And the Answer Is (Drum roll, please)…

And the Answer Is (Drum roll, please)…

As I said, I asked myself, if we looked backwards more (or more at people we think are backwards), would the New World define itself by things, by whatever is new?

I asked this question because it has become obvious to me that the availability of stuff is at the heart of the difference between The West and Africa: stuff as in aromatherapy candles as well as stuff as in blood pressure medicine. Quickly, we come to the uninformed observation: look what culture can achieve if it is focused on stuff, on production, on consumption… ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

Well, duh.

But what we miss, because the daily price of crude oil on the evening news broadcast too quickly follows the small snip-its of news about violence and corruption on this continent - is what Africa is like outside the towns, the political strongholds, the strategically (and structurally)-adjusted economies.

‘So,’ you ask, ‘show me the goods!’

But I can’t. Because there literally isn’t anything to show you except people. And maybe livestock or pumpkins and maize on the cob.

But that’s the point. People, I mean.

What we miss in commercializing even service is the great number of relationships that can be struck if the monetary transaction does not exist. In Zambia, service in a restaurant can be slow and this is really, really, really frustrating… if you are from the west. But for Zambians, it is a chance to better get to know those around you, living in your community. There is no money exchanged for service so any interest between parties is genuine and that is kind of strange. But it is central to the point. There are a hundreds of times a day when speed and service (for threat of loss of job or for the bribe of a good tip) that communication between strangers is rushed or lost all together. You can buy something in a store in Chicago without a single word being exchanged. In Africa, however, greetings are very important because creating and cultivating social relationships is the whole point of living and every person counts.

That means you can drive to any village, introduce yourself and expect food, accommodation and people to stop what they are doing just to talk to you and participate in your research. Sure, it’s a novelty and you feel special… until they stop working with you to greet and visit for an hour or two with the next person to enter the homestead!

As you move into the village, the transactions change. People rarely save money in the bank: it takes too long and costs too much to get there and why horde a currency that could be worth nothing with the next political regime (consider Zimbabwe’s average monthly inflation- 1000 percent a month this year).

Instead, people invest in other people. An uncle might invest in his nephew’s school fees and later if some of his crops fail, he ‘cashes in’ on his favor. ‘Investing’ and ‘cashing in’ are just applications of financial terminology to cultural values and are certainly inappropriate but they help to highlight the difference. People don’t live independently from each other and you can see this the most when finances and basic needs come into play.

To return to the difference in availability of stuff, when people don’t really operate independently of one another, they don’t consume products that emphasize the same ideals of individual style, flair or that prove you follow the fads, fit in with the hip people or otherwise are part of a particular sub-culture by wearing Nikes or L.L. Bean. Africans already intimately know what sub-culture they belong to. So when they buy things, often it is with a group in mind. Or when they buy things as individuals, they use it differently than we would in the west. For example, I saw a lovely tailored pink and white herringbone lambswool ladies knee length winter coat sported by a 90 year old man. It was funny but it was also a really good quality coat.

For Africans time, money and effort just isn’t wasted on buying stuff. Or when stuff is bought, it is given as a gift with the knowledge that next time it will be your turn. The gift, of course, is just another representation of your social circle- how many people care about you.

So, what we miss by buying ourselves a lot of stuff is spending time with other people and helping them whilst knowing that it will come back to us next time.

I am not sure that I am ready to give up fast restaurant service when I am really hungry and cranky but I do know that being in a place where there just isn’t a lot of stuff teaches you a new way to value things and people and how people make connections with each other through things, rather than just keeping stuff for themselves. This is both a continuation of some cultural ideas as well as the product of poverty. And don’t get me wrong: there are certainly some Africans who want nothing more than a pair of Nikes but perhaps not to keep in the long term.

‘It’s the social economy, stupid.’

The rate at which things get done in Zambia.

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