middles classes & the globalization of #winning

News agencies and development pundits have been hailing the news that one-third of all Africans are now categorized as middle class and can be compared/ compete with China and India’s middles classes. I see a number of problems with this news, the criteria used to define middle class, and the comparison between an entire continent of people and those of two large countries (both of which are increasingly involved in development in Africa). The recent report from the Africa Development Bank (PDF) says that:

34%, or 313 million Africans are now middle class (living on $2-$20 a day), after several decades without any change, a jump from 27% in 2000.

The Asia Development Bank published a similar report last year saying that 56% of the Asian population is living on $2 – $20 a day (PDF). This calls into question the definition of middle class. I consider myself middle class in the United States of America and my family has been characterized as middle class ever since I can remember. However, my family and I definitely live on more than $20 per day and I would never imagine being able to call myself middle class based on how much money I spend in a day. Its all about location. Here in the US, the term middle class is synonymous with the “American Dream.” It is not so much a hard and fast economic development term that we can use to compare ourselves with other countries, but rather a socio-cultural term that is used to compare ourselves to each other in our attainment of the “American Dream” (Western notions of success).

The Guardian cites MIT economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who point out that:

the middle classes are: likely to be less connected to agriculture; more likely to be engaged in small business activities; and benefit from formal sector employment, with a weekly or monthly salary, which enables them to adopt a longer-term perspective towards their finances.

Even with a more economic definition, nothing about the term middle class is set in stone and it varies widely between communities and countries (more economic definitions of middle class). The Guardian continued to note that $2 is the poverty line for most countries, so if you live on more than that you are middle class, but there is no in-between. This only continues to prove that “middle class” cannot be defined by economists or development pundits. If we look closer at the term in the United States, it has always been a fluid and flexible term that a wide range of the population wanted to use. The majority of Americans call themselves “middle class” even when many fall into “working” or “upper” class categories based on their income levels.

Middle class often means achieving higher education, holding a professional job position, owning a home, and having a well established lifestyle that is socially acceptable. All of these status symbols mean something different across culture and country of origin. Populations bend and shape their definition of being “in-between” poor and more well off by different standards that are generally unwritten. If we use the United States as an example again, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on social and demographic trends to find that there isn’t just one middle class in America, but four! The study found that people often held onto definitions of middle class that defied traditional stereotypes.

In conclusion, we are all middle class. Whether we want to call ourselves middle class or we truly fit the economic definition, the majority of individuals around the globe identify themselves in the middle class. There is a global middle class that has no financial boundaries, but rather includes all individuals who seek advancement, education, and something more than what they currently have. Economists and development pundits cannot create a definition of middle class for a continent let alone a country, nor can they compare the middle class of the USA to that of another country or especially a continent.

If we want to truly understand if 1 in 3 Africans are middle class, then there needs to be some serious work that includes understandings of success in various countries and asks a large segment of a country’s population how they identify their socio-economic status based on their cultural norms. Why tell someone that their success isn’t as important as another’s?

Photo credit: BBC News

More “African middle class” pictures from BBC News

african slaves brought more than their bodies

Besides being the workhorses of a growing young nation, African slaves brought with them their music, art, culture, and food. All modern music can be traced back to roots in slavery and Africa: country, rock, jazz, and especially hip hop. The influences of African artistic expression and shared culture can easily be seen, but what is often looked over are the not so easily recognizable economic influences of African slaves.

At one point, when free labor was scarce and the trans-atlantic slave trade began to meet the labor demand, African slaves made up 40% of the American colonial population. Of the 6.5 million immigrants who crossed the Atlantic between 1492 and 1776, 5.5 million of them were African slaves. In our early history Africans filled the country that we now historically call white, anglo-saxon, and protestant. We talk about the start of our country as a haven for religious freedom, but where is that freedom represented in the 5.5 million enslaved African people? Now, we often talk about the foreign aid and development dollars that the US and other Western countries send to Africa, but what we often completely miss is how we gained that economic ability and power from the very people that we enslaved. Most every history book or other historical account will glide over the fact that while white Europeans were seeking new lives, the majority of the US population consisted of African slaves trapped in a structure that dictated their lives, and so the hypocrisy that is American began.

