Gaffe Man / Minimalism follow-up

Hand me the Zuse Clear Etched, Computer Coded Toaster, please!

Yesterday, while at my my friend’s place in Yopougon, I managed to do a Joe Biden, by asking where the light switch for the bathroom was.  I got the answer that there is no light in the bathroom.  And shortly after that I almost asked if I could heat up a mini-pizza in the microwave.   Gahh!

So, more things to add to the list from the last post:  A reasonably well equiped kitchen with a microwave oven, and lights in the bathroom.

Continue reading “Gaffe Man / Minimalism follow-up”


Big questions

Staying with people living on a couple of dollars a day makes it easy to think about almost philosophical questions such as what really makes one happy or as asked on Freestyle Mind: “What would you do all day if you wouldn’t have to worry about money or other things?”

In the New York Times there was recently an excellent article called But Will It Make You Happy about people simplifying their lives, reducing their posessions to 100 items, having more free time, and we hope, becoming happier in the process. Continue reading “Minimalism”

Observations in Abidjan

A few observations from my first few days in Abidjan:

  • There are practically no roadblocks any longer. Some say it’s because of the upcoming elections, but either way it’s good news, and I hope it’ll last.  Corruption and congestion creating tolls on intra-city travel just make no sense, unless – I guess – you are a president/dictator trying to make it difficult to make a coup d’etat or wanting to give your military forces an extra source of income.
  • The are very few Europeans, or ahem, white people, around, except in – I presume – some enclaves (like zone 4) which I havent visited yet. I criss crossed the whole city today visiting Adjame, Yopougon and Cocody and didn’t see a single one. Guess the travel warnings for the Ivory Coast by western foreign departments plays a role.  Well, the more opportunities for the few of us that are here!

    The non-africans I did see included a nice gentleman from India working in the pharmaceutical industry, some Vietnamese people working at  (you guessed it) a Vietnamese restaurant and a Lebanese man who had stayed here since the war in Lebanon.

  • I missed a perfect photo opportunity when visiting a couple-dollars-a-day family in Yopougon where three children in their mid-teens were completely absorbed playing the real time strategy game Age of Empires on their ten year old computer.   This seems to be something new, these people just didnt have computers when I last checked. Now I have seen plenty of shops selling second hand (or more likely third or fourth hand) stationary computers.  And, well, I spent a big part of my mid-teens playing strategy games on my stationary computer, so hats’ off for those kids!

Here are some more photos from my friend’s place in Yopougon from the previous post:

The ceiling. It might actually just have been rain instead of hail, but it sounded like stones falling from the sky.
The laptop is mine, and the IKEA lamp behind it is a gift from me, but the rest is the real deal.

Not far away from Africa at all

Finally in Abidjan

I’m currently at a friend’s place in the middle of Yopougon in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. Unlike the super-luxury hotel in the Austrian alps two posts ago, here there are lightbulbs instead of lamps, the roof is partly of aluminum (making the hail currently coming down sounding like armageddon), the walls are concrete painted in light blue, there is no hot water, no air condition and generally just not much stuff at all. Outside there is a court occassionally smelling sewage (havent figured out where the smell comes from yet) where tons of children play and make noises practically from dawn to dusk except right now due to the hail.

On the plus side there is:

  • Adsl internet broadband which I’m using to write this post.  It’s fast enough to make good quality skype calls to say Sweden, and with a bit of lag it’s possible to watch youtube videos.
  • A computer
  • A small tv
  • An en-suit bathroom with a standard toilet, but with a shower tube missing the nozzle
  • A fan, making lots of noise but keeping the temperature down
  • Fairly reliable electricity by West African standards
  • A refrigerator, and a gas-bottle powered cooking facility
  • A sofa, a bed, a table and a cupboard
  • A pet turtle that has no cage and has been roaming around the dwelling freelysince 2002 when it was purchased for 3,500 CFA Francs (about 6€).

And well, billions of people live like this.  Guess it’s more than one dollar a day (electricity, water and internet bills are roughly covered by 1 dollar a day), but less than 10 dollars a day.

