Making the decision to live and work in a culture substantially different from your own comes with the understanding that you’re going to fuck up. You’re going to misspeak, you’re going to stumble through cultural norms, and on more than one occasion you’re going to look like a goddamn fool. Worst case scenario, you’re likely to unintentionally broadcast a message of disrespect at some point, thereby relying on the good grace and empathy of locals to recognize that you’re not malicious, you’re just culturally clumsy. Sucks.
Every prospective traveler falls somewhere along the continuum between two potential reactions to the fact of this inevitability: surrender to it, or fight. Dig in the heels of your globalist Birkenstocks and clutch for some wizardly source of intercultural dark arts that will expedite your transition to “seasoned vet” status without having to endure all the mistakes that bring about said seasoning. Somewhere deep down, you are the intercultural walker-between-worlds your Facebook page makes you out to be… All you need is the right spellbook.
In one sense, African Friends and Money Matters is an attempt to be that book; an expedited, condensed package of the author’s decades of experience as an expat intended to allow you to leapfrog the insufferable awkwardness and give you the edge over your fellow travelers. But when read in a particular light (specifically, late at night with a heap of neurotic scrutiny for which it was never intended) it reveals itself to be quite a bit more — A character study, an economic analysis, a conversation starter, and a perverse sort of mirror.
Not that any of that was intended by the author.
Back when I signed myself up for the post which I am currently fulfilling, included in the Memorandum of Understanding was the commitment to read this book within the first two weeks of my arrival in-country (I took three cuz I’m a bum). As far as I’m aware, every fellow who came before me did the same and those who follow in our footsteps will likely do so as well, earning the book something like infamy around the office. Copies of various editions from various years populate the bookshelves, and every local, long-term employee has an opinion on the publication — I’ll get to that later.
The author, David Maranz, is a peculiar fellow. From the little one can gather on him through anecdotes in the book and minimally intensive Google searches, he seems to be the amalgamated average of every expat that’s worked in Africa for the past three decades. He mentions writing manuscripts of cultural origin stories (so he’s one part anthropologist) and local grammars (one part linguist), has published works specifically on the worldviews of Muslims in Senegal (one part religious scholar), has a Ph.D. in International Development (one part development consultant), and is employed by SIL, a faith-based (one part missionary) development/linguistic preservation nonprofit (one part NGO worker). Knowing that Maranz has covered all of this territory has the bizarre effect of making him feel both relatable and anonymous. Is he really a person, or just the voice of a disembodied expatriate archetype arisen from our collective unconscious?
From the first page, the experience of reading the book produces a feeling that—for the reliably self-conscious millennial—is inescapably yucky. Although the content starts off innocently enough, it becomes glaringly obvious just what you’re doing by reading such a book. You’re attempting to gain, from the innocuous and sterile lines of text, a grasp on what Africans universally are like and what Africa universally is all about. You know, so you can avoid actually talking to people and having that uncomfortable conversation in which your ignorance is out on the table. I found myself sheepishly hoping no one would ask me what I was reading, and when it did come up in conversation, feeling compelled to discuss its claims with a raised eyebrow and an ironic smile in order to distance myself from an effort that my eternal wokeness knows is so absurd. Imagine yourself walking through a predominantly Latino neighborhood of your nearest metropolitan area. Now imagine yourself doing so while carrying a book with a front cover that reads in big, bold text, “HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE HISPANICS.” Yeah, that feeling.
The earliest content is the most concrete and the most practical — a “Tips and Tricks” guide more than anything else. Be aware of and respect hierarchies of authority, know which subjects might be taboo, consider asking for a name in the local language, be thorough with your greetings. Of course, taking this advice as gospel would result in making a bigger fool out of yourself than if it went completely unheeded. “It is critically important,” the book instructed, “to take time when you greet someone to make many inquiries into their health and (that) of their relatives.” I’m approaching a full month in-country and have yet to see someone start a conversation by asking how Grandma’s arthritis is treating her these days.