It is no mystery that African slaves brought many of their cultural traditions with them, but what many do not realize is the incredible impact those traditions have had and how those impacts continue today. The US used to grow and sell the top variety of rice, Carolina Gold. The first variety of rice ever grown in the US was brought over with African slaves. Owners of slave ships would take rice for the long journey to be able to deliver healthy slaves to the US .It is believed that this variety of rice has its origins in Africa. It is still unclear as to which part of Africa, but indicators are pointing towards somewhere in West Africa. This variety of rice was not only the first, but also one of the most lucrative crops in US history.

The National Geographic article states,

“The slaves used their rice-growing know-how to convert the swampy Carolina lowlands to thriving rice plantations replete with canals, dikes, and levies, which facilitated periodic flooding of the fields, McClung noted.”

Carolina Gold quickly became a top variety of rice because of its versatility and was a major export to Europe. The Carolina Gold variety of rice is just one example of how African slaves helped to build a US centered World Economy. From sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rice, African slaves laid the base for the production of agricultural commodities that would rule the colonial world and place the US at the top. Our economic power may come from the abundance of land in the US, natural resources, and our entrepreneurial spirit, but that spirit lay in the abilities of the African slaves, their agricultural knowledge and their utilization of the US land and other resources.

the land of culture; africa

Culture is not very easily defined. Anthropologists give us a few attempts at definition and the real meaning must lie somewhere in there. In 1871, Tylor called culture, “That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a man as a member of society.” Keesing and Stathern stress the idea of culture in their definition, “systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways that human beings live.” We can at least gather that culture is a set of guidelines, whether written or unwritten, which are meant to direct a society. We think less about our cultures as being guidelines and can see culture as more of a means or way of seeing things from a perspective. In Culture, Health, and Illness, we can learn that there are different levels of culture: culture as a ‘facade to the world at large,’ culture as the assumptions known to a group, and culture where the rules are taken for granted and implicit, impossible for the average person to be aware.

Africa is often called the ‘land of culture.’ This I believe is an accurate title. From my studies and travels I have come to see that there is most definitely these three levels of culture and so it is easy to see why this title was given. There is the outside view, often ignorant view, of Africa as a vibrant land, etc. There is the level of culture within the people, depending on where you travel, which you can easily be a part. There is the level of culture where it is easy to see that there is no way that you as a traveler can ever hope to understand or take part. Culture exists at these three defined levels and so much more. Africa truly is a land of culture. But what more is there to culture that we miss when we travel or study a country, a group of people, or a society? Do we often miss the deep nature of culture?

Here is a glimpse of the culture of Ghana by way of drum and dance. I had the joy of seeing this display of culture in my travels of Ghana and in each region we visited.

An aspect of culture that I found very intersting to my work and studies is the idea of investing in death. On our travels of Ghana we visited a special business of coffin making. These were no ordinary coffins. They were in the shape of fish, cars, trucks, castles, coke bottles, artillery, and deer. The coffin is made to represent the life of the deceased person. However there is a greater issue in the coffin business. Often there is no money spent on healthcare or medicines, but when the person finally dies from that lack of healthcare they are given a funeral where expenses are relatively lavish and much is spent to celebrate the person’s life. No matter how easily they could have been saved from an investment in their life, instead of their funeral and death. For this reason funeral ceremonies and deaths constitute a large part of Ghanaian life. Yes, death is part of life, but in this case death is becoming life. The Medical Health Insurance Scheme being promoted and launched in Ghana, so there is hope that there will be a greater investment in health and life.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

when not in ghana

There is so much reflection and thought to write under this title, and the last. I will apologize now for the incohesive and random nature of my thought process and my failure of ability to express in words what you can only understand from experience.

