ate mine from the bottom up, saving the icing for last, long after my classmates had torn through theirs. My hallowen candy always lasted 'till Christmas and my Christmas candy lasted 'till Easter. Literally. Ask my parents.

My husband is the exact opposite. If something good is in the house, then it certainly should not be left to sit there on a shelf. It should be eaten right then and there, because who knows what tomorrow will bring?

I have often been told that my tendency to save food comes from growing up without siblings. I've been told that anyone who grew up in a large household knows that you sit down to the table ready to gobble down whatever you can right away and reach for seconds as quickly as possible. Saving is a luxury. It is for those who live in a world where their carefully hoarded treasure will not be trampled by a younger brother or stolen by an older sister.

And for that reason, the concept of "saving" is hard here. Responsibilities stretch far and wide. Extended families are huge, and often anyone from the same village as you will also be considered family. And if you have any kind of income at all, no matter how small, it is perfectly normal and expected that any member of your large, extended family will ask you for money, food, transportation, school fees, medical fees, or a place to stay at any time. And, as an African, you can't really refuse. So money goes fast.

I find this to be both a beautiful part of the culture here, and a deeply frustrating one. On one hand I have to recognize that the US culture is overly individualistic and isolating. Most people are probably more likely to ask a bank for financial help than a family member. And look at where our credit culture has gotten us. I appreciate the sense of duty to family here. But it truly is extremely difficult for anyone to get ahead here. As soon as you take one step up the ladder the number of hands that pull on you are infinite. Small businesses fail here all too often because the owner feels compelled to answer the increasing demands for help from all sides, only to find that there is no money left to buy new stock.

I once had a conversation with two fairly well-off men. I asked the one how he was doing. And of course he answer "Hakuna...njala"( there is nothing...only hunger). I answered in a surprised tone "really?" as I glanced at the nice car he was driving. And his friend behind him began laughing and agreed "Don't believe him. Everyone says they are hungy here, whether they are or not."

SO how could you possibly expect anyone to save? The person who puts half his income away for a rainy day will only find that ten of his friends and relatives have all arrived with a rainy day in hand. And how can they refuse?

Yet as much as anybody, poor people in Congo need savings. There is no safety net to fall back on here. The SHONA women were incredibly excited when they opened their own bank accounts for the first time. They desperately want to save, and they are managing it, "pole, pole".

But everyday it is a balancing act. Mapendo's mother needs a new house so that she can move out of the refugee camp. Argentine's younger siblings need school fees so that they can return to school. Elda's brother is getting married. Roy's newphew and niece have fled their rural village and need somewhere to live. Quite literally the list could go on all day.

Like most of life, we must find a way to live with this tension. To accept the pull, without being dragged under.


Extranjera said...

Beautiful post!
As usual, one of the things that we most love about Africa has a dark side to it.

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