30 June 2010

A tough moment

30 June 2010
A tough moment.
Yesterday I loaned another 5 mille to a high school kid who already (still) owes me 56.000 for the digital camera I had timefortea bring over. I really didn’t want to do it (loan the 5 mille). I felt so yucky about it that I was grumpy to the point of tears for several hours. Of course my aching leg contributed to that malaise as well.
My relationship with money has gotten even more precarious living here where people simply assume that I am rich because of my skin color. This strikes me as wholly unfair while at the same time devastatingly truthful. For most of my life I have been significantly less ‘well-off’ than most of my schoolmates. I’ve worked since I was a pre-teen and I take a lot of pride in being able to support myself with jobs that are bigger in social value than salary. But when it comes down to it, I know I’m making sacrifices. I could be earning a lot of money but I chose to be poor – if earning less than $3000 a year isn’t poor, I don’t know what is – and work in a difficult environment.
So when the little kid who lives at the top of the hill yells out my name as I’m puffing past him on my bike, I turn and say hello cheerfully. But when he follows up my greeting with a “donne-moi cent francs [give me 100 francs]”, I explode. Literally. I guess it’d been a tough day in Tsevie surrounded my mostly strangers and I was looking forward to my village, my own little “Cheers” where everybody knows my name. My anger was over the top. I slammed on the brakes, tires skidding on the sandy road, and demanded, “What did you just say?!”
I yelled out “I will never greet you again if you ask me for money”
“Donne-moi cent francs yovo”

I reigned in my boiling temper and instead of jumping off the bike to practice some of the corporal punishment that my teacher colleagues are always recommending, I remounted and rode off, muttering to myself.

The sheer force of my anger surprised me. I think it was partly based on shock- this is my village, people jknow me, I’ve greeted this kid many times before – where did he get the message that I’m a vending machine? I didn’t see it coming.
I know that a Togolese person would have reacted totally differently. Perhaps she would have handed over the money; if not, she would have made a little joke – “Oh, maybe tomorrow” the red cloud of anger would never have occurred to her.

We looked at average salaries in Togo the other day when I was with the new group of trainees, to help describe the economic state of the country. As a PCV I earn just a little more than a high school professor and just a little less than a state-paid doctor. Both of these professionals support families – not just their own but their whole extended family. With success comes responsibility, a successful family member is expected to take in the children of poor relatives, pay for their schooling, he is expected to take on the lion’s share of paying for family expenses like funerals, weddings, and hospital bills. A typical high school prof’s salary is 100.000, is not sufficient for all these responsibilities, so most teachers in villages have farms, own small shops, and/or offer tutoring to supplement their income. The majority of the population of course, are not professors. Based on GNP, the average amount of money an adult in Togo earns is 20.000F CFA per month. If 100.000 is not sufficient – have can 20.000 even be survivable?
So yes, I’m rich. I have disposable income. But the real reason why I’m rich is because I have an education, training, American citizenship. I can go somewhere else and succeed. A wealth of opportunity.

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