The obvious task placed upon the reader is to figure out which of Maranz’s proclaimed norms actually hold true here (geographically, in Uganda’s Kabarole district) and now (in 2017). Collectively, the book paints a picture of the continent that echoes of an American baby boomer’s idealized vision of the past; a world in which respect is shown to elders and you’re damned sure to greet your neighbors in the morning, and no one dares to be in too much of a hurry for a roadside chat. Maybe that Africa still persists somewhere, but from my limited sample size such a narrative is aggressively dated at best and something-like-a-bit-fetishize-y at worst.
Fortunately, such claims do provide utility almost universally as conversation starters. This is perhaps the most undeniable benefit of reading the book— it’s an entry point. I would never approach a Ugandan coworker and ask, “So, could you fill me in on how people exchange compliments here?” Even if the potential for a cultural difference in the domain of compliment exchange occurred to me, the question seems too lofty to just put out there. But I was happy to inquire, “Hey, so the book says sometimes in Africa people compliment your shirt or your shoes by asking for them, but not actually expecting them to be handed over. Is that true here?” In that case, according to a colleague, it was. At least sometimes.
It would be unfair to the author to act like he isn’t aware of the fallibility of his observations. In the introduction to the First Edition (which I only read because I was gonna write this thing about the book, but which is like way more interesting than the introduction to the Second Edition that I got on my Kindle) he clearly articulates, “Even though the observations have been discussed and revised with African friends from West to East, they should be taken as starting points or hypotheses by anyone living and making friends with Africans in any particular location. They are not absolute and invariable across the huge continent that is Africa.” Well put, Maranz. In his eyes, he seems to think that he’s now placed the responsibility of skepticism entirely in the reader’s hands for the remaining 99% of the book, content to use increasingly absolute language as the pages carry on. Would I rather him introduce every single paragraph with a “This may not be true in every African culture, but I’ve typically found that…” disclaimer? Of course not, but there’s a balance to aim for there.
Somewhere between these introductory tidbits of advice on general behavior and the socioeconomic behemoth of an idea that the latter 60% of the book focuses on (which I’ll need to address almost entirely separately because it’s fucking fascinating) there are periods where Maranz’s exposition starts to tread more treacherous waters. Staying at the scale of interpersonal behavior and anecdotes would be safe— it leaves the least room for the author’s perception and values to be imposed, consciously or unconsciously. Things get spooky when Maranz scales his subject matter up and analyzes how patterns of individual behavior accumulate into larger outcomes of social functioning (or dysfunctioning). For example, when discussing the allegedly pan-African norm of being expected to share your bounty with your relatives when you’ve hit a patch of good days, Maranz attributes it to Africa’s stuttering rate of development. “This could be called ‘coerced generosity,’” he says, and “It stifles any ambition a person may have to ‘get ahead.’” Often, he outsources explanation of larger social trends to quotes from other scholars, or value judgements of them to philosophers both African and Western, but even in these cases you can feel a side being taken.
However, things grow exponentially spookier (I’m frustrated at my own inability to articulate this and according use such a silly word) when the analysis instead scales down. On more than one occasion Maranz attempts to explain connected patterns of behavior by surmising the underlying characteristics of an African Psyche. Before I try to explain further, some examples are warranted:
“In many ways Africans idealize interdependence. While they may not idealize dependence, many see it as their only hope for acquiring needed resources… Is dependency inherently bad? It is a most natural response to certain conditions.”
“Westerners may think no one will notice the cost of the cloth, but Africans are very knowledgeable about the cost and quality of cloth. In general, clothing is important to Africans.”
“From an early age children learn to please their superiors by giving them the answers they want to hear. This too often means that subordinates say what they think will please their superiors, such as teachers, elders, and employers.”
“In business meetings discussion of one’s company and industry will usually be most welcome, as Africans are anxious to better understand the wider world.”
“So one could ask, ‘Why is anger so serious in many African cultures?’ One reason is that for many Africans, being angry at someone is tantamount to cursing them, and a curse is feared. The fear is related to the action or revenge that a spirit might inflict on the one cursed.”
“In general, people tend to not readily accept that their own actions or decisions might have led to unfavorable outcomes… Every significant event, positive or negative, is believed to have a cause that originates in the spirit world, which is acting in the visible world.”
“(An) accident will be believed to be caused directly by a spirit but indirectly by one of the person’s enemies who has secretly engaged the services of a sorcerer. Hence, the blame is “exteriorized.” The individual tends not to look at himself or herself to see what they may have done wrongly or unwisely. Neither will they accept that impersonal causes were to blame.”
