Archive for July, 2008

There’s no place like home

July 28, 2008

Recently I met a guy in DR Congo who had traveled to New York to help out with an HBO documentary. As is fashionable for men here, he wore a shirt picturing a big map of this country and a plea for peace.

Discussing New York he had the usual reactions. From the 45th floor, the cars looked like matchboxes! He dropped a matchbox on the floor for emphasis. He wondered about the sun which shines (in April) but does not produce heat. “What kind of a country is this?” He went to a few concerts. And imitated the way New Yorkers walk. Rush. Rush. Rush. “I cannot take this order,” he said. “I need my hell.”


July 20, 2008

Keeping up on the news back home, I can’t avoid hearing about America’s rotten economy. Six months or so ago this had me feeling a touch smug. The job market would recover by the time I was interested, I told myself. Of course it hasn’t and I’m chastened. Still it’s somewhat dissonant to hear about the U.S. rut from places where the local economies can’t even be measured in the same terms. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is something like five and a half percent. In South Africa it’s at least 30% and far higher in some areas. Outside that second world nation unemployment rate referring to an unemployment rate sounds quaint. Think about Uganda. There the large majority depends on informal agriculture. Might one say the unemployment rate is 90%? Another measure: A couple months ago I visited the Uganda Stock Exchange. It was in an office that looked recently abandoned by a dodgy call center, or it would have if there were more than four computers. One guy ran the place, taking orders from a few traders at the end of the two hour session. (There were three weekly.) He wrote their bids and asking prices on a white board in magic marker. At the end of trading he shook a little bell. I forget the exact numbers but daily trading volume averages, under $500,000. At the time I calculated it as less than the NYSE churns through in one second. Numbers like these have no importance to decisionmakers or anyone else curious about Uganda’s sometimes impressive development efforts. Since almost no one has a pension plan or something like a 401k tied up in stocks, it doesn’t make sense to call the main index a measure of economic sentiment, even though it has done pretty well lately. The recent GDP spurts charted by many countries also seems inadequate. Most of those countries owe their growth exclusively to the export of raw materials and the global commodities boom. These industries don’t usually employ many local people. So how can African economies be measured? I’m no scholar but in the better off nations consumer spending might be a better gauge, especially if it could track the size and spending power of the middle class. If the Internet was fast enough, or power reliable enough, I’d try to find some numbers on spending in Kenya, which is one of few nations in sub-Saharan Africa which can claim a middle class.

Across the river

July 10, 2008

A few days ago I was sitting on a dingy hotel patio next to a river. The river was narrow, maybe  35 feet across, and deep and a dark shade of greenish blue. Bleached white water birds flew low over it in V formation. On the other side the bank sloped up steeply into a few houses and huts that looked, as far as these things go, relatively prosperous. At night a few of them even had electricity.
What made this riverbank different from most others is that it was the edge of DR Congo. Looking across the river in the morning, I saw a boy in a red shirt running towards the river. He was carrying a white flag.