26 August 2008b
I am at my house in Mission Tové. I’ve never blogged about my housing situation here before. When I came for my post visit, I stayed in a house with a family because my house wasn’t finished yet. I assumed “finished” meant they hadn’t yet put up the netting in the windows, they needed to fix the paint job, change the locks on the doors, etc.
I asked the father of the host family to show me the house on my last day in village. That was an awfully depressing way to end my visit.
People will often take severeal years to build a house here. Sometimes these houses are like having a savings account- whenever you’ve got a little extra money you put it into the account and after several years, you’ll have something worthwhile.
It is rare here for the average Togolese person to have a bank account. This is not despite what many people think, because no-one earns enough to set something aside (although there are certainly many who do not). One reasons is lack of access to a place to securely save money. This problem is being tackled by the growth of microfinance institutions across the country (the one in Mission Tové is IDH). There is not yet enough confidence in the microfinances. Nearly everyone has a story about a family member or friend who put their money into a collective account, etc. and lost it all when the manager skipped town. Confidence building can only happen over time and with the build-up on individual successes passed on by word-of-mouth.
The other reason people do not start bank accounts or do any saving is because of family pressures. If one family member is financially successful he (or more rarely, she) is expected to help support the rest of the extended family. This support ranges from taking in a cousin’s child and paying her school fees and providing room and board to supplying the capital for a business venture, to paying for an exceedingly lavish funeral or marriage ceremony, etc. Rather than helping to even out the rich and the poor and bringing everyone to a more equal footing, unfortunately this system only seems to have succeeded in keeping everyone poor. It prevents people from being able to put aside money to save (which could then be used for emergencies or big projects) because they are expected to pay not only for ceremonies but also to support the daily lives of their (huge) extended family.
But I’ve gone pretty far off my original topic – building houses is often a good savings method. One does the work where there’s a little extra money and that means the family can’t demand it and a new investment has been started.
Therefore, as I’ve traveled through Togo, I’ve frequently seen houses that are only four walls with holes where the roof, the windows and the door should/will be. Often the walls have been up so long with no further work that I can see opportunistic trees growing up through where the roof will be.
This is what my house looked like when I saw it on the last day of my post visit.
Except- it looked like they had just pulled up all the trees (the ground was churned up) and plopped a roof on top.
So when they said not “finished” yet what they actually meant was there were no windows, no doors, no plaster on the walls, no floor. With only four weeks to go before I was to move into the house, I cried.
Current Reading: Turbulence by Jia Pingwa (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt)