How poor are Africans? Part 1: Life in the village

I recently got a question (and I met many people who think the same – hence the reason for starting this expedition); the question was something among the lines: ‘’How is it with the poverty in Africa? Why people don’t work? Why they still have so many children?’’

I decided to write (with time) few articles explaining the ‘poverty phenomenon’ in Africa. By no means I am trying to say that this is how it is. I will try to explain things from my subjective experience with people, books I read, villages I visited and so on. The first part, I would like to focus on the village life - and I mean the proper, rural, poor life in the village. By now, I hope I showed you that there is no ONE Africa, but rather over 50 countries with different level of economical, social and political developments and that even within each country, large differences exist.

For me, the village – rural life is very similar across all the countries. It is also the place where clear majority of the NGOs and charities operate. The second large area of focus are townships (but that maybe later).

 

Setting

Most of the people in the village have piece of land which they work on throughout their lives. They might have inherited the land from their parents or in some countries where land is in abundance, they would clear a piece of land nearby the village for themselves.

The work available in the village is limited. Some people (young and strong) can work as daily workers on the field. This is seasonal and very much depends on the size of the farms. Usually, the case would be that during the harvesting and planting season (the two most labour-intensive seasons) the family would use all their members – often including children – to work on the farm. Furthermore, farmers would usually help each other – ‘’I will work for you today, and you come to my field tomorrow.’’

Working Hard

My Doctor always makes fun of me, wanting to ‘go and help in Africa where people just sit under the tree and don’t do anything.’ So how it is with all that sitting?

In the village, the only thing farmers can do is to farm. Obviously, the workload very much depends on the season and size of their farm. During the planting and harvesting times, you will find villages empty and everybody working hard in the fields. Women, men and children are working long tiring hours, digging, carrying heavy bags on their heads and shoulders, pushing the ox cart, or grinding the corn.  After it is planted or harvested, there is not much to do than wait for the next season to come.

Although (as I explained in my post on Zambia) the traditional mud huts are not being built as frequently, those who still have them use the in-between season to fix their houses, leaking roofs or to clear another part of the forest or land for agriculture.

Cash flow

The food that is harvested is hardly ever for sale. Usually, it is used for subsistence of the family.  That means, families have free accommodation, their own land and they eat what they harvest. In this circle, there is no space for making cash – money, that could pay for school fees, clothes, additional things for cooking or even things such as contraceptives for the women.

That is why you find many people sitting under trees, selling whatever they can sell. Women usually sell boiled or grilled corn, fried dough (fat bread, doughnuts… whatever you want to call it), bananas or sugar cane. Because usually the whole village grows the same, it is very hard to find a buyer within the village and if you do not have cash, you cannot afford to go to town.

Nowadays, you have many ‘traders’ in the villages or small towns – people who would bring few tomatoes or bananas to town and some oil, sugar or salt to the village and sell it for little profit, this profit would be hardly enough to cover the bus fares. Nevertheless, it can be the only way to bring cash.

Now, this does not mean that the given country does not have quality education, supermarkets, cinemas or hospitals. it is just that unfortunately the divide between people living in the cities and villages is huge and to bridge the gap more time is still needed. There are villages which ae slowly transforming to towns, with hospitals, supermarkets and other shops thus places where people have regular jobs and regular income.

Food

Corn is the number one food in many African countries (mainly southern and eastern parts of the continent). It is resistant and durable. In a typical village you will not find hungry naked children running around asking for food. Famine is not what defines Africa. Yes, there are now maybe two regions (not even whole states) where there is risk of famine – this is usually due to very infertile land, drought or floods or other natural catastrophe that, caused farmers to lose their subsistence food. However, in a normal African village people do not starve. Malnutrition can still be a problem, in places where the variety of foods is limited, and parents aren’t educated enough about the issue. However, even this has greatly improved in the last years and usually you find abundance of guavas, bananas, avocados or mangoes under the trees rotting for the villagers cannot consume or sell it all.

Standard of living

Electrification has improved greatly in the last decades, furthermore solar panels became very accessible, inexpensive and many NGO’s are even giving them out for free. There is usually always a place where you can charge your phone in even the most remote village. Many people have phones and one can be surprised by how many even smartphones you can find among the youngsters.

Funnily enough, you can often find a satellite or antenna on a mud house in a remote village without proper electricity. Whether it is just to show, power by solar panels or they have generator (which is not unusual) I do not now, however I spent few lovely days in a remote village, in a mud hut with 4G internet connection, watching movies with the kids on my laptop.

Every family now has malaria nets and therefore there was a great drop in the child’s mortality rates. However, contraceptives for women in the village are still hard to get as that requires cash and going to town. I once met a lady who said it was not having more children or sending the children she already has to school.

The standard in villages has improved in the last generation, many states provide some services for free (vaccination, malaria treatment, mosquito nets) and already now, one can see that even the mindset of the young people is very different from their parents. They want to invest, they want to go into business, they want a change.

 

Exposure, Education, Access to town…

The school attendance has greatly improved in the past years, often it is due to hundreds of new schools build by NGOs, charities, local governments or missionaries. However, the quality of the education is still very low. The teachers are underpaid and overworked having to teach up to 80 kids in a classroom without proper teaching material. Some schools are so small, that young kids come in the morning and big ones come in the afternoon. So, everybody only gets half a day of school. Yes, more people can read and write, but they usually cannot afford notebooks to practice their writings or books to practice their reading.

Many kids hardly ever leave the village and if they do it is to help their mum carry the food to the market in town and then dully sitting for hours, hoping she will sell something. The exposure to new ways of farming, new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing the world is limited.

Even if you have the know-how (e.g. how to start a business), access to information (e.g. how to make a chutney or a marmalade from the fallen mangoes) but you do not have the starting capital (cash to buy glass jars and sugar so you can make the marmalade) you are unfortunately locked in the same place.

No war, no famine but still need for NGOs?

So, to sum up – yes, even the villagers can nowadays read and write. Malaria deaths were halved since 2000’s, cities are expanding at a crazy rate and most of the families now usually have somebody living in town, who either sends them money or at least comes with some gifts once in a while. The standard of the poor villagers is not comparable to our standard in Europe or even to the life in the city, however, they do not starve, they do not run naked around fire and in an average village you do not have soldiers looking for children recruits.

The biggest problem for the farmers is the changing weather patterns. Rainy seasons come early, late or never and for someone who does not have savings and only lives from his land, this can be the line between famine and survival. Old farmers often have limited education, their farming skills were learnt from their parents, great parents and so on. Therefore, it is hard for them to risk the lives of their families and try to farm something different. For an outsider it is easy to point finger and say plant this or that, thinking that in a long run farmer will earn more money and improve his lifestyle. Problem is, that farmers cannot afford not to harvest for a year. They would have nothing to eat.

Many NGO’s have realized that and so the world of development aid is also slowly shifting from ‘We will tell you what to do’ or ‘We will build you what you need’ to ‘How can we help you with your business’ or ‘Tell us what you need and we will see what we can do.’’

Africa is not one place. People here, like in Europe, can be poor, rich or middle class. In all the countries you also have cinemas, fast food, cars, supermarkets and shopping malls. In some countries you just have more of it and somewhere you have less of it. Likewise, Romania, Greece and Germany all belong to Europe, but their systems, cultures and economies are very different. Would you then all ‘European’ is the same?