Now granted, I am definitely cherry picking the most egregiously “othering” quotes the book has to offer and pulling them all out of context. Still, the fact that this kind of rhetoric is in there changes the nature of the book dramatically, and the way that you (or I, or anyone else) react to them is what makes the book into the earlier-referenced sort of “mirror.”
For me, that reaction is one of internal conflict. The first voice that enters my head is there to sound the alarm; it’s critical of Mr. Maranz and quite perturbed that anyone — especially someone who has spent so much time theoretically building close friendships with Africans — would publish such patronizing, overgeneralizing claims about the 1 billion+ individuals on the continent. “Africans are anxious to better understand the wider world”? Well how fucking cute!
It’s astonishing just how unaware Maranz seems to be of the sensitive territory upon which he is treading. You know who else wrote sweeping claims about the behavior of a foreign culture he found himself in? Columbus, in his logs about Native Americans right before the part about how “They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” Know who would probably be quite smitten with the suggestion than Africans don’t readily accept responsibility for the outcomes of their actions? Social Darwinist fucks like Samuel George Morton who argued that pseudoscientific data about skull capacities of different races justified shit like colonialism and eugenics. Though the legacy of colonialism touches every part of the very idea of a book like AF&MM, I can recall Maranz referencing it only twice: First when explaining why many people may take offense to being called “Africans” rather than their more specific identity, and again when postulating about why many seem to be resentful of the idea of currency.
When I asked my Ugandan colleagues how they felt about the book, reactions ranged from irritation to unforgiving resentment. One man said that he recognized how such a book might assist someone suddenly having to work in a novel culture, but found it absurd that it would try to do so by describing the entire continent of Africa when his own local culture is substantially different from the group only a few kilometers to the south. I asked if a hypothetical more specific book (i.e. Batooro Friends & Money Matters) would be alright, to which his reaction was along the lines of “I suppose, but at that point why not just talk to people?”
Another man in the office felt strongly enough about the book to include some choice four-letter words in his response. Having read some of it, he felt it was essentially a long-winded diatribe accusing African people of being bad with money. Hearing this made me take a humbling, self-examinatory step back; if the people the book is actually discussing take offense to it, who the fuck am I to hee and haw in a 5,000-word diary entry about whether or not it’s legitimate?
And yet, there’s another voice. A voice that thinks of itself as a pragmatist. A voice that argues that an awareness of the cultural distinctions within Africa can coexist with the assertion that there are traits almost universal to Africa and scarce in cultures outside of it. As Maranz puts it in the introduction, the cards in the deck are unique, but they’re all from the same deck.
In an ideal world, yes, maybe it would be wise to arrive completely and utterly unassuming, waiting for any tentative thoughts about the local culture to arise and be validated by both experience and the voices of members of the culture itself, but no world is ideal. The possibility of either severely offending someone as part of my personal “learning process” or passing critical judgement on an individual for a behavior that’s really a result of an underlying cultural belief I haven’t recognized are real possibilities, and they really suck. “Good-hearted outsiders,” Maranz writes, “idealists who truly want to help Africa, often find themselves mysteriously impeded by Africa because, in their enthusiasm to get things done, they come across as rude or domineering.” Why would I automatically be any different?
And yes, the voice says, humility is crucial. So maybe, rather than thinking that because I’m young and hip and I’ve read blog posts about allyship that I’m going to be a better intercultural liaison than some old fogey in a book, maybe trust the guy with a Ph.D. who’s spent decades on the continent doing a hell of a lot more important work than I have? In fact, he’s spent more years in Africa than I’ve been alive. I feel more than comfortable criticising elements of western culture, so why wouldn’t it be fair for some of his observations about African behaviors to be critical? True overgeneralizing would be seeing the continent with rose-tinted glasses because any fault he feels tempted to criticize is indefinitely dismissed with the possibility of not fully understanding the context surrounding it.
As with everything, the truth likely lies somewhere in between the two extremes of these perspectives. Or maybe it would be better to say that truths lie among these two perspectives and in between, right alongside falsehoods. What’s important is that the book has forced me to ask and examine what kind of expat in Africa I want to be in a way that I didn’t anticipate whatsoever.
