Thursday, December 20, 2012

Burning a Hole in Your Pocket

When I found out we would be moving to Botswana, a friend gave me a very timely and informative gift: a book called African Friends and Money Matters: Observations From Africa by Dr. David Maranz.  The book has some interesting insights to share on the differences between money management from a western perspective, versus an African perspective.  

According to the book, many westerners tend to seek financial independence and emphasize long term planning and budgeting in order to achieve that goal. In western culture, money is a private matter that is for the most part not discussed outside the immediate family unit.  Many of us would be embarrassed or ashamed to ask others for financial assistance, because to us, that is admitting our failure to independently manage our own finances. Interestingly, however, we are more than willing to borrow from third party institutions such as credit card companies or banks, presumably because this way, we can avoid entangling our finances with our personal relationships. 

In African culture, says the author, financial matters are much more of a collective effort. It is socially acceptable to ask friends, relatives, and even sometimes strangers for money or other assistance, and more often than not, it’s considered socially unacceptable to refuse someone in need. In this way, finances and personal relationships are much more closely linked than in the west. The author goes on to suggest that this way of thinking influences saving trends in Africa. Because friend and family groups are beholden to most anyone who thinks to ask for financial assistance, Africans have less incentive to accumulate large savings accounts, largely because they are socially obligated to assist friends and family when asked to do so. Therefore, rather than save money, they choose to spend it as soon as possible, or before they are forced by social norms to assist a needy friend or relative. In the same way, budgeting is not a part of African culture because people can comfortably approach their friends and family for financial aid at any time as needed, and therefore do not see the need for personal budgeting and long-term financial planning. 

Although the main points in African Friends and Money Matters were based on West African culture, in my almost four months in Botswana I have noticed some similarities in the southern African approach to money matters:

Payday Is Spend All Your Money Day
Woe to the person who visits the Gaborone malls on the last weekend of the month! The last Friday of each month is payday, and that means everyone spends the weekend out shopping to spend the fresh paycheck that is burning a hole in their pocket. Government offices here close at 4:30 on Friday afternoons; by 4:40 on payday the major malls in town are jam-packed with crazed shoppers eager to unload their pula on the local economy. By Sunday afternoon, the malls are dead again as everyone has already spent the month’s money on Friday and Saturday. I don’t know that their reasons for doing so are necessarily the same as those Maranz cites, but it’s an interesting similarity all the same. 

Down To My Last Thebe
The approach to grocery shopping here seems in many instances to be designed to spend the exact amount of money contained in the shopper’s wallet – down to the last thebe (cent).  I have seen people walk through the store grabbing items randomly, loading up their carts with any item that strikes their fancy (as opposed to shopping with a list mapping out the food for the week).  Then the shopper, cash in hand, will carefully watch as the cashier rings up the items, and stops the cashier once the total amount to pay matches the exact amount of cash they have on hand that day. The remaining surplus items are then left behind in a pile on the counter, joining other groceries which have been similarly forsaken by overly ambitious shoppers. In this type of situation, people appear to be eager to spend every last cent they have on a large and very random assortment of grocery items.

But, I Only Need a Couple of Pula!
Scott and I have received multiple requests from strangers for money and various other items since we moved to Botswana. I’m not talking about beggars on the street (there aren’t many beggars or homeless in Gaborone) but about an average-looking person approaching us at a restaurant, store, or even a work event asking for a handout.  To be fair, I should add that the most outlandish request for a handout I’ve ever received was actually in the U.S. – when a homeless man at a D.C. Starbucks insisted that we buy him a “not-too-hot grande caramel macchiato, no whip, light foam…” etc. with a laundry list of specifications for the drink. But, that was one isolated instance in over two years living in D.C., whereas we’ve gotten at least ten or so requests from individuals in not quite four months in Botswana.

For example, a few weeks ago I was the keynote speaker at an event. I was sitting at the official head table waiting for the event to begin and someone from the audience came up to me to ask me if he could have the rest of the bottle of water I was drinking! I was too shocked to protest and handed it over. 

Another time, Scott was in the grocery store purchasing Halloween candy and a shopper approached him and demanded that Scott also buy him some candy, his tone suggesting that Scott owed it to him to give a little donation to his sweet tooth.  And, as mentioned in my recent post Waiting for a Wedding in Mochudi, one of the few guests who spoke to Scott and I only did so to ask for cigarette money and to try to get a job where we work.  A couple of times, people have rung our doorbell on weekend mornings asking for cash for public transportation or a variety of other necessities which they say they can’t afford on their own. 

I suppose that Scott and I are the subjects of these requests because we are white and are therefore assumed to be wealthy. However, much of the urgent “necessity” seems to come not from genuine poverty or a lack of sufficient resources to cover one’s expenses, but rather from a lack of effective budgeting and long-term financial planning.  Rather than spend every last bit of your paycheck the minute you get it, why not budget and make it last the whole month, so you’re not reduced to ringing doorbells on a Saturday morning for the combi fare home?

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