Making every pesewa count

It’s interesting the degree to which internet access at my site is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has allowed me to download software for my school, which has helped me get a computer lab up and running where there was nothing before. It also lets me do research for projects and lesson plans, as well as keep in touch with the outside world.

On the other hand, with MTN, it was GHC20 out of my meager GHC218 monthly living allowance. That’s over 10% of my monthly budget. It’s also prone to being a distraction or an excuse to procrastinate; with the internet, there’s an ever-present temptation to check email or read the latest news instead of doing chores or going into town to visit with people.

I cancelled my contract with MTN on May 4th, and went to Sunyani on May 8th to get set up with Tigo (they needed my passport; I normally don’t travel around locally carrying my passport). Because Tigo bills by the days of usage (GHC1.42 per 24 hours of access — roughly $1 a day), I now have the option to cut back on internet usage in order to keep my budget in check. In other words, if I’m traveling, and only use my internet connection for 5 days out of a month, I only pay for 5 days of access.

This brings me to one of the biggest bones of contention between my Volunteer colleagues and the administrative staff in Accra — money. Our living allowance (according to discussions with Volunteers from other countries in Africa) is likely the lowest in West Africa. We did receive a 10% raise in December of last year, but 10% more money doesn’t stand up long in the face of 18% inflation.  It’s often a source of complaint of anyone sitting around in one of the offices (and Peace Corps Volunteers, I’m convinced, share the pastime of caustic complaint with those who serve in the military), as it would be anywhere. Prices go up, pay doesn’t.

As much as I would like pay increases that reflect the economic realities of the countries in which we serve, I think it can actually be a benefit to our service. For starters, I think it keeps my focus where it should be as a Volunteer: on the people I’m here to help and serve. GHC218 isn’t that much money — GHC6.60 per day, plus about GHC23 a month for vacation travel — but it’s roughly double what the average Ghanaian makes, and it’s almost 6 times as much what the world’s most impoverished people (and there’s over a billion of them) have to live on.

I’ve seen NGOs and missionaries ride around in their chauffered SUVs and have absolutely no clue as to the nature of the people they’re trying to serve; I think Peace Corps actually does it right by making us live like the locals. I save every tin can and plastic bag I am given, hitchhike wherever I can, use soapy laundry water to wash my floors, and haggle prices whenever possible. I don’t spend money unless I absolutely have to, and if I’m lucky I end up with a little bit left over at the end of the month. And in the process, I learn more about sustainable development, like the multiple uses of the moringa tree (that’s coming in another blog post) or how to bootstrap a computer lab using only the parts you have.

My living allowance also has the benefit of being consistent. It doesn’t matter whether or not I teach a class, or even leave my house; that money accrues and is deposited into my account at Barclays Bank every month for me to spend in the process of keeping myself alive. My Ghanaian counterparts aren’t quite so lucky — my friend Mohammed, who teaches math, makes a little bit more than I do, and is a very frugal person, spent 3 days last week at Ghana Commercial Bank waiting for them to sort out technical issues so that he could withdraw his monthly salary. And it’s Ghana Commercial Bank’s fault this time; there have been occasions when teachers and other civil servants go 2-3 months without receiving salary payments from the government, and even then it’s not guaranteed to be paid in full. It doesn’t condone or justify the issue, but it does help one when trying to understand the problem of corruption in African countries.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that although it’s difficult to get by on such a small amount of money, it is possible (and a hell of a lot more interesting, too). And it does a lot to remind me what I’m supposed to be doing here.

That’s it for this week. Keep the questions coming.

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I'm just this guy, you know?