Do I need to constantly push myself to be more humble? Yes, but there are multiple kinds of humility and sometimes they even disagree. Is it appropriate for me to criticize elements of the culture I’m surrounded by? To that I’ll say yes, but only after thorough discussions with ambassadors of said culture… so not yet. Check back with me in six months.
Interestingly, I don’t think the author intended to bring about this kind of introspection at all. Maranz’s writing in every way fulfills the “scatterbrained professor” archetype: wantonly curious, faithful in the products of rational discussion, and atrociously disorganized in his writing. That’s a little freaky to me, because I see a lot of myself in that approach. In the past, I’ve been tempted to think that such a seemingly innocent curiosity can do no harm. But total devotion to any ideology is capable of atrocity, and rational inquiry is no exception; exaggerate it to the absurd and you get Dr. Mengele type shit. I don’t see myself cutting open twins anytime soon, but I’m certainly capable of some of the same faults Maranz has made, a few of which were genuinely hurtful to my Ugandan coworkers. What makes it so difficult is that he is anything but malevolent.
Any of the Princeton in Africa fellows will tell you this “how to be an expat working in Africa” question is tricky. African Friends & Money Matters shines a big fat spotlight on it by showing you one particular kind of expat to be that feels just dated and just problematic enough that you have to really think about how you feel about it and why (especially if you plan on writing about it on your website… Tangential conclusion: Writing this reflection has been difficult but definitely worth it and I’m committed to doing more).
And I haven’t even gotten to the socioeconomic behemoth of an idea that the majority of the book is actually about…
The Socioeconomic Behemoth of an Idea That the Majority of the Book is Actually About
Ok, so completely changing gears here: Let’s imagine for a minute, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that the observations Maranz makes about economic behavior in Africa really are true, and they really are true universally across the continent.
Now check out this passage from the introduction of the First Edition (again, way better than the introduction of the Second Edition):
“Take the key factor of employment in Senegal, which is typical of Africa. It is well under fifty percent of the work force. In fact, one study in 1974 found that only about thirty percent of workers in Dakar had full-time jobs (Nelson et al. 1974:250). It is doubtful that real employment is much higher today, yet Dakar is the city with the greatest employment opportunities in Senegal. And to round out the pessimistic picture, it should be pointed out that of those fortunate people to be employed, very few have jobs that are at all well-paying by Western standards.
“In the midst of these seemingly permanently impossible conditions people continue to eat, are clothed and housed, and they survive. Those who have even meager means share with kin and close friends. There are no riots. People live their lives with, it seems to me, at least as much contentment as Westerners do in their home countries. Of course, they all hope for better days, but in the meantime, they make the most of their situations.
“In contrast, consider economic situations in France and the United States. One of the reasons Jacques Chirac was elected president in 1995 was because unemployment had passed the eleven percent level. In France there was unrest and great unhappiness. There were massive strikes, and an unpredictable labor force considered their situation to be in crisis. In the United States during its greatest modern economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment reached a maximum of about twenty-five percent of the work force. This was in 1933, when the situation was at its worst. At such a rate of unemployment the country was in deep crisis, with much social unrest and concern for its future.”
First, let’s take a second to think about just how nuts those unemployment numbers are, and just how silly the red-faced political correspondent on TV seems for lambasting an epidemic of unemployment in the US, and just how locked in we are to thinking that the way our world operates is the only conceivable way for the world to operate. Oof.
Now that that’s out of our system, there are a lot of different directions you can go with this. You can think about quality of life being relative rather than subjective, or you can wonder if we aren’t playing off genuinely shocking injustice just because there aren’t riots in the streets, or you can be cynical about the modern west’s poor being the richest poor of all time. But undeniably, there must be some kind of vast difference in economic structures that allow these two seemingly incompatible realities of unemployment to coexist. That structure is what 60% of AF&MM is about, and it’s fascinating. For the sake of convenience, we’re going to refer to it as interdependence.