I have been in Africa now for a month and a half – living, studying, and experiencing. Many people like to just leave it at that, but I like to be more specific. I was in the West African country of Ghana. A country with a relatively stable country and economy (some crises right now: electricity and fuel), full of culture and tradition, and even in its immense ‘development,’ Ghana remains with disparities like any other country – even the US. Africa is not a monolithic mass in the southern hemisphere of the world. So many people would rather chalk up the continent into one idea after reading, hearing, or experiencing a small aspect. Intellectuals, non-intellectuals, those who are from Africa, those who haven’t, and so many experts would rather clump the continent together. That just can’t be done. There is nothing about Africa as a whole that can sum up what it is. It is just like how in the US each state has its own special customs or accents or scenery – Africa as a continent is the same, but better. So many people would rather save time and refer to Africa as a monolithic mass. However, as I lived, traveled, and experienced Ghana the falsity of this idea was all too evident. Our MSU study abroad group was based in Accra, the capital city of Ghana and did much of our work at the University of Ghana. We took many field trips: Cape Coast, Volta Region, Kumasi, Villages near Danfa, and more. Every time that we would leave for a trip the Ghanaians that helped us would tell us that we would experience something so different from what we had seen before; something that we could only have seen in our dreams. They could not have prepared us more. Each region that we visited, each city, town, or village that we stayed in was completely different. We witnessed the many ethnic groups of Ghana, their music, traditions, and customs – the Akan of the Accra area, the Ewe of the Eastern Volta Region, the Asante of Ashanti Region. . . If there were so many differences and experiences in one of the smaller African countries, than what does that say for the massive continent itself?

One of the most obvious differences between Ghana and living in the US was the notion of time. In the States it is very hustle, bustle, go, go, go, exuding impatience – but in Ghana things will happen when they do. You can go for a meal order your drink, wait a bit, get your drink and order food, wait sometimes two hours (tops), get your food, and leave in about three hours from your dinner excursion. But its ok, what else were you going to do? Enjoy your food take your time, chat with your tablemates, tell jokes, enjoy the scenery, people watch – everything will happen in good time. I like that notion of time. I liked it so much that I stopped wearing my watch and often had to ask a Ghanaian with a cell phone for the time. I am not a rushed person, well at least not as rushed as most, and I like to take things as they come. Time should not be such a definitive aspect of your life. Time should work for you. One Ghanaian told me, “Here, we are manufacturers of time.” As opposed to we, in the States, who are the slave labourers to time. I return and time is back in my face again, cracking the whip. The ubiquitous tyrant of everyone’s lives will remain to be the arbitration of time.

Hurtling down the road at breakneck speed, I look over at the speedometer – hoping that we don’t nail a pedestrain or hawker – I see that the speedometer has been put out of commission, figures, they don’t want to know how fast they are going themselves. A mass of traffic appears and we, amazingly, stop in time to not die. The traffic lights have decided to work today. The car exhaust and black smoke flow into my front seat window as the hawkers walk by selling apples, ball floats, candy, posters, you name it. They are accompanied by those crippled by polio, beggars, and blind men walking with an aid. This is the taxi ride of Accra, you have not experienced Accra if you do not ride in the front seat of a taxi. Now back in the States I enjoy always smooth roads, no traffic backups (I don’t live in a very big city), and no death-defying driving skills. That is a fun little part of each day that I will miss.

We all take our health for granted. Everyone. In Ghana many of the students got sick, had diarreha, fever, something – back home we are rarely sick, we are rarely decommissioned for a day, we are rarely at odds with the world we live in as far as our health is concerned. I have the luck of owning an adaptable body and did not get sick in any regard. Thankfully whenever I travel nothing affects my internal health. The sun likes to affect my external health – my nose is still red with sunburn. We take our health for granted. Our professor who worked for over two years in the Peace Corps said she was always sick and while in Ghana I noticed this as well. Many people have fever, coughs, malaria, and who knows what. . . but, depending on location and class, they could not self medicate from the cabinet or see a doctor right away. They walk to get clean water, no faucet in the kitchen with clean water. We take our health for granted. I thought about this often when a group of us would go running. We would draw quite a crowd and get some cheers from school children. They must have all thought we were crazy – running miles in the hot sun at a fast pace, did we want to die? Well no, we Americans enjoy exercise, but for the Ghanaians we encountered and many Africans exercise is a way of life not a luxury to feel good. Will we ever stop taking our health for granted?

