Tuesday, March 19, 2013

An Aberrant Aperture, or, if you prefer, An Incongruous Interlude

Ice Cream and Inequality: The African "Middle Class"

While I continue to contemplate feminist sex (read: I'm procrastinating), I decided to do something different and write a profile of a middle class Guinean family.

In 2011, The African Development Bank issued a report that categorized one third of Africa's billion people as "middle class". Now, for a little perspective, they defined "middle class" as families making between $2 and $20 a day. This large range is necessary in part because of the wide variations in economic prosperity across the African continent. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a terrible indicator of wealth or even economic productivity, especially for the "less developed" world, because it does not incorporate the informal economy, inequality, nor, perhaps most importantly, distinguish between resource income (such as oil revenues, for which the profits are concentrated in the hands of a few) and agriculture/service/manufacturing sectors.  However, to illustrate Africa's economic diversity, note the following GDPs per capita:

  • South Africa- $8,070
  • Cรดte d'Ivoire- $1,195
  • Guinea- $498

(It's $48,112 in the US, by the way; All data 2011, World Bank.)

Skipping hastily over the two-dozen economic debates about how to interpret this data, the bottom line is that some African countries have a lot more rich or middle class people than others, as is illustrated on the second page of this excellent report on the rise of the African middle class.

Since critique of everything is the only way to go, I'll remark here that the narrative of the rising middle class and "Africa Rising" (thank you, The Economist, and TIME) is a lionization of capitalist values. Just like the ongoing Western obsession with India and China's economies, the focus is not on the increasing inequality, persistent deficits in social and political liberties, ongoing human rights abuses or impunity of governments, nor the environmental, health, and social challenges of massive urbanization. African countries are getting richer, African people have more money, and the Western world is very excited that all these people are going to buy things. I am not saying that the growth of the Indian, Chinese, or various African economies is a myth nor negative. What I needed to express is that it is a flawed narrative, and that one must recognize that it is a narrative that places monetary wealth and capacity to consume as the ideal or goal of development; which it most certainly, unequivocally, should not be. 

Perhaps this has come off as too negative for the introduction to a post which in fact is meant to celebrate the middle class in an African country. Of course, I am willing to stifle my critiques for the purposes of appreciating that at least Africa is not being painted as war-torn, starving, nor disease-ridden by "Africa Rising", though I can't help but protest the continued generalization of 54 countries across a incomprehensibly diverse continent. There is a very important point, which is relevant in Africa as much as in China or the United States: ownership of a cellphone, color TV, refrigerator, or even motor vehicle do NOT give you political rights, access to health care, gender parity, racial or ethnic equality, nor the guarantee of social mobility and financial security for your children. 

Guinea is not a country with a blossoming middle class like its neighbor Senegal, for example. The majority of this country's 10 million people still practice subsistence farming, less than half of Guinean women are literate, despite a very low HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (less than 2%) live-expectancy is 54 years, more than 90% Guinean women have undergone female genital mutilation, and the main source of economic growth in Guinea at the moment is the foreign-controlled mining industry. With Guinea also undergoing a fractured and yet-to-be successful democratic transition, there is a lot of fodder for pessimism.

Conakry, Guinea
About a ten minute walk from my apartment in Conakry there is a little shop that sells soft-serve ice cream. I was drawn to the hand-painted sign with an ice cream cone like a bee to honey while walking around my neighborhood. I have since become a regular, and have spent quite a bit of time talking to the family that owns the shop. I'll change names for the sake of privacy, but I thought it would do those less familiar with the "African middle class" phenomenon some good to know about them.

Mariama is the owner of the shop. Her name is painted on the sign outside, and she is always the one conversing with customers. She is well educated, she speaks perfect French, decent English, and the three major local languages: Soussou, Pular, and Malinke. She and her husband, Alpha, rent the shop and a small house behind it, where they live with their daughter and son. I've never asked what the rent is, but based on my knowledge of housing costs here, I'd wager it's about $150 dollars a month. Before you think that's low, note that the average salary of a security guard in Conakry is approximately $200 a year.

Mariama and Alpha both keep up with global affairs. We've discussed Guinean, Malian, EU, and American politics. Alpha stayed up to listen to the 2012 US presidential election results on the radio, and the next day he told me he hoped President Obama would do more for Africa in his second term. Mariama has tried to convince me to cook more by explaining (what she considers) simple recipes to me, and when I sit on the front stoop of the shop in the evenings, I talk to their 13 year old daughter, Hadia about what she is learning in school, the Rhianna songs that she likes to dance to, and, of course, how much we love ice cream. When I'm laughing or chatting with them, I don't feel like there is some huge class divide. But there is.

With a salary that is less than half the American average, I'm among the richest people in this country. I went to university and graduate school, I own a car in the States, and I spent over $2000 to come home over the winter break. Mariama and her family have a small generator to keep goods refrigerated, an air-conditioner in their bedroom, and, of course, an ice cream making machine, but they can't afford a car, nor the costs of traveling out of the capital to visit family more than once or twice a year. Mariama, Alpha, and Hadia have cell phones (their son is too young for one), and Alpha has an email address that he checks occasionally from an internet cafe down the road, but they do not have health insurance (yes, it exists here in Guinea, and is quite good if you have it!) and are worried about their financial future.

Hadia is in the top of her seventh grade class and she spends hours every night doing her homework, but Mariama has told me she doubts they'll be able to save enough money to help either her or her brother pay university fees, so she really is hoping Hadia gets a scholarship. The Guinean students I teach at an international school here are certainly not all rich; many are on scholarships, but there is no conceivable way that Alpha and Mariama could afford (even reduced) tuition at my school for either of their children.

Soccer Match in Cotonou, Benin
The African middle class is very diverse, both within countries and across the continent. They own small plots of land and build their own houses, usually on the outskirts of cities, or they rent places for $50-$300 a month; they run small businesses or work salaried jobs; they send their children to school and follow current events; they go to soccer (football) games and concerts of local artists; sometimes they own cars, generators, and TVs, and sometimes they don't. The middle class may be growing, but what they are not is anywhere near the economic, social, or political position of the "middle class" in the Western world. In fact, "an elite of about 100,000 Africans had a collective net worth of 60% of the continent's gross domestic product in 2008", which even manages to make the gaping inequality of Americans that the OWS movement highlighted seem a little less evil. To make matters worse, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt, most African countries have very limited manufacturing sectors, so even the consumption that has arisen from the wealthy or middle class does little to initiate a cycle of economic growth, because most of what they buy is imported. Read past the titles of the articles and you'll find the picture not as rosy as it first seemed.

Mariama and Alpha consider themselves very lucky in their situation, and they've both worked hard for what they've accomplished. They are nothing like the negative image of impoverished Africans that was once (and perhaps among some still is) so common in the West. They harbor no religious or ethnic prejudices, they don't have a dozen children then can't afford to feed, they are not suffering, and they don't beg for charity. They are neither very rich nor very poor, and therefore are middle class. So, the next time you hear about Africa Rising, make sure you take a moment to smile about the prospect of millions of people being lifted out of poverty (none too soon) and the nascent beginnings of a bright future for middle class Africans like Mariama, but also remember that distinction as "middle class" is not the equivalent of human dignity, and that the great majority of the world cannot even begin to access the privileged position that most people reading this blog (and certainly its author) hold.
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