And time marches steadily onward. Officially, I have less than six months remaining, because of my early Close of Service date. What happened was Peace Corps combined my Youth Development program with the Education program, so the next stage won’t train when I did, starting in September, but in June, because the Education PCVs need to get to their posts in time for school. Thus, my replacement will arrive in late August, while I was slated to go home in November. Peace Corps doesn’t like the idea of a PCV and his/her replacement sharing an apartment because they don’t want to heap potential roommate conflict on to the full plate a new PCV is already facing, so they told us we need to pack outta here by early September… BUT, if I shack up with Sean as soon as the replacement gets here, I think I can persuade PC to let me stay a little longer… perhaps late October.
Sean and I just visited Buba’s village, Sangwa, a very small Muslim community about an hour from Wum. We spoke with the traditional ruler of rural Wum, ate some of the best beef we’ve ever had, met the family, etc. The traditional ruler is Buba’s father, a really cool guy, polygamy aside (he has five wives), and the owner of this incredible compound which houses approximately 100 people. Everyone there is very gracious and kind and curious. In Wum I’ll hear ugly cries of “white man” from kids who have seen light skin a few dozen times already. Out there, where we were probably the first white men they’ve ever seen, the kids shyly approached us, sometimes giggling, running away if we caught their eyes, creeping ever closer trying to work up the courage to come up and greet us… it was really endearing, and a nice change of pace. Then we went on a little trek to see the new Primary school and a community farm they’re working on. It was so refreshing to be out in a truly rural environment, without a trace of concrete or car exhaust. Sean and I agreed it was a place we’d definitely like to spend a few days visiting, so we made plans to come out after my project is finished. Everyone was pretty excited by the prospect of two Americans coming to stay with them for a few days, and frankly, I can’t imagine a nicer way to pass a weekend; exploring the bush, reading, eating, and sharing ideas in the company of such a humble and hospitable people sounds wonderful. It gave me a little pang of regret, and for a moment I wished I had been posted to a place like Sangwa, but I know people in similar circumstances with myriad complaints. Just gotta remember, the grass is always greener…
I will say, for whatever it’s worth, that not having a laptop has been a tremendously freeing experience. It’s interesting, even though I knew that coming home and getting sucked into a couple hours of television every night was making me unhappy while it was happening, I couldn’t help myself. It’s this strange compulsion that I’ve experienced before, and can never seem to learn from. I remember back in America I would do the same thing, and then I would force myself to go out and meet people and have fun and it would be so great and then the very next night I’d be back at home wondering what the hell happened. Since my laptop charger broke – and then the replacement laptop charger also broke – I’ve nearly doubled my book count, doubled the length of a novel I’ve been working on, spent far more time with my Wum homies, and these things make me happy. It scares me a little to think I’ll be going back to America soon, where not having a laptop is not an option, and everyone around me is sucked into their own little digital world practically 24 hours a day. I hope I’ve finally learned my lesson: I have my whole life to watch TV. I need to explore while I still have the freedom to do so.
Another interesting idea that struck me the other day, thinking about readjusting to life in America, is how comfortable my life is here. Funny thought, right? I signed up for two years of trial and hardship, but aside from the lack of certain amenities, my financial situation is far better here than it was there. The cost of living is so ridiculously cheap that my $350/month salary gives me more disposable income than I’ve ever had before. Ever. And my readjustment allowance is putting $275 in the bank every month. Yeah, if you look at the actual numbers, they seem paltry. $350/month living allowance and $7.000 readjustment for two years of service? But breaking it down, I’ve never been able to buy and save so much simultaneously. Weird to think about. To give you an idea though, I live in this 3 bedroom palace which, yes, would be denounced as a crack den in America, but the rent is $60/month, and frankly it ain’t too bad. I have a flushing toilet, consistent electricity, a couple sinks, a cold shower… whatever! Add some furniture and a few decorations and I’ve got a pleasant, expansive home for half the cost of your cell phone bill.