Allow me to paraphrase poorly: The main concern which Maranz addresses because westerners just for the life of them cannot wrap their heads around it is the way in which friendship and money are intertwined in Africa. Essentially, in the west we define “true” friendship by being devoid of regular (especially one-way) monetary exchange. If someone is routinely borrowing money from you and not giving it back, you’re skeptical of their friendship because they might just like you for your money. The true purpose of relationships is emotional intimacy and the mutual pleasure of each other’s company, and the possibility of money being involved makes all of that… weird.
In Africa (and remember, we’re talking about Maranz’s hypothetical Africa in which all of his observations are universally true), all of that is turned on its head. He describes a world in which everyone is indebted to everyone else nearly all the time, and as soon as someone accumulates a reasonable sum of funds it gets loaned away or goes to repaying past debts. Resources which are sitting idle as “savings” are really being wasted in non-use, and your car that you’re not using right now is freely available for any friends who need it to borrow. In fact, if a friend asks you for money and you don’t have it, you might even borrow from another friend to hand it off without expecting that it ever come back. When you host a birthday or wedding or funeral, you go big because those kinds of celebrations are a big deal, knowing that you’re going to have to borrow extensively to pay the bill and then be drowning in debt to your friends for who-knows-how-long. Beggars may, to some extent, be choosers, and it’s NOT the thought that counts, because you don’t neglect your friends with insubstantial gifts. And if you try to remove yourself from this system (or even try to keep account of the loans you make and ask for exact repayment) or hope to accumulate wealth and build something for yourself, you’re socially shamed and considered miserly.
If you’re reading this and you’re someone who’s into the typical western idea of fiscal responsibility (hi mom!), your heartrate probably just rose a few BPM. Sounds like a mess, right? Americans idealize independence, complete with our very identity being founded on the self-made man (or woman). But as Maranz points out…
“Americans… have had the luxury of idealizing independence. For them, government was stable, laws were clear and applied to all citizens, opportunity for advancement existed for anyone with ambition, ideas, and drive. In sum, individuals could consider themselves to be “independent” because basic legal, social, and economic conditions provided an environment that was favorable to the individual. Without these and other factors, attempts to be independent would be imprudent. Where laws are arbitrarily applied, non-existent, or subject to the whims of those in power, and where economic resources and social advancement are available and open only to those with authority and control of resources, dependency is the prudent route to a better life.”
A Solution to Uncertainty
Maranz’s picture of African history is characterized not just by hardship, but by unpredictable hardship. Wars, famine, colonialism, disease, dictatorships, and natural disaster all struck to varying degrees in varying places in relatively recent history, and this is the system that responded. A rudimentary understanding would be that when the chips are down you stick together and lean on your friends, but a more economic lens would say that, rather than invest your money in a bank (which hey, might get robbed), it’s been wiser to invest in your personal social network. As long as everyone is committed to the idea (which is enforced by the threat of social ostracization), it’s a good idea to share with your friends during good times so that you can count on them to help you out when you’re in a jam. A human “rainy day fund.”
Another place this shows up is in hunter-gatherer groups. In my rudimentary understanding of hunter-gatherer economics (which I hope to soon advance by reading Limited Wants, Unlimited Means by John Gowdy) this interdependent “gift economy” is often a way of life. And it makes sense; If you hunt and kill a deer this week, your family is unlikely to be able to eat the whole thing before it spoils. So you share it, knowing that the odds of your neighbor getting a kill next week when you come up empty-handed are pretty high. I’m getting presumptuous here, but this may even be why the fear of social rejection is so holy-shit-nuclear intense in modern people, an evolutionary echo of a day and age in which forced independence meant death combined with a contemporary overload of way-too-many-people-to-earn-the-good-judgement-of. Replace the unpredictability of successful hunts with the instability of your crop’s success or your business’s good favor and maybe you arrive at the same necessity for interdependence.
The ramifications of this are hard to understate. Some of them are day-to-day; Maranz describes a pan-African ethos of “just getting by” that I’ve picked up on as well. Repairs are often done just well enough to get the thing functioning again for the day and notes are taken on whatever piece of paper is in the nearest radius rather than setting up an organized system of logs. But he also posits that this ingrained economic system is responsible for what we understand as the endemic corruption throughout African politics.
