Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Topic 5: Money Problems

In a chapa the other day, the driver and I were chatting after someone had just tried to pull a fast one on him and not pay for his ride. The driver highlighted a very common thread here: “Moçambicanos são cheio de problemas” or “Mozambicans are full of problems.” Money problems is just one.
Because community is the overarching entity here, people lend money to family and friends until they have no more money left to lend, or to even use themselves. They now move to the bottom of the money-lending chain and need to borrow from someone. No matter how much money you have, you inevitably follow this cycle. Once money is lent out, there is no expected return date. You shouldn’t expect to see that money again, unless of course, it comes in the form of you asking them to lend you some money at some later date, no matter if the original amounts do not match up. I am fairly certain that people often get the wrong idea of me because I generally refuse to lend money on principle. Yes, I would like to help out, but my Peace Corps living allowance does not afford me very much room to play with each month. I am currently holding a student’s ID card and wife’s bank card hostage until he pays me back the money he claimed he was going to use to remove a cancerous-looking growth that resides on the back of his head. He said he would have the money in 2 weeks. That was 3 months ago. And he is still sporting the awful growth on the nape of his neck. It is nice that Mozambicans look out for each other but it also means that no one ever has any money.
            The reason for this lending-borrowing cycle is that Mozambicans have no concept of budgeting or saving. One of my teacher friends, Bemvindo, desperately wants a laptop and always asks me for mine. As I decline, I always advise him that if he saves 500 meticais a month, in a few years you will have enough to buy a laptop. And if he saves 1000 meticais a month, that laptop will be his in a year. He has a steady job as a teacher and a consistent income that just about matches my Peace Corps allotted living allowance, definitely enough to work with if he is truly dedicated to saving each month. But this concept of saving goes nowhere with him. He always just claims poor: “I have to buy food for my daughter,” “I have to buy soap and other household items,” “I have to buy gas for my motorcycle.” That’s it! I tell him. Put your motorcycle on hold for a little while as you save money. But he always claims he needs his motorcycle (for what exactly I am unsure since he can literally see his place of work from his house). Then ok, we will sit down and make a budget. We wil plan out what you buy every month and see where we can cut back so you can save money and buy your laptop, I tell him. Easier said than done. When we actually tried this once, I started with food. “How much do you spend on oil per month?” He didn’t know how much a bottle of oil cost because he had never thought about it. He either bought it if he happened to have the money or didn’t if he didn’t have the money. He had never actually paid attention to the price. It was like this for every item. He made purchases when he felt like it without thinking into the future or preparing to buy more when the one he had ran out. So I told him, for the next month, write down everything you buy and how much it cost. He didn’t, even when I bugged him about it each week. So I gave up. He didn’t have any desire to do what it would realistically take to buy his laptop; he just wanted me to give him mine. Mozambicans also always want to know how I can afford to go on all these trips when I also insist that my salary is the same as, and often less than, theirs, and they can’t afford to travel as much as I do. I tell them that I plan ahead: I know it will cost me x meticais to take the trip that I want so I make sure that I keep that much in my bank account. Instead of buying 5 beers on a Friday night like the male teachers, I travel to Quelimane. They are blown away and can’t understand why I wouldn’t just buy the beers.
The reason that Bemvindo seems to be unable to plan for the future is a cultural lack of understanding of future consequences. It is why students don’t study for tests or why they come to my door after I have turned in my grades and ask to do a make-up test. It is why they don’t save or budget money. It is one of the many reasons why people have like 8 children. It is why buses do not run on a schedule and meetings/school always start late. And it is because the local, Bantu languages do not have a future tense. I have been told that the local language in Gurué, Elomwe, uses a phrase to indicate the future, that when translated from the local language to Portuguese for me, translates to English as “from here to nothing,” as in “from here to nothing, I fix your cellphone” or “from here to nothing, the chapa leaves.” Or also as in “better sit tight, wait, and make some friends and small talk with the others here as your cellphone is fixed or the bus prepares to leave because it could be a while.” They simply combine this esoteric notion and declaration of the future with the present tense. The time frame is so general and inconclusive that they can get away with totally neglecting the future and no one gets too upset about it. When your first language doesn’t have a concrete way to express future time, it is downright impossible to wrap your mind around future planning.
Mozambicans lack this propensity towards the future with food as well. If they have a lot one day, they will eat until they explode and then have nothing the next. They will go to see if they have corn flour and realize they have none to make for dinner and go to bed hungry. Didn’t you realize yesterday when you used the last of the corn flour that today you wouldn’t have any? It is the same with water. Maybe before you use your last bucket of water, you go get in the water-line so that you have at least something to work with while you wait. That’s what I do and I somehow never go without a bath or without washing my dishes.
            It is great that Mozambicans are so helpful of one another, and I realize that many Americans have the same difficulties with budgeting. But it is still extremely interesting to live in an entire culture that is so unconcerned and indifferent to the concept of what will happen later today, tomorrow, this weekend, next year. In my 11th grade English classes, we are currently learning the future continuous (I will be doing) and the future perfect (I will have done). I hope I have elucidated some of the reasons why this unit is particularly challenging for us. Perhaps a happy medium between my own hyper-vigilant, American, future planning and the Mozambican, laidback, unworried attitude is in order. From here to nothing, that will be the day.

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