What really gets interesting is thinking about how uneven certain costs can be. While many things are staggeringly inexpensive, some things aren’t too far removed from Western prices. Electronics are fairly obvious, but a better example is beer. For a 22oz beer, the standard size in Cameroon, you pay $1. The average monthly wage is extremely variable and widespread supplementary / subsistence farming is a vast and unmeasurable distortion of that statistic, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s $100/month. Now, I don’t have Google in front of me, but let’s pretend the average American earns $36.000/year, or $3.000/month. If beer were the same proportion of the average income in America, one beer would cost THIRTY DOLLARS, at least. Suddenly the proliferation of cheap, homebrewed or natural alcohol makes sense. You can knock back a couple cups of palm wine for 40 cents or a litre of corn beer for 30 cents, with the same effect on your general disposition. The corn beer serves as a filling, if nutritionless, meal, to boot. If you’re really hurting, a plastic pouch of ethyl alcohol whiskey containing 1.5 shots is 20 cents, and a shot of 180 proof corn liquor will set you on your ass for 10. Now let’s look at rent. Sure, I live in a damned palace and pay $60month, but the people earning $100/month, they ain’t paying a dime over $10. More than a few creature comforts are lacking, sure, but that’s 10% of their income! In Texas I was waking up to roaches in the bed for 40% like a sucker! You may not be able to get what you want in Cameroon, but you can sure as hell get what you need.
Now let’s look at civil servants, like teachers, who live on salaries like mine. $350/month here buys a lot. Now, granted, my rent is paid separately, but I also buy all of my food and I get whiteman prices on every major purchase. What’s interesting is that all the civil servants complain about salaries I know firsthand are quite generous given the cost structure. Why? They’re paying for six, seven, ten children. That’s an uncomfortable reality people have to start recognizing. As the Cameroonian economy increasingly resembles the West, its families must follow suit.
Gapminder is a pretty nifty little application which compiles a wealth of statistical information on countries across the world and graphs them any which way you like. Wanna see how the divorce rate effects per capita beer consumption in Southeast Asia? Well, there’s a correlation vs. causation argument to be made there, but you can certainly check it out and start speculating! Anyways, a classic graph is # of children against per capita income. In every case, declining family sizes are followed by a dstinct rise in per capita income. Emerging nations have reduced their family sizes, while developing nations are still blighted by the mega-family. It’s uncanny how closely these two measures follow each other.
There are many reasons for that, most of them obvious, but one of the reasons I find particularly interesting is the obligation of extended family here. When I first came here we were all stunned my the number of huge, unfinished buildings in this country. Who is starting construction on all these buildings and then abandoning them, skeletal and foreboding? Turns out starting construction on a big building is a great way to hide your wealth from your relatives. When they come to you expecting money, which is the African way, you can point to your big building and say, “Sorry, I don’t have a franc to spare, it’s all going into this thing.” There’s this kind of vague promise of a long-term reward, but nothing real, and it keeps the wolves at bay. We were discussing how brilliant this was one day, and then one girl interjected, “You know that right now we’re all arguing for greater wealth disparity, right?” Bam. Bomb dropped. And at the time we were all scrambling for some kind of moral safe haven, but with a little time to reflect, I realized that in fact I was, and without guilt.
America needs a strong middle class. To put it callously, we’re a consumption economy and we need bodies to buy shit. Without that, revenue streams dry up and growth slows to a crawl, and suddenly no one can pay their debts because the inherent assumption of debt – a bigger future – turns out to be a fiction. But (and this is where I start getting a little speculative and quite possibly wrong) I’m not sure that’s what Cameroon needs. Cameroon needs infrastructure, and 19 million people earning a few more dollars a day have no better leveraging position on the government than they do now. Huge industries have the muscle to tangle with the government, get critical roads built, make power grids more consistent, improve trade legislation, etc. I may be missing an aircraft carrier of a point, but sitting here in my bed philosophizing, this makes sense to me.
I realize this post has devolved into a series of vaguely connected musings, but this is all you’re getting this month so eat up or go to bed hungry. One of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had recently was with a couple of big shots at Orange, a big cell phone network here. I was in there trying to get some publicity money for my project, and after the meeting the two guys I was speaking to wanted to chat politics. A dangerous move for me, but I was in a listening mood… and I figured it might sway them to help me out if I left a good impression, so sue me.
