From the rich to the poor (or, what I learned in Africa)

by J.D. Roth

After 36 hours of travel (followed by twelve hours of sleep), Kris and I are back from vacation. For the past three weeks, we’ve been exploring southern Africa. With a tour group, we visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. We had a great time, and we learned a lot. It was well worth the expense. In fact, I loved what I saw so much, that I’m eager to return. (On my next trip, I’ll probably aim for Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.)

Because it’s now ingrained in my being, I spent the entire trip looking at things through the lens of personal finance. This wasn’t tough. We saw a lot of wealth and poverty.

From the Rich to the Poor

On our first day in South Africa, as the tour bus set out from our hotel in Johannesburg to nearby Pretoria, our tour guide interrupted his narrative to say something strange.

“Before we go too far,” Brian said, “I want to thank you: Thank you for coming to Africa. Tourism is the biggest transfer of money from the rich to the poor in the world. For every seven people who come to South Africa, roughly one job is created. So, thank you.”

I thought this was odd at the time, so I pulled out my notebook and jotted down the quote verbatim. (When I travel, I always carry a small notebook to capture quotes and impressions.) During the course of our three weeks in southern Africa, I kept coming back to this notion, to the idea that tourism isn’t exploitive (as I’ve always believed), but actually beneficial to countries and communities.

Entrance to Robben Island

Brian wasn’t the only one to mention this. Several of our local guides brought up the subject too. On our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for nearly eighteen years, our guide echoed Brian’s statement. “For every six tour buses to visit Robben Island,” he told us, “one job is created. Thank you for visiting.” And on the final afternoon of our trip, we took a tour through the “informal settlement” in Langa Township. (“Informal settlement” is a polite term for a squatter camp or shantytown.) Our local guide — who lives in Langa Township — expressed heartfelt thanks.

Morning at the Victoria Falls Hotel
The Victoria Falls Hotel is gorgeous.

Despite assurances from Brian and the local guides, I felt guilty a lot of the time. I felt ashamed that I have so much and the people I met had so little. Yes, they were happy and friendly and giving, but consider this calculus:

So, three nights in this posh hotel cost the same as seven months of local wages. Worse, most Zimbabweans don’t even have a job. Unemployment in the country runs at nearly 80%. 80%!! One in five people has a regular job. Perhaps you can see why, despite our guides’ gratitude, I often felt ashamed to be there.

Valentine's Day in Vic Falls

The Open Market

On Valentine’s Day, my favorite day of the trip, our group experienced three cultural outings.

In the morning, we visited the Victoria Falls open market, where local residents sell hand-made jewelry, rugs, statues, and knick-knacks. Before we entered the market, Brian gave us a piece of advice: “Think of this as a cultural experience, not a shopping opportunity,” he said. “And don’t just give these folks money. They don’t want your handouts. They want to earn a living.

I heeded Brian’s advice, and did my best to learn more about the vendors I spoke with. At one stall, Joshua taught me about haggling. He explained how the process works, and where you might use it. (You don’t haggle at the grocery store, but you can at the fresh food market.)

I asked how much a carved hippo cost. “Thirty-five dollars,” Joshua said. He quickly added, “But that’s just my starting price. Now you make an offer.” I eventually bought the hippo for $12. I felt guilty for not paying $35.

A fellow called Moreblessing (no joke) talked to me about how his family produced and sold the items he had on display. (His brother had a stall right next to him.)

On Names

In Zimbabwe, names are the same as ours — Francis, Richard, Jacqueline, etc. — except when they’re not. Some people have African names, as you might expect, and others have names derived from English nouns and adjectives: Reason, Accurate, Blessed, Moreblessing, and Garlic (also no joke). We didn’t meet anyone named Precious, though.

Several of the fellows (I only spoke with men) told me that they needed to sell something because this was the only way they could get money to put food on the table. I asked Brian if this were true. “It is,” he said. “Some of these guys may only make one or two sales per week.”

I bought too many carved hippos, and I wish I could have bought more. No, I don’t need a dozen carved hippos — it’s just Stuff — but I wanted to help these people. (Some members of our group traded their clothes and shoes instead of using money. Brian says that in many ways, this is more useful to the vendors.)

Quiz at the Chinotimba Primary School

The Primary School

During the afternoon of our cultural day, we visited the Chinotimba Primary School, where about 25 children sang and danced for us. When they finished, we had a chance to chat with them. (English is the primary language in the countries we visited, another remnant of the colonial past.) One boy was fascinated by my camera, so I let him borrow it; he ran around the room, snapping photos of all his friends.

