Wednesday, December 17, 2008

very unadvent thoughts

This special season has its own aura in the northern hemisphere, one I relish all the more for only enjoying it every 4th year. So picture me: it is evening so the brutal sun has gone to bed, but it is still sweltering and the ceiling fan is valiantly attempting to helicopter a breeze. The window is open and the frogs croaking in our rice field are intermittently deafening and silent. Yes, the decorations (including fake tree) are up and the carols are playing. But this is Africa, after all.

A while ago one special friend called me her "window on the third world." Never had thought about that before. Made me realize how spattered and unclear a window I am because I have not tried to give the view. Thinking about it made me decide I liked the job and I resolved do it better. (I mentally began organizing a blog-tour of Quelimane so you would "get the feel" of 3rd world living.) Maybe I will give the engaging travel-tour chitchat sometime. But something happened yesterday that made me, again, say, "I've lived here HOW many years? and this culture still astounds me?"

Those who have read about developing countries (specifically Africa, but elsewhere, too, I suspect) have heard the marvels of life in community, "it takes a village to raise a child" and all that--except that when it's up to the village, the child doesn't get raised, he just wings it himself. I digress, where were we? Ah yes, the communal life. One aspect that is the financial fluidity. People never have enough money to do anything, so they borrow from friends and family and it is never directly paid back, but the favors come and go, and the theory is that everything works out right in the end. (If you are very interested in this, please read "African Friends and Money Matters" by David Moranz. It is the absolutely best book on the subject I have encountered.)

The underlying value is that everyone stays at roughly the same economic status. Getting ahead is not very nice and makes people suspect one of witchcraft, cheating, or having a friend in high places that one isn't "sharing" with others. The envy doesn't show on the surface, I didn't see it for the first seven years or so. But now I recognize it beneath most informal financial interactions. Refusing to "lend" is seen as stingy: if you have the money, you are obligated to lend. So most people just spend as fast as they are paid so they don't have to hand out their paycheck to relatives all and sundry. Who can save in that atmosphere?

Yesterday's story is about Pastor Elias. He fell foul of the network system because there are so many unscrupulous family taking advantage of the culture's expectations and censure.

Elias is a carpenter. Earlier this year he made a number of doors and decided to haul them south to Maputo to sell them, since he would get a much higher price for them down there. He had to go to some church meetings there, anyway, so it worked out well. As it turned out, he was not able to sell them all before he had to return north. But he had stayed with his wife's brother who was willing to help out. Elias left the unsold doors and the brother-in-law agreed to sell them and get the money to him later. That sounded nice, and he was family after all. But the doors were sold and the money was spent and Elias was without. He had to travel down again for more church business, and visited the brother-in-law. Rather than face Elias, he made a reason to leave and did not return to the house until Elias had finally given up--very late at night. Elias realized he would only get his money if he made a scene. Elias doesn't do scenes, and besides he is a pastor.

He returned north, a poorer somewhat wiser man. Now the story gets complicated. When Elias went down with the doors, a cousin also had some doors to sell, but could not make the trip. He asked Elias to take and sell them for him. Elias is a kind, obliging person who does favors without thought of being paid back. He agreed. So the cousin had some doors that the brother-in-law thief did not reimburse Elias for. So now the cousin wants his money and decides to "visit" him until the money is forthcoming. The cousin and his dad (Elias' uncle) come on a motorbike to Nicoadala, where Elias lives. The uncle is not very motor bike savvy, gets his heel seriously damaged by the spokes on the wheel, and is laid up in Elias' house. The cousin moves in as well. Elias is now feeding two grown men as well as his own family and paying the doctor bills for the infected foot. It is unspoken but clear that until the money is handed over, the cousin and uncle are there to stay.

Next week is Christmas, Elias is eager to get his month-long guests heading back home, but he needs money he does not have to satisfy them. He is caught between an unscrupulous brother-in-law and a greedy cousin who doesn't care about Elias' mitigating circs. So Elias comes to us for counsel. We already have a "no loan" policy. (Subject for another blog, but arrived at after 14 years of ineffectively bailing people out of their poor decisions.) Elias is now willing to sell half of his property to the church so he will have money to get his cousin out of his house and off his dole, and his children will be able to have enough to eat.

I don't have the emotional energy to describe the church's position, trying to minimize the value of the land as much as possible, knowing that their pastor is in a very tight position.

There are more details, I'm sure, but the outline is here. This is not atypical. People defend this system as though it is the saving force of the small communities--then we see how they mistreat one another. We started out trying to save people and help them out of one disaster after another. We could have spent our entire salary and more, and not been a drop in the bucket.

What does one do? Ideas anyone?


OldMommy said...
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OldMommy said...

Ideas? No. Just admiration for the job you're doing.

As I read, though, I was reminded of you, many years ago, listening to Christmas music in the middle of summer. Isn't that kind of what you're doing now? Just in a different hemisphere?