On money and bread

Another view from our flat

A little bit about our living conditions. When we originally  embarked on the idea of VSO, our expectations for accommodation were low. Then,  as we heard tales from other returned volunteers, they began to rise. Many
couples seem to find themselves in houses with gardens. So when, on arrival, we  were ushered into a third-floor flat in an ugly modern block, with a small bedroom, a minute kitchen with one wooden table and dominated by a massive,  stained water butt, tiny concrete-walled and smelly shower room and loo, largish but eccentrically furnished living room and small balcony, there was a certain amount of dismay. The immediate response was complicated by the fact that the landlord and his son, plus a representative from Mekelle University and another from the Regional Education Bureau where Barbara will be working, were all present. Anyway, a month on the shower room is only slightly less smelly, the furniture unalterably eccentric, but the flat nevertheless is beginning to feel like home. So far, we have only been without water on one occasion, though we will have to see what happens as we advance into the dry season – the last heavy downpour of the rainy season was 3 weeks ago.

Apart from the whinge factor, the accommodation question here is an interesting example of the impact of Western influence on supply and demand in the developing world. Apparently, VSO had reserved us a house a little while ago, but when their representative came to finalise arrangements, they found that it already been let at 70% above the original rate. Mekelle has had NGOs and charities here for some time. A Chinese company moved in a little while ago to develop wind power, but their practice is to build living compounds and use imported Chinese labour, so they haven’t had much local impact. More recently, however, a French company arrived, with a generous budget, and the result is that housing costs have risen hugely. This is a pity, as it affects the local people as well, while contributing little to the local economy as many of the property owners are absentee landlords. Inflation is anyway a problem here. The economy is purportedly growing at 11% a year, but much of this is government driven and dependent on aid money rather than what Gordon Brown notoriously called “endogenous growth”. The country devalued its currency last year, but as its imports vastly outweigh its exports, this has further pushed up inflation.

The Value of Things

We didn’t come here expecting to live in the lap of luxury, nor did we expect to find high earners amongst the people we meet, but it’s still sobering when you start getting a bit of a feel of the value of things.

The VSO deal is that you get accommodation provided, then a monthly allowance to live on, in line with your local colleagues. So I get 2,750 birr, which works out close to £100.00 per month (27Birr = £1.00) giving a daily amount of under 100 birr (just less than £4.00). Granted John has to fend for himself.

The Ethiopians seem pretty upfront when talking money and it wasn’t long before the guy on the next desk asked what my allowance was. Same as me he replied – his take home pay is 2,900 birr, but of course he doesn’t get accommodation thrown in and he has his family to support. His qualifications – a double masters, including one from Dublin University, secured him a top job
in Education in one of the 9 Regional offices in this vast country which is Ethiopia.

We’ve learnt that our 1 bed flat costs 3,000 birr per month, so that would count my colleague out of living here. There’s a couple with 3 children who live below us and are obviously happy there –probably because of the sanitation which living here provides, which they wouldn’t get in many

Since starting I’ve spent time getting to know the workings of all the different Education departments, including Finance. Another sobering experience. Having grappled with education budgets in the UK which didn’t always do all we wanted them to, I learnt what they get here.

A year's supply of food?

As in the UK, school budgets are based on pupil
numbers.  The annual allowance per pupil to
a primary age school is 10 birr from the Government, matched by the same amount
from the World Bank making 20 birr in all. It might be easy to think that’s OK and they can manage but a small bread roll costs 3 birr, so you can get 3 pieces of bread for the amount the Government can afford for each child for a
year of Primary school. We braved buying meat this week having lived an entirely veggie life at home up until now – 250g minced beef – 24 birr. More than the total budget per child in school for a whole year.

Along with this are the most charming, hospitable people you would ever wish to meet. A couple of days ago, I was out standing outside work waiting to meet John when an Ethiopian woman stopped to speak. In excellent English, she asked, “how are my people treating you in this country?” I was able to be honest and respond very positively. She was really pleased and proud
that that was my experience and went on to say that she’d lived in Italy, Sweden, Australia and maybe a couple of other countries. In the course of the chat, she said she’d encountered racism when away from home (by the way not in all countries) , but hoped my time in Ethiopia would continue to be pleasant and I would continue to enjoy living here.

What price that exchange?

More about money

One of our first impressions on arriving in Ethiopia was the smell of the paper money, especially the small notes (1 ETB – Ethiopian Birrh – is worth about 4 pence). Officially, small denomination notes are supposed to be going out of circulation, but since the costs of printing paper must be
considerably less than those of minting the new coins, which I imagine must be nearly equal to their value, small change is still largely given in paper money. And this is money that has travelled, money with meaning, none of the sanitized purity of credit cards and electronic transactions. You can see, feel and smell
the number of hands it has been through and the stories it has experienced. A fanciful thought: perhaps part of a banker’s training should be to spend a day in the local market here, bargaining over a 1ETB margin for a kilo of tomatoes, a dozen bananas, under the avid gaze of the boys who hang around there, staring longingly each time money changes hands.

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1 Comment

  1. Peter

     /  18/10/2011

    You seem to be on the rollercoaster that is Africa, sometimes up as the raw beauty of the continent and the freindliness of the people shine through, and down when sanitation and money are the focus. One habit you might like to remember is to wash your hands after handling money. Overall, I wish I was there too and wish you good health and clean water.



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