One of the sad reflections from Ghana is the idea of culture and tradition that is just not seen in the US. Ghanaians have a deep shared history and strong traditions rooted in their respective communities, which share much in common. There is a huge importance of family and the customs that are passed down. Many professions are passed from father to son, mother to daughter and the day to day of family life is passed down through traditions. In each of the villages we visited we were sure to make courtesy calls to all the local chiefs. The local chiefs still hold a great deal of power and we soon understood the protocol for visiting a chief. The importance of connections between people is huge. In some cases this cause corruption and nepotism, but there is an underlying good intention. Your connections with family are extremely important and you never lose that connection no matter what – if you decide to blow of family then you are looked down upon. You keep the family name, you name your children for past relatives, you visit often, and if you have a good paying job, you send support. This unknown emphasis on human connection is amazing. It goes beyond family to the people you meet in life. I couldn’t believe how many people could remember my name from a one time meeting. It must be the greeting ritual that makes it easier to remember. In Ghana you do not just wave and say, “Hi, how are you?” and receive the standard response, “Fine, thanks.” You stop talk, inquire about family, friends, and life. The nature of people in Ghana is just so much more cohesive and happy. I think it is because of the emphasis on people and getting to know them.

One of my favorite parts of Accra is that the grocery store is right at your vehicle window. While you are stuck in the mass of rush hour (sometimes it isn’t even rush hour) traffic, hawkers walk up and down the rows of cars, trucks, lorries, and taxis selling just about anything. Probably the oddest things I saw being sold were: a pair of puppies, toothpaste, a box of chickens, coffee mugs, umbrellas, the list goes on and on – pretty much anything that up might need is right outside your window. Besides the window side store and clubbing scene, I prefer to stay out of the big city. My best experiences on the etire trip were in the small villages of Otinibi and Danfa. The village life is so much more appealing and friendly. The village is a more closely knit community and is extremely welcoming.

Ghana was an amazing experience from all of the great classwork we did and, most of all, from the excursions we took as a group and adventures on our own. Meeting people was my favorite part and learning about their lives was most interesting. I don’t think I could have had a better experience in Ghana, unless maybe I spoke the language, but I am getting there. Ghana is an amazing place, an interesting beacon for the continent, and a force to be reconned with in the future of our global economy. I still have some very specific reflections from Ghana, so be sure to check back to learn about: investing in death, the discovery of oil in Ghana, and the confusion of the rastafaria movement.

Here are some random, artistic, super random pictures left over from Ghana:

Downtown Osu at night, Osu has many western style establishments that are run mostly by Lebanese.


An awesome tree at the Forex by the Center for Art and Culture.


The arc of Ghanaian independence just down the road from the presidential palace.


A fisherman’s association from the view of Cape Coast Castle.


A fisher and his boats taking a rest in the nook of Cape Coast Castle.


The canopy of Kakum National Forest, beautiful!


Don’t look down (from one of the canopy platforms.


Slightly frightening sign in Accra, just before we sped off. . .


This is the village area we stayed in, Shiashie, engulfed by the growing Accra.


The moon between palm trees at our hostel on Don’s 21st birthday.


A nice village scene in the Volta Region near Wli Falls, tallest in West Africa.


HIV/AIDS awareness and education.


Cool coke bottle shot, drink up.


At the University of Ghana.


One of our favorite restaurants to visit, off the beaten path, but well worth a good Ghanaian meal.