Before we left the school, we had a chance to donate school supplies. Kris had brought some pens, pencils, small notebooks, and inflatable globes. I was unprepared. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the visit. I pulled aside Francis, our local guide (who had attended this school when he was a boy and now has a daughter who’s a student here), and showed him the books I was carrying in my bag. “Could the school use these at all?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“Even these?” I asked, holding up four digest-sized comic books I’d brought to read on the plane.

Francis laughed. “Yes,” he said. “They’ll love them. The kids know who Superman is.” So, there’s a grade school in Zimbabwe that has some comic books from my collection now. The school principal, who collected the money and supplies our group donated, seemed touched and grateful.

Students at the Chinotimba Primary School
Photo taken by a boy at Chinotimba Primary School.

Back on the bus, many tour members talked about how sad it was that these kids had so little. Brian tried to squash this sentiment.

“Look at the children,” he said. “Are these kids unhappy? I’ll wager that you’ll see the children are happy. They’re happier than any of the children in South Africa. Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff. It’s not one kid has an iPod and another one doesn’t. They’ve got nothing, and we know that. But they’ve all got nothing. They’re all the same.”

Brian wasn’t arguing that it’s good for these people to live in poverty. He was trying to make it clear that it’s possible to be happy even without a lot of Stuff, and that if you give something to one person and not another, you sow the seeds of envy.

Note: Parents pay $25 per term to send a child to the Chinotimba Primary School. There are more expensive schools available, but only government officials can afford them. So, if you want your kids to be educated — and most Zimbabweans do — you spend $75 a year (or $100 — I’m not sure how many terms there are) to send each of them to school. Now, go back and re-read the calculus of our hotel again. For the cost of two nights in that place, I could probably fund a child’s entire grade-school education.

Dinner at Home

In the evening, we made a quick trip to a nearby food market, where we spent a few minutes wandering the stalls, looking at the items for sale. (I found two women who were selling used boxes! Because my family owns a small box factory here in Portland, I asked to snap their photo.)

Women selling boxes in Victoria Falls

After this brief detour, we split into small groups. Each group went to the home of a local resident, where we were served a typical Zimbabwean meal. (Actually, it was a little atypical: We were given the equivalent of both lunch and dinner. Plus, our meal contained more meat than the families usually eat.)

Kris and I dined with Blessed and her family, which owns two homes on adjoining properties. “We are a family of sixteen,” Blessed told us, “and we are still expanding.” She says that “uncles, aunties, misses, cousins” live in these two houses.

Blessed served us hominy in peanut butter, pumpkin leaves in peanut sauce, and sadza with chicken stew. Sadza is a cornmeal pap; it’s Zimbabwe’s staple food. In fact, Blessed’s family eats so much sadza that they buy a 50kg (~110 pound) bag of cornmeal every month. (I think the “mielie pap” we saw in Botswana and South Africa is the same as sadza, but I can’t swear to it.) Fish is expensive, so it isn’t eaten often, and meat seems to be used as a flavoring agent, not a main ingredient.

As we ate, we talked with Blessed and her two helpers, which included a friend and a cousin. Blessed told us that her family is actually fairly well off compared to many in the area. Doreen, who is eighteen, is nearly finished with high school. She just got her exam results. Because she did well, she’ll soon be going to university, and then (she hopes) to medical school. So, in contrast to a lot of what we’d seen on this cultural day, this family seemed to be on a path toward relative prosperity.

This six-minute video mostly features footage from our cultural day.

The Bride Price

On the bus ride from Botswana to Zimbabwe, Francis, our local guide, talked about marriage customs in his tribe. Just two generations ago, it was common for men to have several wives. This still happens, but less often, especially in the city. Still, some of the old ways continue. When a man is ready for marriage, for example, he pays a bride price to the father of the woman he intends to marry. This is paid in cattle. (Francis actually called this a dowry, but that’s technically not correct.)

When Francis was married, he paid nine cows plus $700 for his wife. Our bus driver Ernest paid seven cows for his wife.

If a young man can’t pay the bride price, he pays in installments. If the man is unable to pay the full bride price by the time his own daughters get married, he has to use half of their bride wealth to repay the outstanding debt. And if the debt doesn’t get repaid in his lifetime, the responsibility falls to the man’s oldest son. In this way, it’s possible for complex chains of bride debt to exist.

Francis feels lucky — he has three daughters, which means he will eventually be a wealthy man. (In theory.) One day, he’ll have a lot of cattle.

“What do you do with the cattle?” one member of our group asked. “Are they for meat? Do you use them for milk?”

“In our African culture,” Francis said, “your cows are your bank. You can’t eat your bank. You have to save them.”

“What about people who live in the city?” another member of our group asked. “Where do they keep their cattle?”