Although sharing of resources is apt to flow both ways horizontally across a given socioeconomic class, interdependence manifests vertically between classes as “clientelism.” In this system, someone with access to less resources will frequently pay visits to and offer his or her “patronage” to someone with more resources. Essentially, they’ll be the Big Man’s (Maranz’s term, not mine) biggest fan, defending his reputation in town and garnering support if he decides to run for office. In exchange, the Big Man offers greater access to his resources such as frequent loans or connection to a network for employment. In theory, everyone feels that they’re “taking care of their own” and better off because of it.
But scale this up, and when clientelism meets democracy it quickly becomes a game of network competition. Maranz writes, “Clients and members of their networks are sure to vote for them, whatever were the means they used to attain prominence and resources, rather than for someone who is unknown, or a rival who supports a different network. Voters may ask, ‘What does a candidate have to share? Even if he might have resources, we are not part of his network and we don’t know who is… None of our relatives have connections to him, so we will support the big man who has more to offer us, on a personal or family or clan level.’”
I’ve had conversations with American friends who assume that corruption in Africa is a result of some kind of ubiquitous moral fault or an endemic culture specifically of corruption. I know I’ve personally struggled to comprehend how president/dictators like South Africa’s Jacob Zuma can not be wracked with guilt knowing the suffering in his country that goes unaddressed and the legacy of Mandela that he rides the coattails of. When viewed with this greater perspective, it’s still corruption, but from a different angle. It’s just what’s likely to happen when you try to incorporate a western form of democracy onto a fundamentally different social contract. The idea of nepotism has since been messing with my brain: Is it really morally reprehensible, or is it equally valid to think it reprehensible not to help out your family and friends when you’re in a position to do so?
There’s one more place I’ve encountered this idea of an interdependent “gift economy” before: in Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics. Eisenstein is branded as an “alternative economist” and published the book for free in 2011 about why interdependence might just be a solution to all the ills of the modern global economy. He proposes a suite of currency reforms all intended to incentivize people into sharing their possessions and “investing” in each other more, with the end goals of preserving natural resources, reducing income inequality, and giving rise to “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible.” At the time I was torn between adoring his ideas for the unconventionally market-based approach to solving problems which are so often lamented, and damning my own ignorance of conventional economics which left me unable to evaluate whether his propositions were valid. Seeing Maranz’s thoughts both positive and negative on a comparable system which is already in action has made me all the more skeptical.
Let’s not kid ourselves; this is some intense shit we’re bumping up against. Some Gulag Archipelago, capitalism vs. communism, Berlin Wall, Neomarxism shit. How to draw the line between private and public property might be the single most important question being asked of modern day civilization. Maranz’s only recognition of this comes in the final pages, when he writes, “Those who have more, share with those who have less. Those who have less expect to receive material and financial benefits from those who have more. The rules of society constrain both the haves and the have-nots. This is not utopia or true communism, but a system that has been worked out over hundreds of years of difficult existence.” It’s a question that I’m not qualified at all to comment on, but have planned a lot of my reading in the near future around. So, Dear Reader, be on the lookout for that.
For now, let’s bring it back to reality. The immediate question I have to ask myself is how do I want to fit into the network of interdependence, seeing as I have far more resources at my disposal than most people around me but no desire to build up the reputation of a “Big Man”? Two main takeaways have stuck: First, I gotta defer to the wisdom and good guidance of my Ugandan co-workers and friends. Not doing so was the one western response Maranz singularly lambasted, as it results in occasionally being duped and giving to people of poor reputation who drag the whole system down. Second, having this information is critical in allowing for a more enlightened perspective when confronted with the frequency of requests which surround any expat in Africa. Already I’ve had friendly neighbors ask “So can I come live at that nice house of yours?” or even “I was hoping you would pay for my school tuition.” Not knowing what’s going on behind those requests leaves you feeling shitty and embarrassed for everyone in a way that is incompatible with an informed perspective.
Now, Maranz didn’t have to explain the basis of that perspective an estimated dozen times like he did, but still I am grateful to him for helping me leapfrog my ignorance. To whomever at KFSP decided that new recruits should be expected to read the book, a reluctant thank you, and good call. But a disclaimer regarding not taking his word as gospel and recognizing the frustration that some of the local staff have towards the book would go a long way.