Friday, March 20, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009; Pondering poverty

I was asked by a reader why there has been no discussion of poverty in Botswana on my blog. Poverty has been missing because in some strange way on the surface, from a guest worker perspective, poverty is not as visible as I expected and does not look like what I assumed it would. What I am going to be saying reveals many of my naïve assumptions, of course.

There are many cars and taxis around, some people at the office come to work in 4 wheel drives and comfortable sedans along with the other 50% who come in taxis which cost only a little more than the crowded public mini-buses. Everyone has cell phones as they work the best in this country that is moving from an agrarian economy to 21st century high tech in one generation. Most people seem reasonably well dressed in collared shirts and skirts and slacks with nicely braided or straightened hair. All giving the semblance of a middle class aura.

The obvious signs like the goats and donkeys everywhere are easy to dismiss as local colour rather than evidence of poverty. Many people are walking everywhere, but there is also a mini rush hour in the morning from 7:30 until 8:30 am in the center of Maun and in the afternoon from 4:30 to 6 pm – all symbols of western go-get-it attitude

Today I was having lunch with a Peace Corps volunteer who wanted to pick my brain about my prison work and I got some better insight from him on the extent of the poverty. Maun has few jobs for the local unskilled people and as an example, the office fulltime support staff gets just better than $C100 per month [P700] in an economy where the cost of food that I experience as a vegetarian, is just about what it is in Vancouver. The lower rank professionals allegedly make about $C550 [P3300] per month and their supervisor about $C700 [P4200]. These are considered prime jobs. A number of the staff that I have talked to are here because they want to live and work in Maun, their original home, and have no other options as a result of that. I expect that the increasing and wealthy tourist trade might be driving prices up as well and exposing the population to many consumer goods that are desirable although not needed as they are not needed by us either.

There are many one room 15’ X 15’ cinder block homes along the roads often with 3 or 4 of them on a 'plot', or designated government lot, for the other members of the extended family. Many families live together in multi generational configurations like in another North American forgotten age, with grannies, or siblings or orphaned nieces/nephews looking after the kids of those who work while they work. Several people at WAR are single mothers supporting their mother, and / or father, a sister and perhaps an orphaned niece or nephew who may or may not work!

Along the roads there are many corrugated metal lean-to's where people sit to sell some fruit, or crafts or other goods. Some just seem to be places out of the sun where young guys hang out and play their boom boxes. As I have noted before there are goats and donkeys everywhere. They belong to someone but just roam around feeding along the roadways and wherever they can. I guess that the skinniness of the dogs that hang around everywhere and in the few plots that are home to some are an indicator of the poverty in that they are totally left to scrounge for themselves. I have only seen one person so far, walking a dog. No pampered pooches, ponies or goats here!

I have been eating lunch at a local Botswana restaurant / take out place that the office staff go to and appears to cater to local workers – mostly blue collar it seems, but I might be misreading that.. Lunch at a western food restaurant is at least three times the cost although comparison is difficult because there is not one item on one menu that appears on the other, except water. The food there is also an indication of the tastes as well as what people are used to. Mainstays of the meals are large portions of rice, flour dumplings without stuffing of any kind, a corn meal doughy mashed potato appearing mix in addition to semp, a bean and sorghum combination. The accompanying dishes in small servings are coleslaw, a spicy vegetable mix, a spinach-like vegetable and then well cooked beef and chicken dishes.

What else can I say? It is poor, - very poor. Yet by African standards, they are doing well. I had a woman come in to see me today for help with the constitution for a cooperative she wants to set up with four others. She looked good and told me she had been HIV + for a number of years. She had become very ill and forced to leave her government job of 22 years. It took a number of years, but it was finally decided that she should retire for medical reasons and receive the pension she has earned. She also has been on ARV [anti retro viral] therapies for a number of years at no cost to her. She considers herself well off and is, relatively speaking, and so is Botswana on the world economic scale. She is creating the cooperative, not because she desperately needs but to create jobs and raise HIV+ women’s profile!

What is poverty? To us, this is very poor. Many here see themselves as poor and many see themselves as fortunate to live a happy life in a country they are very proud of. And so we go about our business, each in our relatively insular lives. This is such a difficult area to talk about without sounding patronizing or just palin stupid. I just hope that I leave something behind that lasts a little longer than the clothes and school supplies that I brought with me from Canada, much of it donated by people living on the edge in Vancouver.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this account, Adriaan, very interesting!