Compared to developmental advances made in Asia, how come Africans are still so poor? That’s a matter of constant debate, but one assumption reiterated through word of mouth and still strong in popular belief is that Africans are lazy. They don’t work hard enough and thus they don’t have enough money. Based on the few weeks I’ve spent in Tanzania, I say this view is completely wrong. Sure, I haven’t seen it all yet, and Dar es Salaam is by no means representative of the African continent as a whole, but I think it still gives some perspective.
Most Tanzanians I’ve met here all work incredibly hard. Many are up in the mornings already before I am, and may leave work when the sun has already set. Near our house, a man is boiling big pots of cassava at 6am for sale later in the day. While we sit having a coffee in the morning, a woman always passes us by with a basket of bananas on her head. She sells them from dusk til dawn for a price of 200Tsh/banana (0.10€). Young men thread the streets back and forth and between cars selling everything from packets of peas to maps to clothes hangers, screaming out their products and making a shuffling noise with the coins in their hands to let people know they’re coming. What to me also seems very strange but innovative are the guys walking around with trays displaying open packets of cigarettes, whereby one can buy one cigarette at a time, rather than a whole packet which most people would consider a luxury and cannot afford. Selling cigarettes from an open pack on the street would probably not work in Finland, but here it’s all about knowing the market. The volume of money passing through these hands in the informal sector – where most Tanzanians are employed – is not big, but the little they get is what’s needed to get by. Surely that already provides some reason for them to work as much and as long as they do and not be lazy.
The Tanzanian friends I’ve gotten here are also very hardworking. They occupy the formal sector of the economy and make up some of the country’s growing middle class (including some acquaintances working in international organisations who probably have a pay even I can only dream of currently). One works at a commercial bank full-time while studying for an MBA in the evenings. Another friend is an operations supervisor at a cable company here in Dar. He goes to work around 8 or 9 am and often leaves the office 12 hours later, as all the work his supervisees can’t do, and what his boss doesn’t want to do, comes to him. At the higher levels in office signs of laziness seem to set in.
To give it all some more context, Tanzania has experienced high growth rates in the past years (about 7% per annum) coupled with increased budget support from donors. Little of this has seemed to translate into poverty reduction however, so one may wonder, where is the money? It’s not in the hands of the banana seller sitting at the street corner everyday, and it’s still not so much in the hands of the middle class. If anyone is lazy it seems to be the topmen who can’t be bothered to trickle down the money they earn for half of the work effort put in compared to poorer folks. This is obviously a topic of complex dimensions, and I will get back to it in more detail, but for now I’ll leave you with a Swahili proverb.
Kibuzi na kibuzi hununua jahazi
(“Small goat by small goat buys big ship”, i.e. by working for a small gain (e.g. selling a small goat) you only get a little way to your goal but eventually you will make it ~ Wikiquote)