Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Cash-Based Society

It was not the bug netting or malaria concerns, boiling water, or bad roads that made us find ourselves surprisingly uncomfortable when we first arrived in Africa.  It was carrying cash.  

Like the typical Americans, we physically touched money very little throughout our lives in the US.  Instead, our bank account was a numbers game, affected by electronic paychecks and our plastic debit card. Bills went in and out through transfers we never saw except for number changes on our computer screen. But here in our country few places accept credit card, and those that do often have connection problems to actually use their machines.  As we got settled in, we found ourselves doing something absolutely foreign to us... touching paper cash.

In general the location of your money depends on your economic status.  The less you have, the more
likely you are to keep it in your bra, underwear, or somewhere else on your person. Many locals do not trust banks in our country, and instead keep all of their cash and savings on their properties.  The very privileged keep theirs in foreign banks.

As so many of our local friends say with surprised looks on their faces when discussing things like mortgages and student loans, "But how do you pay for something with plastic if you don't have money for it??"  The concept of purchasing before earning is strange.  And risky. "We only buy what we have money in hand for."

The results of having a cash-based society can be seen in a number of ways, but one of the most blaring is in home building.  People build homes in pieces.  The result is a collection of empty houses that sit in some of the most expensive neighborhoods of my city.   Leaving a house open would be impossible in our old American neighborhoods; the elements, interacting with the framing of the house would deteriorate the home before even a few years passed.  But here, these monster skeletons of concrete sit as solid ghosts throughout the city, larger than any family of twenty could need. These "empties," as we call them, sit, boastful of the expectations of potential wealth to come, and wait for the money to be made.

Here are just a few (on the gloomiest day), all in our neighborhood:

Until a fence and gate are in place, squatters live in or around some homes.  In others, many people pay a family to live in a shed on the property to keep guard.

We walk past this house every day.  A giant television satellite sits perched in an empty second story, while the family lives in a beautifully finished first floor with a perfectly manicured yard. Just don't look up and it's a picture perfect property. This is what the opposite of getting a mortgage looks like.