When I was 19 I actually tried to live ten days under this type of conditions in Dakar in Senegal.  Then, there was no internet or computer  and the toilet was just a hole in the ground shared by an extended family of 26 (I counted them all, but never managed, despite trying hard, to memorise all names).

Upsides of life on a couple of dollars a day

Visiting the toilet was never a pleasant experience, but in total those ten days absolutely fantastic. But the ten days were great partly due to me knowing that if I got sick I had access to the best health care available in Senegal, that I could move into a nice hotel anytime I wanted, that I had a flight ticket back to resuming developed-world life as an engineering student in Sweden.  So it was a bit like experiencing the the upsides of couple-dollars-a-day living without  the downsides.

And there really are pretty big upsides:   There is virtually no loneliness, and there is something with having tons of free time on your hands combined with living close to other people and having few distractions, that make bonds between people very strong. Some of the people I met there are still among my best friends. People there just had a lot of fun, and on the surface appeared to be happier than most people in the West. And as a young single guy going out partying in Dakar with Senegalese friends that knew all the best places was pretty outstanding.

And the downside

I didn’t experience the downside of couple-dollars-a-day-life, but I did see it.  Everybody had enough to eat, and there was no stress over going hungry, but there were plenty of – somewhat hidden – stress over getting stuck in life, to not have the means to found one’s own household, to not afford getting married (for guys), and to never get a stable income or a career.  All the young people said that if they had a chance to go and live in Europe they’d take it. There was a married couple (forced to marry because they had a child when they were both 15) sharing a room with three others.

Medical costs was a problem, if somebody needed costly medical help, somebody else in the extended family might have to sell some of his/her few assets, making it difficult to save anything.  On the other hand if someone needed a flight ticket to Europe, everybody would try to chip in.

Due to the large number of people living there plus many visitors, including “griots” which are some sort of West African bards that deliver history as a poets, praise singers, and wandering musicians, everybody needed to lock up or hide their personal belongings, and even the refrigerator was kept locked.


The extended family I stayed with had a pretty clear hierarchy, with the mother of the main couple at the top and the most distant relatives taken in when they had no place to stay at the bottom.  The father of the main couple was polygamous and had two other wifes and some mistresses as well, and was mostly absent.   Among the the people at the bottom was a woman that had to do all household work asked by those higher up in the hierarchy, in practically a mirror image of  “Leila” described by Åsne Seierstad in The Bookkeeper of Kabul.

Myself, I was placed partly pretty close to the top of the hierarchy and partly outside it.  I wasnt included in making important family decisions (obviously), but if I had put on something on the tv (bbc world news felt like my only link to the outside world) nobody would ever ask me to change it, and any time anybody asked me to do anything it wasn’t real work, but more of the it would be fun to see the crazy toubab we have living among us try this-kind of work. I remember them making a hole in the sand in the yard, placing a perfectly alive goat so the neck was over the hole, giving me an axe and asking me to cut the neck, which I cowardly backed out of.

Societal norms in Greece

Today’s must read is a story in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis about coruption and societal norms in Greece as well as monks making the real estate deal of the decade.

Apparently things in Greece operate a lot like in the Ivory Coast.  Excerpts:

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

But the place does not behave as a collective;  It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good.

Where waste ends and theft begins almost doesn’t matter; the one masks and thus enables the other. It’s simply assumed, for instance, that anyone who is working for the government is meant to be bribed. People who go to public health clinics assume they will need to bribe doctors to actually take care of them. Government ministers who have spent their lives in public service emerge from office able to afford multi-million-dollar mansions and two or three country homes.

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases. “The one who does not want to pay, and who gets caught, just goes to court,” he says. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the activity in the Greek economy that might be subject to the income tax goes officially unrecorded, he says, compared with an average of about 18 percent in the rest of Europe.

I wonder how much of economic activity subject to income tax (or tax in general) in the Ivory Coast goes unrecorded. Clearly more than 30-40%.  The most striking difference between the Ivory Coast and Greece seem otherwise to be that the Ivory Coast has not been able to borrow almost without limit at German government bond rates for a decade, thus not creating a gigantic government debt load.