Me and Joseph, the most amazing hostel worker ever.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

beyond the tragedy, the hope of africa

Africa is far from being without tragedy, but when you look past all the blaring news article headlines you will see that there are many reasons to be optimistic for the future of African and its people. Beyond the Western media’s fixation with the African tragedy there is so much hope and joy that gets pushed under the rug. Why? Is it because there is an othering and the problems and issues are over there? Is it because there is no hope on the ‘dark’ continent? Is it because the West would rather not admit that Africa is ‘developing’ and is really doing well? There are plenty of articles in the news that would deter even the staunchest optimist. Most of Africa lives in extreme and absolute poverty. Crises in Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and a few other countries are far from resolved. The conflict in the DRC has been inflamed by its recent free election results. Uganda is moving closer to a peaceful resolution of its conflict, but the rebels have backed out again. There is growing tension between Somalia and Ethiopia. And now Chadian rebels are storming across the country capturing major cities. The conflict in the western Darfur region of the Sudan is becoming further and further from resolution it seems. The African Union peacekeeping force’s mandate has been extended, but a UN force is still being rejected. All these armed conflicts are frightening, but then there is also many preventable diseases and basic essential needs that kill more people each year. HIV/AIDS is a growing problem and has yet to reach its peak in Africa.

The first great example of African hope is the amazing diversity of ideas and cultures. The people are shaping a better future for themselves and advancements are being made. African culture is thriving. Before we, who are not in Africa, can begin to understand how to assist Africa we have to first understand the intricate links between Africa’s people, culture, and wildlife. Africa’s middle class is growing, African entrepeneurs are becoming more prominent and have incredible ideas and solutions to problems that they know and live with.

On the continent the advances in medicine, technology, and science are taking hold. I remember when I was in Africa almost everyone had a cell phone and could easily stay connected. Advances in medicine are slow to be adopted mostly because of their costly nature, but there are growing efforts to provide services. We all need to remember that Africans are not just vulnerable people, but also solvers of problems. They may live in dire situations, but they still have the capacity to run a more effective program that pinpoints the real issue, which many times Western donors miss. The greatest innovation that I have seen developed so far has been the PlayPump. Discovered and designed by a man visiting South Africa. The pumps are set up to provide children a way to release their energy on a roundabout and also pump clean water for their community. There is a wealth of children’s energy, but a lack of means to use that energy. The water pumped through play is then stored in a 600 gallon container with billboards promoting HIV/AIDS education and other healthy messages. These billboards assist in paying for upkeep and maintenance of the pump. No worries children are not forced to play or pump, they just enjoy playing and that helps their community to have clean water. Water-related diseases are the leading cause of death in Africa and the ‘developing’ world. It is estimated that two out of every five Africans live without a clean water source. With the PlayPump children are able to stay in school instead of getting water. Women and children benefit from less injuries due to carrying heavy water containers over long distance. Women can focus more on their families and children with extra time not spent on water fetching. Some women have been able to start-up small businesses to provide an added income source and more food for their families.

Beyond the calls of corruption, falsified elections, and conflict between candidates, there is an increase in credible leaders in African countries. The first woman leader was elected last year. Leadership is growing as Africans step up to help one another and show their fellow citizens effective ways to improve life. There has also been a venture launched by an African millionaire to combat corruption within African governments. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese multi-millionaire, is offering $5 million to African heads of state who deliver security, health, and economic development to its people. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was launched on the 28th of November this year. This is obviously a very controversial idea and many have stated that African leaders that are oppressing and killing their people will continue to do just that. Mo Ibrahim has said, “The day we do not need any aid will be the most wonderful day in my life.” The award will be given out as $200,000 for 10 years after the leader is out of office, so that the African leaders will have a life after office. Secretary General Annan has thanked Ibrahim for offering such a generous prize, but many still remain skeptical. Keep a watch on this one, time will tell if it will be successful.

Along with all the innovation and advancement there is also a great opportunity fro those of us in the ‘developed’ Western world. Doing your research, finding a sustainable project to assist, and becoming personally involved in working for Africa provides so many opportunities for personal development and happiness. I can tell you working in Africa is a joy and an amazing way to self-actualize your potential to change the world. Don’t wait, jump in – each year that you wait is a missed opportunity, each day that you do not challenge yourself is a wasted day, each minute is a lost life.