Brian, the tour manager, explained that in places where it’s impossible to keep actual cattle (such as Johannesburg), the bride price has become abstracted. Some pay it in gold coins called Kruggerands. Others buy “bonds” (Brian’s word, not mine) that represent the cows. Brian says he’s been in homes where the certificates representing the cows are framed and displayed on the wall, like a stock certificate.

Soweto shantytown
An informal settlement (or “shantytown”) in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Informal Settlements

e ended our African adventure in Cape Town, a vibrant city on the southwestern tip of the continent. We took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, walked along the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (which is packed with shops and restaurants), and wandered through the Company’s Garden and Greenmarket Square.

On our final afternoon, we went on a three-hour tour of the local townships. To quote Wikipedia:

During the Apartheid era, blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Separate townships were established for each of the three designated non-white race groups (blacks, coloreds, and Indians)…

Townships sometimes have large informal settlements nearby. Despite their origins in apartheid South Africa, today the terms township, location, and informal settlements are not used pejoratively.

Townships are permanent communities. As part of a township, there might be one or more “informal settlements”. You may know of informal settlements by less flattering terms, such as squatter camps or shantytowns.

We spent most of our time in Langa Township, where a young woman nicknamed Sugar (who lives in Langa) described how people work and live. As in any community, there are different levels of wealth in Langa. Some folks have relatively nice homes, with yards and garages and fences; we were told these belong to people who have university degrees: teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers. These homes would seem small in the U.S., but are positively luxurious compared to the shacks in the informal settlements just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sugar led us on a short walking tour of some of the government-built housing in Langa. We were able to see two homes. I didn’t see much of the second because I stopped to talk with a girl in the first house (I couldn’t understand her African name, I’m afraid). I started by asking her about her life, but she was actually more curious about me. Where did I come from? Did I like Africa? And so on.

Girl in a Hostel in Langa, Cape Town
I wanted to know more about this girl; she wanted to know more about me.

I learned so much from this three-hour tour that I can’t possibly share it all here. Besides, you’re probably bored after reading this far. Instead, I’ve compiled this 9-minute video that features Sugar and Sophia (our guides) talking about the daily lives of township residents, especially from a financial perspective. I’ve done my best to annotate things to head off confusion.

This video is the cornerstone of this entire post.

I wish more of our trip could have been focused on meeting the people. While others appreciated the birds and the animals and the spectacular scenery, I got so much out of our brief interactions with actual South Africans and Zimbabweans.

Note: I found two great write-ups of Langa Township tours. One wonders if these tours treat the poor like zoo animals, but notes township residents don’t seem to mind. (This is what our guides told us, too — the residents like us to see how they live.) The other is from an up-close-and-personal walking tour, the kind I wish I’d taken.

Guilt is Not Productive

Because this trip was arranged through a tour company, there were a couple of obligatory shopping stops: one at a jewelry company and one at an ostrich farm. Kris and I bought nothing at either place (except pellets to feed the ostriches). Neither of us is interested in jewelry or ostrich leather goods.

Ostriches are dangerous
Ostriches are dangerous — unless you ply them with food pellets.

Others might have liked to buy something, but didn’t feel good doing so. “I’d feel guilty spending $320 on an ostrich-skin purse,” one woman said at dinner one night. “Especially after the poverty we witnessed in Zimbabwe. I’d rather give $300 to a family in Zimbabwe and then buy a $20 purse at Goodwill.”

As I’ve mentioned already, at times I felt guilty too. It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’re staying at a hotel where the average room runs $618 a night — and meanwhile, half a mile from this posh palace, men and women are scratching to make ends meet.

What is my moral obligation to these people? Do I have one? Should I feel guilty for spending money on tourism? Or, as our guides suggested, should I be comforted by the fact that I’m participating in a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor? What productive ways can I help aside from just throwing money at the problem?

I don’t have answers to these questions.

Tip: How rich are you compared to the rest of the world? Check out the Global Rich List. You’re probably richer than you think.

Ultimately, however, I’ve realized that guilt is not productive. Guilt doesn’t accomplish anything. I can’t change who I am or the circumstances I’ve been born into. I’ve made the most of what I have: I’ve been lucky, and I’ve worked hard to build upon that luck. I can’t change this, and I can’t regret it.

Instead, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do something with this hand that I’ve been dealt. Do what? I don’t know — and I’m not sure I need to know right now. As I travel, I’m becoming more aware of the world around me, and I feel like maybe there’s something I can contribute to make it a better place. I’m not sure what that something is, but I’m willing to be patient until I discover it.

Reminder: As usual, I’ll be posting my travel diary at my personal site. The first couple of installments are already up.

Updated: 01 March 2011

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
Copyright © 1994 - 2022 by J.D. Roth