And a similarity is that one can have great economic growth even in a low trust environment with an inefficient and corrupt public sector and government, but maybe not with bad demographics and a large debt load that has to be paid back to some extent (as opposed to be written off via the HIPC initiative)

Vatopaidi Monastery

The Issue of Trust – follow up

Not Polyannas

I found a quite interesting paper called Not Polyannas: High Generalized Trust Predicts Lie Detection Ability by two researchers at the University of Toronto.

It’s about an experiment where participants first make a web survey that measures their generalized trust, ie if they generally trust other people.

People vary in their trusting propensities: Some, who assume that others are generally trustworthy, make themselves vulnerable to their counterparts until evidence challenges their trustworthiness assumptions; others assume that people are generally untrustworthy and act accordingly until their counterparts demonstrate their trustworthiness gradually over time.

Then participants watched videos of simulated job interviews in which half of the interviewees were truthful, and the other half told lies to make them appear as strong candidates for the job. The participants were asked to make judgements about each interviewee including whether the interviewee had lied, how confident they were about this conclusion, to evaluate the interviewees overall trustworthiness and honesty, and whether they would hire the interviewee.


Contrary to popular belief, it turned out that high trusters were better lie detectors than low trusters, less gullible, and formed more appropriate impressions and hiring intentions.

The paper says the following about the reasons behind the observed result:

Yamagishi (2001) has theorized that generalized trust is a form of social intelligence that can be highly adaptive, counter to game theory’s predictions. His model suggests that high trusters, who take more social risks and are, therefore, more vulnerable to exploitation, obtain more differentiating social data and learn more, e.g., ‘‘Ah, this is what someone who will deceive me does.’’ In contrast, by defending themselves from possible exploitation, low trusters seem to be suspicious of everyone: They send signals that limit the development of potentially beneficial relationships and, therefore, in the absence of differentiating social data, they learn less about distinguishing trustworthy from untrustworthy others. Thus, by defending themselves from the costs associated with exploitation, low trusters can incur potentially massive opportunity costs.
…three potential adaptive explanations for a positive relationship between generalized trust and social intelligence . First, high generalized trust drives social risk taking, and the possibility of exploitation pushes high trusters to invest in learning how to identify people who are not trustworthy. Low trusters need no such skills because a social posture of defensiveness is a reliable (if costly) exploitation prophylactic. Second, advanced sensitivity to trustworthiness cues reduces a person’s vulnerability to detrimental consequences. Those who are less sensitive are better off assuming that unknown others are generally untrustworthy, leading to less generalized trust among the less socially intelligent. Assuming that people are liars prevents a person from being duped. In contrast, being effectively sensitive makes it safe to assume that others generally tell the truth because this sensitivity will help detect a lie before a person falls victim to it.

So the paper is saying that those that generally trust other people have greater social intelligence, defined as —‘‘the ability to understand own and other people’s internal state and use that understanding in social relations’’ which leads to benefits in many walks of life.

One important point is that low trusters lose out on opportunities not taken. In a business contexts this would mean missed out deals, investments and business relationships. Business is in many aspects based on trust.

To trust or not to trust

As discussed in the Issue of Trust post, the incentives for dishonesty are much stronger in a developing country like the Ivory Coast, and consequently it makes more sense to have lower trust in others.

On the other hand the benefits and opportunities from having high trust are tremendous, so when doing business in the Ivory Coast one has to handle a balancing act between trusting people, and avoiding being duped. I’d say handling of this is one of the most important factors for business success in a place like the Ivory Coast.

It would be interesting to make the  experiment of the Not Polyannas paper in the Ivory Coast. My guess is that if the high and low trust levels are redefined lower, one would get the same result, but who knows.

As far away from Africa as it gets

Lately I have been at a corporate event at a  conference hotel in  the Austrian alps.  Tomorrow there is a programme point involving taking a funicular up to a mountain, walking around a bit, socializing while eating wienerschnitzel and drinking some really good beer. So, ehm yes, sometimes it’s very hard to complain about the day job.

Anyhow, in the programme above this point I read:

## Start of mandatory event for all participants ##

Mandatory fun in other words. Only in German-speaking places…     Culturally speaking, if the Ivory Coast and Africa is at one end of the spectrum, this got to be pretty close to the other end.

Absolutely no woro woros in sight