MONT-BELO, Congo Republic
There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:
It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
That probably sounds sanctimonious, haughty and callous, but it’s been on my mind while traveling through central Africa with a college student on my annual win-a-trip journey.
If first prize is one week in the Congo Republic, what’s second prize? Two weeks?
Here in this Congolese village of Mont-Belo, we met a bright fourth grader, Jovali Obamza, who is about to be expelled from school because his family is three months behind in paying fees. (In theory, public school is free in the Congo Republic. In fact, every single school we visited charges fees.)
We asked to see Jovali’s parents. The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.
The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.
“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed.
But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time.
A telephone can add tremendously to one’s productivity (assuming one is trying to be productive). In much of Africa, they don’t have old-fashioned landlines, so a cellphone isn’t a luxury upgrade, it’s the entry-level telephone.
In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine.
If Mr. Obama restricts his drinking to the evening, he could well be Cotton Mather by local standards.
By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month — almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.
I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.
Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man in the village (women drink far less). Many other men drink every evening, they said, and also spend money on cigarettes.
That reminds me of P.J. Tobia’s classic article “Soused Africa” in the October 2004 edition of Modern Drunkard magazine:
At first blush, this place seems gripped in pandemic suffering. A closer look reveals the true nature of southern Africa: It is a drinker’s paradise. Hundreds of miles of beaches with names like Monkey Bay and Candy Beach line the eastern coast of Mozambique and the enormous lake Malawi, providing the perfect setting for canoeing, fishing, and drinking the hot days away. Homemade liquors and bottled beers are available at almost every roadside shack, some conveniently attached to rest houses where one can sleep off a particularly frightening bender in a cheap, clean bed. Pocket change will buy a round for the entire bar and, of course, the police have never, and I mean never, heard of a Breathalyzer.
For example, the President’s father killed a man while driving drunk in Kenya, and later died in a drunk-driving accident. Also, the President’s half-brother David, son of the President’ father’s second American wife, died in a motorcycle crash after a night out drinking with his half-brother Roy/Abongo, son of the President’s father’s first African wife, after Roy was jailed for drunken brawling.
Women do almost all the daily work in southern Africa: cooking, finding food, raising children, and tidying up around the hut, which leaves men free to spend the day pursuing more amiable interests, like drinking until they can barely stand or form sentences.
And because the possibility of finding a job is laughable and property ownership largely hereditary, there is no expectation that the people of this region become clock-punching cubicle drones or slaves to a mortgage. While they lack the amenities we Westerners couldn’t imagine living without—such as hot, clean water, electricity, or a life expectancy greater than 35 years—they do have the luxury of being able to relax with good friends and a few dozen drinks every single day of the year.
And, boy, do they drink.
Kristof’s solution for African dissolution is for women to have more power over money. Perhaps. But then women do most of the work in Africa already, and handle much of the money, so it’s not clear that Western feminism provides much of a template for thinking about Africa. (By the way, I see little evidence that the President has really any personal regard for feminism. He seems to view feminists much like he views pro-Israel people such as Rahm Emanuel and feminst bete noire Larry Summers: as a power bloc whom you want in the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in.)
In the history of successful social movements to rise up out of drunken lethargy to bourgeois behavior, such as Puritanism, patriarchy has typically played a major role.