Monday, January 14, 2013

On Wealth, Cars, and Roads

            What does it mean when your ranked the 5th poorest countries in the world? This is based on Guinea Bissau’s gross domestic production. Guinea Bissau is actually one of the largest cashew exporters in the world.  But that might be it. In terms of imports literally everything comes from outside of Bissau because there are no national industries.
            On a global stage that is where Bissau stands. Off of paper and on the ground I have seen some of the worst and best in terms of cars and neighborhoods, houses and living conditions. One thing is for certain., Guinea Bissau may be one of the last on the list according to GDP, and the lack of development and levels of poverty are extreme, but Guinea Bissau also has a lot of wealth, concentrated wealth. 
            The country of Bissau is small, and anyone who is doing anything (working in nonprofits/business/banking/government) lives in the capital city of Bissau.  Therefore, if you are some one who is “doing something” you most likely work with or just know other folks who are “doing something”.  From what I’ve seen this is to some extent how Guinea Bissau has its class division.
Here is an example the condition of the roads in residential areas
            Here is an example: My uncle Bacar is an English teacher in Bissau and has been taking me around Bissau to meet the Balde clan. He lives with his wife and 4 kids in Barrio Misra (Barrio meaning neighborhood).  He has a very modest living and was explaining to me that his nephew, my cousin, Alfa,  is helping him build his new house which is much bigger and nicer then his home now.
            My uncle Bacar took me to meet my cousin. Alfa is one of many folks from Bissau who went to study in Portugal (The usual places to study are Cuba, Portugal, Senegal, Brazil, or Russia because Bissau for the longest time didn’t have a university).  There he met his Italian wife Martina and they live here in Bissau with their two children. Alfa works for the Central Bank of the West African States and while I was there with him he invited me to his house the following day for his birthday.
            At his party I felt like I had left Bissau and gone to Portugal. Everyone in attendance were friends of his from college in Portugal and had a story similar to his. They left Bissau for Portugal to go to college where many of them stayed and are just now returning to settle down back in Bissau. Most of these folks are 40+ and are currently holding jobs in Bissau as bankers, working at the UN office, Working for ..  Others were just in town for the holidays like one woman who lives in London. One man in particular who still lives in Portugal is in limbo between going to get his PhD in New York and waiting to hear if he got accepted to work at the World Bank.
One of the ocean view 3 story houses
            I am not even including all the people who are benefiting off of the drug trade. There is a neighborhood in Bissau where all the drug rich people have constructed their houses. These are 3 story hybrid African/European style houses with an ocean view.
            Here in Bissau the biggest indication of your wealth is your car. I have seen some of the nicest, sleekest European cars here.  My uncle who took me to Formosa is rolling in a Land Rover imported from Germany. I’ve seen Voltz-wagon beetles, Hummers, BMW’s, Mercedes. There are even some cars imported from England that have the drivers side on the right.  It’s definitely a funny sight since most drivers are on the left side here.
            All of these fancy cars are imported from abroad. To import a car you are dropping at least 5,000 US dollars in shipping, not to mention the extra “tax” or bribe you have to pay at the port of Bissau to get your car out.  That is easily 2,000 US dollars. And of course you are paying for the price of the car on top of all of that.
Nice car, bumpy road.
            But as I have mentioned, infrastructural development is far behind in Bissau. While the main roads are paved, once you turn off of them you are in for a bumpy ride, literally. It’s almost like a baby meteor shower hit all the streets except the main ones.
             To bring it full circle, there are lots of people with lots of money in Bissau. Check. There are government “taxes”, which I quote because they exist but no one pays them. Thus there is no money for the government to improve infrastructure like the roads. These folks with lots of money can afford to buy and import a car from Europe, but have to drive them 5 miles per hour around town in order to avoid damaging them.  I’m not saying the rich are responsible for paying to fix the roads for their fancy cars, but I’m curious whose responsibility they think it is. They know they are at the top of the totem pole, so the folks making less then them surely don’t have the financial means to take on that project. And everyone knows the government is a little pre-occupied at the moment.
              Imagine if all the well to-do folks got together and said, "Hey, lets pool some money together and instead of going to France for Christmas, lets dedicate this money to some local development (infrastructural (schools or roads)/economic (micro-loans)/environmental (trash)) project!” I don’t think this is a solution to the problem, because much of the problem is systemic and structural. But for the time being it would for sure be a catalyst to some development while the government sorts its self out.

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