They had a lot of positive things to say about the late Libyan dictator, Gaddafi, as many Cameroonians do, but these guys articulated their points far more convincingly than usual. They argued that Gaddafi was interested in promoting the welfare of his people, and he wasn’t going to sell out to Western governments in order to enrich himself. He sold natural resources at fair market value, and minimized exploitation of those resources by foreign powers. Then they prompted me to look at Paul Biya, the Cameroonian “president” (read: dictator) for more than thirty-two years. Why is he still there? Why aren’t people doing something about the appalling mismanagement of their country?
They argued that when the leader of a developing country plays ball, Western governments leave him alone. When someone tries to stand up to that kind of exploitation, he gets knocked down; foreign powers find an opposition group and pump in money and guns and technology and propaganda until he falls. Now, we all know Gaddafi was a violent and despicable despot who killed his own people, but where did we get that information? From our media. And I can’t remember the last time I thought a report by Fox News or MSNBC was considerate, credible, and unbiased… never? Yeah, never. I don’t doubt that Gaddafi was an unsavory character, but how much was that information exaggerated and sensationalized to make what was happening not only palatable but laudable to Western audiences? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe not at all, but once it’s there you can’t ignore it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a third-world dictator has been propped up or taken down for economic interests, and it certanly wouldn’t be the first time the media has misinformed public opinion.
All this can easily be dismissed as so much lunatic conspiracy, and maybe it is, but let’s strip away all the sinister faces and malicious intentions and smoky boardrooms and secret societies, all the bullshit which is patently and obviously false. Let’s think about money and politics and the media. About blurred lines. America, as the world superpower, is undoubtedly doing some less-than-outstanding shit behind the scenes in the name keeping the economy healthy, or keeping voters happy. The people who do these things probably think that the average person is too unsophisticated or uninformed to understand the nuances that justify these actions, and not without cause; a well-crafted media blitz can quickly reduce a nuanced issue into a one-sided, career-destroying smear campaign. I’m gonna pick a tough example here, and hope that I argue it well enough to make a half-decent point. Let me preface that I am not justifying or condoning or agreeing with this example, but I think it makes for an interesting case study.
The Iraq war was publicly denounced as a thinly veiled resource grab. Yeah, sure, democracy and freedom (and WMDs?), whatever, now where’s the oil? Viewed in just about every light, that’s prety awful: imperialistic, domineering, reckless, arrogant, barbaric. How can you justify sacrificing human lives in the name of resources, especially as the wealthiest nation in the world? How can you justify bullying other nations with a bloated military? How can you justify
disregarding the rest of the world because fuck you, we’re America? The list goes on. Now ask the same people asking those very legitimate questions what it’s like to live in a recession. Not the best, right? Teetering under the weight of impossible debts, frantically searching for jobs that don’t exist, watching pensions evaporate and homes foreclose. Being the man in charge during times like these doesn’t win you any popularity contests. This particular recession is not driven by resource constraints, but it could be. Look back to the oil spikes in the 70s and you get a grim picture of what can happen when our thirsty economy is deprived of its lifeblood. When the cost of oil goes up, the cost of everything goes up. People buy less, strangled revenues force companies to scale back, jobs are lost, less money is available, debts mount , people buy even less, no new investments are made, and a vicious cycle is born. You don’t want to be a politician when that happens. So you make some tough choices. Probably the wrong choices. But I’d bet everything I own that most of the people who denounce the Iraq war wouldn’t think twice about ripping some politician a new asshole if rising oil prices started feeding a cycle like the one I just descibed. I bet the media wouldn’t flinch, either, and if that’s the case, who’s to blame? The usual suspects, yes, I’m NOT absolving them. What I am saying is that there are a few other people who should be lining up for mugshots with them.
…Which brings us back to Gaddafi. Where things get sticky is trying to claim the government and the media were colluding to mislead the American people. Again, I don’t believe in any conspiracy nonsense. That being said, in an era defined by PACs and interest groups and horizontal integration, an era in which politicians would do well to wear the logos of their sponsors on their suits like NASCAR drivers, the influence of money is as undeniable as is it is impenetrable. I’m not priveleged enough to know how it all goes down, but I’m not naive enough to assume the best. There has to be a reason that Africans almost universally love Gadaffi. They’re not ignorant; in fact, many of them are better informed than the average American. Which forces crafted one perception here, and another there? I think the craziest thing about the Age of Information – expansive, accessible,
unprecedented information – is that things have become so complex, you couldn’t use all the information in the world to tell your head from your asshole.