Posted by: Martin | September 12, 2010

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.

Hierarchy

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.

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